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In the Absence of a Parent: How to Help Your Child When The Other Parent Isn't in the Picture

Posted by Dale Sadler

The issues teens struggle with have not changed in several hundred years; these days, they are just broadcast to everyone through text messaging, cell phones, and Facebook. Most of the struggles I see teens talking about can be categorized into two themes: fitting in socially and making sense of the world. Their social life is second to nothing — “confusion” may be an over simplistic word describing what teens feel as they work to bring into alignment their perception of things with the messages they get from TV, the internet, and caring adults.

I work full-time as a middle school counselor and I know firsthand how difficult these years are.  Sweet, freckle-faced children slowly mutate into bundles of explosive hormones. Telling a seventh grader not to worry about some middle school drama makes about as much sense as telling a monkey not to climb trees. Their friends’ influence is massive during middle school — and who your friends are, according to a fourteen year old, can make or break you.

The struggle to define oneself through friends, while blazing a path to individuality, is typical for middle schoolers. Sadly, what is also typical is that many students trudge on with holes in their lives that should be filled with a loving parent. Instead, these spaces are filled with the memory of the last time they saw mom or dad. The child, living in a broken home with one caring adult and maybe a step-parent, wants a relationship with the parent they rarely, if ever, see. This parent may choose to be absent even though they are just across town, their whereabouts may be unknown, or they may be deceased. In my experience, I have found that teens have a particularly difficult time handling the situation when a parent is physically present but emotionally absent.

Much has been written on this topic including John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart and Meg Meeker’s Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.  In their book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner relay the story of how a card company, on Mother’s Day, gave every inmate at a local prison a card to send to his mother. They could hardly meet the demand. A few weeks later on Father’s Day, when cards were again afforded to the prisoners, none were sent. The inmates either hated their fathers or did not know them. The influence of a parent far outweighs the credence many seem to give it.

What is a child to do? What are parents, step-parents, guardians, and counselors to do as they try to help a child develop appropriately through the turbulent teen years in the absence of a crucial adult figure? The following is what I have done with some success.


The child’s desire to be with the absent parent (Parent A) runs deep as he carries extreme guilt in the belief that he has done something wrong to push Parent A away. “Why didn’t she call me?” the desperate boy asks as yet another birthday comes and goes.

With a deep desire to control their environment, these teens try and fail at bringing their parents closer to them. Therefore, helping the child develop boundaries with Parent A is important in resolving the conflict of continuing on with his life, even if Parent A does not want to be around. Carrying both sides of a relationship can be excruciating, so a time-table of tasks that includes an ending date can help the child draw an emotional boundary line. Sending letters, making phone calls, and journaling about the experience can all serve as landmarks showing what the child has done to reconcile with Parent A. This puts the proverbial ball into Parent A’s court, allowing the child to relinquish himself of the thought that he must do something else to get the parent involved in his life. Instead, he is seeing that he is doing something and therefore can rest easy knowing that at least he tried.

A Good Mother

Many of my middle school boys reside with their mothers and may or may not have a stepfather. Several of these mothers have come to me with questions like, “Why does he act this way?” “Why can’t I control him?” “Why does he have a temper problem?” My heart goes out to the mother who is having a tough time dealing with a boy who is rampaging into puberty. A boy’s desire to have a father figure in his life is extreme, making it all the more difficult for the single mom to meet her son’s needs. For the mother who is at a loss with her boy, recommending books such as Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon & Michael Thompson can help a frazzled mother understand why her son does not want to sit quietly and enjoy a cup of afternoon tea. Also, That’s My Son: How Moms Can Influence Boys to Become Men of Character by Rick Johnson would of course be another good choice. Equally on the dad’s side of things, there are books that are helpful such as Leonard Sax’s Girls on the Edge. In this list, I’d also include the Meeker and Eldredge books mentioned earlier.

Support Through Groups

As was mentioned earlier, one common attribute of teens is their desire to be in groups. The social aspect of their personality controls nearly every decision they make. Just sitting with a counselor answering questions can be too much sometimes.

One year, my school had nine different boys with a deceased father. I decided to create a support group for these boys. Their situations were very diverse. They lived in step-family situations, single parent homes, and one was even in foster care. Their personalities were also very different in terms of rebellious behavior, academic performance, and extracurricular activities. Despite this spectrum, they developed a strong sense of camaraderie due to the fact that they all had someone very important missing from their lives. We discussed their individual stories, the grieving process, and what it meant to be a man.

Over the six-month period that we met, the boys opened up about their struggles, frustrations, and fears. It was in this setting that I saw how fragile yet resilient boys can be in the absence of a biological father. The group could have easily been a weekly pity party, but instead we utilized it as a chance to learn about manhood and locate assets important for success.

Hopefully, through the care and guidance of adults, these impressionable children and teens can grow into strong and productive adults.


About Dale Sadler

Dale Sadler is the author of 28 Days to A Better Marriage and How to Argue with Your Teen & Win. By day he works with middle schoolers and by night he is a family counselor specializing in marriage, parenting and men's issues. He works hard to be the husband and father his family needs. Follow him @DaleSadlerLPC or visit

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