Absentee parents on the summer scene

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 2, 2009 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

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

Hi Beth,

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.”


I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with
some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

3 comments so far...
  1. Well put! My Mom did her very best to do exactly what you describe. She was only human, but she tried, and to the extent that she tried, she succeeded. As adults we still needed to find things out for ourselves, and I won't lie and say my dad's absence didn't impact us: Of course it did. Having said that, we are a lot more sane and whole than our peers who's parents badmouthed each other.

    Posted by merilisa July 2, 09 11:11 AM
  1. Reading yet another of your Q&As that are always answered in the most comprehensive, empathic and throughly resourced manner, I would implore the Boston Globe's owners to restore your regular columns and Q&As, as both families and psychotherapists like me need much more of the invaluable family matters advice and wisdom that you provide, not less.
    I am well aware of the Globe's financial woes and severe cutbacks. That said, healthy, well-adjusted families should be a top priority and community service responsibility of a major newspaper.

    Posted by Carleton Kendrick Ed.M., LCSW July 2, 09 03:00 PM
  1. Bravo to you for seeing how important it is to not badmouth your daughter's father or to resist the urge to try and bond with her now over how much her father has messed up. As tempting as it may seem sometimes to exchange confidences over your mutual disappointment over his behavior, it's too much for a kid to bear that, in part for the reasons Barbara mentions. Keep it up -- in the long run, it will make your relationship with her stronger and she needs to know that she can talk to you when her father disappoints her without having to bear the burden of how much he has disappointed you, too.

    Posted by ramona July 11, 09 05:27 PM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. Well put! My Mom did her very best to do exactly what you describe. She was only human, but she tried, and to the extent that she tried, she succeeded. As adults we still needed to find things out for ourselves, and I won't lie and say my dad's absence didn't impact us: Of course it did. Having said that, we are a lot more sane and whole than our peers who's parents badmouthed each other.

    Posted by merilisa July 2, 09 11:11 AM
  1. Reading yet another of your Q&As that are always answered in the most comprehensive, empathic and throughly resourced manner, I would implore the Boston Globe's owners to restore your regular columns and Q&As, as both families and psychotherapists like me need much more of the invaluable family matters advice and wisdom that you provide, not less.
    I am well aware of the Globe's financial woes and severe cutbacks. That said, healthy, well-adjusted families should be a top priority and community service responsibility of a major newspaper.

    Posted by Carleton Kendrick Ed.M., LCSW July 2, 09 03:00 PM
  1. Bravo to you for seeing how important it is to not badmouth your daughter's father or to resist the urge to try and bond with her now over how much her father has messed up. As tempting as it may seem sometimes to exchange confidences over your mutual disappointment over his behavior, it's too much for a kid to bear that, in part for the reasons Barbara mentions. Keep it up -- in the long run, it will make your relationship with her stronger and she needs to know that she can talk to you when her father disappoints her without having to bear the burden of how much he has disappointed you, too.

    Posted by ramona July 11, 09 05:27 PM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.
Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives