How to explain parental absence to a young child

Lone parents to very young children have a lot of responsibility to cope with.  One of the most difficult things is explaining the absence of the other parent to your child as they start to notice a difference between their family and that of their peers. This could be once they start nursery or primary school.

You have to choose your words very carefully so as not to upset your child and communicating such big issues to a child who is unable to process them can seem impossible. What you say will depend on your personal circumstances, but here is some advice that everyone can follow.

Follow their lead

Your child will ask about an absent parent when they are curious. You do not need to force awareness onto them if they are not asking. If your child has not noticed that their family is not like their friends’ families, don’t feel you have to mention it. Children always accept the situation that they are in.

Remain open

Always remind your child that they are allowed to ask you anything they want at any time. This will prevent them from keeping silent when they are worried and from seeking answers elsewhere. Reassurance that they are free to feel curious will help your child to understand the situation better.

Stay calm

You may feel strong negative emotion towards the absent parent, and in many cases this is understandable. However, you don’t want to communicate this to your child. Swallow your emotion and keep calm when your child asks. You can always have a moment to yourself afterwards.

Don’t lie

Starting off by lying at this early stage will set up all sorts of problems in the long run. You need to keep everything age appropriate. This is too young to talk about drugs, alcohol, violence or other similar reasons for absence. However, outright lies will be difficult to unpick later on.

Dilute the real reason for absence down as much as you can in order to communicate it to your child.

Remain neutral

Don’t speak negatively about the absent parent, as children will absorb this and later on can presume that they too have these negative characteristics. Your child will learn this of their own accord as they get older and gain life experience.

You don’t have to pretend that the other parent is a beacon of goodness either. Instead, keep things neutral and avoid blame. Statements such as “some people aren’t able to be parents” can satisfy a curious mind.

Find out what your child actually wants

If your child comes out with “I wish I had a daddy” don’t always take this at face value and presume your child is going through a deep emotional experience. Instead, ask them why. It could be that a friend’s father has recently taken their friend to the park, or your child could have seen another family doing something fun that they want to do and presumed that only daddies can do those things.

Before you panic about what your child is communicating, find out what it is they actually want or what they feel that they are missing.

Reassure your child

Whenever your child asks about the absent parent, always reassure them that they are loved and that their situation is not unusual. List the important people in their life and tell them that they all love them.

Tell your child that all families are different and some children have a mummy and a daddy, others have just a mummy or just a daddy. Some children don’t have a mummy or a daddy and some have two daddies or two mummies.

This way you will raise a happy and empathetic child who is confident that they are able to communicate freely with you.

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