What Happens When Dad Doesn’t Show Up?
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Coping with your child’s disappointment and tips on how to talk about it
It starts the day a child is born: a mom’s desire to make things all better. Remember how hard it was when your baby was wailing and you couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop? Well, that desire doesn’t change as your kids get older.
I think every Solo Mom would agree that when your child is upset, sad, crying, or angry, all you want to do is fix it for her. In many instances, there are ways you can help, but sometimes the circumstances around what is bothering your child is out of your control, and you start to feel helpless and frustrated.
One such circumstance involves ex-husbands who don’t show up for visitations and/or become less and less involved in the child’s life. It is beyond hurtful to kids—and their moms.
A woman in this situation recently asked the following question to a group of Solo Moms:
What do you do when you can’t get in touch with your four-year-old child’s father for four days and she wants to talk to him? I can’t keep lying to her and telling her he is working all the time. It’s breaking my heart.
For advice on her situation, I turned to Sarah Rudek, a Chicago-based licensed professional counselor whose practice specializes in children, teens, and young adults. Rudek, who holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology, says young children don’t have the capability to label how they are feeling.
“They have so much sadness and confusion and disappointment, and they don’t have the capability to say those words,” says Rudek, who has been working in the field for 10 years. “This can lead to frustration and irritability. They might act out to the parent who is with them the most, they might have tantrums, or they might be mean to mom.”
She says the first thing she tells a Solo Mom in this situation is to validate her child’s emotions.
“Talk to your child and say, ‘I think it’s pretty frustrating that Dad hasn’t been around lately. Should we talk about it?’” Rudek says. “This lets the child know that you understand where they are at.”
I asked Rudek for tips on what a Solo Mom can do for her child under these circumstances. Here they are:
1. Have the child draw a picture. This is a great way for a child to process emotions. You don’t even have to give it to your ex.
2. Help the child write a letter, text, or e-mail. This is a way of giving the child a little bit of control. She can’t control that her dad didn’t show up to get her, but she can control how she sorts out her feelings. Again, you don’t have to show your ex what your child wrote.
3. Make the day fun. This is something that a Solo Mom can definitely control. Go to the park, visit a museum, bake cookies, or go to a water park. Make sure the child enjoys his day, so he isn’t sitting around thinking about his dad not showing up.
4. Have open and honest communication. Don’t tell the child every detail about your ex’s life or why he hasn’t been seeing your child, but don’t lie, either. It’s not necessary to say “Dad’s working.” Instead say, “I’m not sure why he hasn’t called, and that must be upsetting to you. I’m here to listen if you want to talk about it.”
When asked for suggestions on how a Solo Mom can cope with her child’s father becoming less available and involved in his child’s life, Rudek says it’s important to put your emotions aside in front of the child.
“A lot of times, because she is angry, it is hard for the parent to keep in mind that the child is 50% of that other parent,” Rudek says. “You want to say, ‘Your dad is never around, he never does anything for you, why do you care?!’ but you can’t. Why? Because to the child, their dad is still their dad.”
A healthy way to cope? Rudek says vent to a therapist or to family or friends. Definitely talk to someone so that you don’t reveal to your child the vibe and negative feelings and emotions you are having.
She says to remember that this situation is mostly out of your hands. You cannot control what your ex decides to do or not do.
“Once you let that go, it might be easier,” Rudek says. “Be there for your kids, validate them, and help them cope. That’s all you can do.”
There’s one more thing. Several years ago, when my kids were really little, my therapist said something I will never forget. She said that you have to let your kids experience disappointment, loss, and sadness. She said it’s very difficult to do, but that is how people learn to cope throughout life.
In other words, when bad stuff happens to your kids, when they feel hurt, sad, anxious, or frustrated about anything—not just about their father not showing up—they often are better and stronger from having had those experiences. So, Solo Mom, relinquish control a little bit. The kids are all right!
We have more tips on raising kids solo in our Parenting Resource Section. Check it out!
Jackie Pilossoph, ESME’s Divorce Resource Guide, is the creator of Divorced Girl Smiling, a website that helps men and women facing divorce. She is also a weekly Huffington Post divorce blogger; the writer of a weekly column, “Love Essentially,” for the Chicago Tribune’s Pioneer Press; and a freelance corporate and business content writer. Pilossoph holds a master’s degree in journalism. She lives in Chicago with her two children. Oh, and she’s divorced.