When families are not intact, summer is often when children spend a chunk of time with an absentee parent.
Hi Barbara: I'm the single mother of a 12 year old girl. Her father and I have been divorced for 8 years and he moved 2,000 miles away 3 years ago. Since he has moved she has visited him for a few weeks in the summer and for 1 school vacation. This year his plan is to bring her to his mother's house for 2 weeks. He will only be there for 1 week.
I have made it a policy to never bad mouth her father to my daughter but she is extremely disappointed in being able to only see her father for 1 week in an entire year. I want to show her that I understand how crappy this is but I don't want to speak ill of him.
He also is very spotty in his communications with her. Emailing her once every 2 weeks or so and calling even less.
So my questions are this, how do I validate her feelings about the situation without throwing him completely under the bus? And also how do I make sure that not having her father in her life in any appreciable way not doesn't have a detrimental effect on her?
From: Beth, Manchester, NH
You’re absolutely right, there’s nothing to be gained by glossing over the truth: An absentee parent leaves a mark on a child, and pretending that isn’t so only makes matters worse.
But that doesn’t mean a child is headed for a lifetime of misery. As you recognize, Beth, what helps the most is validating her her feelings without (as you aptly put it) throwing your ex "completely under the bus.”
That's not as tall an order as you may think.
I once did a column on the topic of absentee parents and interviewed a mother whose ex-husband was a sporadic and unreliable presence in her 6-year-old son’s life. Her theory was this: “What damages you in life is not the amount of tragedy you experience but how you heal from it. I want [my son] to feel what he feels and be able to talk about it.”
Leah Klungness, an expert on single parenting in its many diverse facets, says the process begins when your child is young. She needs a truthful, age-appropriate explanation of the story of how your family was formed, including how it came to pass that she has only one parent actively in her life. For instance: “There are all different ways to make a family. Sometimes, both parents live together. In some families, children live with the dad and see the mom only once in a while. In our family….”
You don’t want to tell a 5-year-old his father is a drug-dealing womanizer, but you could say, “Your father takes something called street drugs. It’s not medicine, it’s not what a doctor gives you to get better, it’s a kind of drug that is bad for your body and confuses how you think. That’s why your dad sometimes forgets to visit, even when he promises he will.”
When children reach the age of your daughter, who has likely reached a new level of cognition, that explanation needs to be repeated with a new layer of information. For instance, “Your father has a problem keeping promises, not just to you but to everyone. It’s one of the reasons we couldn’t stay married.”
When broken promises or disappointments pile up, validate her feelings and give her permission to have them: “I bet you're disappointed you won't spend more time with your dad..."
In your particular situation, you also have an opportunity to reinforce the positive side of the visit: that she gets to spend time with her dad's family.
Perhaps the best coping mechanism I know is this one, a favorite of Klungness: “When your father makes those promises, we need to put the word, ‘wish,’ in front of them. He says he wants to take you sailing but what he really means is, he wishes he could take you sailing, but he isn’t able to. He would like things to be different, but he has problems that get in h is way.”
Whatever you do, Beth, keep to your policy of not bad-mouthing her father. Here's why: Sooner or later, a child figures out that she is half of that missing person. If you’ve said only bad things about the parent, she’ll begin to wonder, “If dad is a cheat and liar, maybe I am, too.”
By the way, saying nothing about the absentee parent is just as bad because that gives rise to inappropriate fantasies. If there’s nothing good you can say, find things to say that are neutral: “Summer always makes me think about how much your dad loves corn on the cob.”
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