The Importance of Talking to Children About Absent Parents
Children who live in a home where one or both parents are absent need the opportunity to have their questions answered. Parents can be absent for a variety of reasons, divorce, death, military service, and it is important for children to feel like they can understand why a parent is not there and love them anyway. No matter why a parent it absent, a child should never be made to feel guilty about wanting to know more. Keeping the lines of communication open about the absent parent will help you and your child build a trusting relationship, where no subject matter is out of bounds.
Questions about an absent parent will come from your child in a manner that is appropriate to her age. Younger children may simply ask, “Where is Daddy? Where is Mommy?” Having an age-appropriate response that is free from anger will let your child know that it is OK to ask. Give your child as much information as she needs to be satisfied until the next question comes up. Deborah Roth Ledley, Ph.D., suggests matching the answers a child needs to his level of worry. Say things like, “Mommy and daddy don’t get along well and we decided everyone would be happier if we lived apart” or “Some people live with Mommy and Daddy, and some live with just Mommy, or just Daddy." As children grow, you will be able to share more information as she asks for it.
If you are the absent parent in your child’s life, one of the most important things you can do for him is to stay involved. No matter the reason for your absence, technology makes it easy to send photos, to email or talk with your child on the phone. As long as your parenting plan allows for regular communication, you are free to engage with your child as often as possible. Consider setting aside a regular time each day or week to talk. Make it your “date” with your child and do not let scheduling conflicts interfere. Take advantage of services that enable you to talk face-to-face with your child via the Internet. Encourage your child to email you about his day, and and send digital photos often. Send surprise gifts and card to let him know you are thinking about him.
If talking about the absent parent in your home is not enough for your child, consider taking your child to a counselor. It may become apparent as your child matures that she needs to share more about her absent parent, and she might feel more comfortable talking with a professional. You may notice changes in her behavior or in her grades. She may seem preoccupied, or have difficulty communicating her feelings. As children go through transitions like changing schools or puberty, the lines of communication may become temporarily disabled. Consult with your child's pediatrician for further followup.
Support groups are another way to help children of absent parents feel like they are not alone. This is especially true where one or both parents are in military service, or if the child has a parent who has been incarcerated. Talking with other families about how they deal with questions, fears and concerns, and connecting with other children in similar circumstances helps kids, parents and partners get the support and understanding they need. Sharing feelings in a safe environment can be an important way to bridge the communication gap you might have with your child.
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