Helping a Child Cope with an Absent Parent
By Julia Clark
Just after my daughter turned 2, her father and I separated and divorced; he was abusive and drank too much. When my daughter was 3 her father lost his visitation privileges as a result of his continued violent and abusive behavior. He had passed up many ‘supervised’ visits throughout the year so it came as somewhat of a relief.
I have two older step children that are my daughter’s half-brother and half-sister. When I had first met them, one of their deepest pains they shared with me was the vague knowledge/memory they had of not seeing their father for a period of time when they were younger.
Through the insights of my step children, I already knew an ‘Absent Parent’ deeply wounds the emotional wellbeing of a child consciously or subconsciously. I realized this circumstance could have a negative effect on my precious daughter as well.
I decided to educate myself. I had the good fortune to speak with a child trauma expert. Without going into great detail, I did share the age of my child and the situation. The main thing she felt I needed to know was to not say the absent parent was sick. She explained that my child would worry about the absent parent’s health. She recommended I tell my child that her father had ‘problems’ and that when he gets better “someone will call and you can see him again.” That was so easy to remember I did not even have to write it down! Then I waited.
It took about one year for her to notice she had not seen her dad. At 4 years old she came to me and said “I think my dad is dead.” I said “who told you that?” She said “nobody, I just figured it out.” I picked her up, carried her into her room and we both had a good cry. Thereafter I explained that her father had problems and that when he got better someone would call and she couldsee him again. She had very thoughtful questions for me:
“Do they know our phone number?”
“Yes, we have had this phone number a long time.”
“Does he know where we are?”
“Yes, he has been here and he knows where we are.”
I did explain someone would call for him because he was not my friend anymore and could not call my home, but that he would always be her Dad and she could still be friends with him and that it was up to her and him to work that out, when the time came. Then she waited.
Not long after this conversation, she told me she was starting to forget what he looked like. I then called her pediatrician and asked if I could give her a picture of her Dad. They felt that would do no harm but suggested that maybe it was getting to be time for a counselor. After several months of therapy, the counselor explained that my daughter’s only problem was the absent parent; otherwise she was emotionally healthy.
It took 3 years for my daughter’s father to become available again and another 2 years for him to agree to a healthy reunification plan, which was designed by her counselor. Visits started at another family counselor’s office, then progressed to a family member’s home (with graduating amounts of time) and now for the first time in 7 years the visits are ‘unsupervised’ for less amounts of time. My daughter is now 9 and all the wiser.
Let me be very clear … she is happy to have her father back in her life again; it is a natural desire for any child. It serves no one to fight this. There have been too many moments when my daughter saw another daddy swinging his little girl in the air where she had to handle the longing in her heart. She knows nothing of the ugliness of what happened before. At her age, she need not know. I did not want her scared or stressed when the time came for her to see him again. There is a big difference in dropping off a child who is ‘happy’ to go, rather than having to fight or struggle to ‘make’ a child go with the other parent, especially if they are frightened.
There is so much in between these lines that she and I have gone through but trust me, I would not do anything any differently regarding this topic. I am thankful of the fact that I stayed out it and did not put my issues into her innocent mind. I want her to become the person she is destined to be, and not a victim at the end of a rope of pain. I am very respectful of her relationship with her father on her behalf.
I recognize I can not control whatever course this story will take, but I can choose to influence my child’s life in a positive, respectful manner. The high regard I have in my heart for my daughter empowers me to treat her wishes with respect and the maturity to see that this is her one chance at a childhood. As her most significant role model, I want her to see her mother as a strong and gracious woman.