When a parent walks away from their child

In most cases, both parents will remain involved in a child's life after separation. Sometimes, both parents remain very closely involved in their children's lives. In other cases, one parent provides most of the care with the other parent being less closely involved. But sometimes, a parent chooses to walk away from their child completely.


This can happen for many different reasons. Sometimes, it's because that parent simply isn't interested in bringing up a child. Sometimes, it's because the separation was acrimonious and they felt it was too difficult to stay involved. Sometimes, it's because of reasons such as alcohol or drug misuse. Sometimes, it's simply because a parent has no model of engaged parenting.


As the remaining parent, you may feel let down and angry. However, it's entirely possible that you feel relief at not having to have any kind of relationship with your child's other parent. However you feel about it, the absence of a parent can create some difficult emotions for your child and, if these are not addressed, it can lead to more serious long term problems for your child.


Common problems

Children who have never known one of their parents or where one of their parents has walked away will often fantasise about that parent. They can imagine that this parent is perfect; the most perfect parent there could be.


Children can believe that they are responsible for the parent's absence. They can feel guilt and shame and believe that the absence must be a result of something that is wrong with them.


Children who are shielded from the truth can blame the remaining parent for the absence of their other parent.


How should I deal with it?

When children lose a parent, it is exceptionally painful for them. The feeling can be very similar to that of bereavement. However, if children are going to deal with the loss, they must know the truth and be allowed and supported to grieve, in much the same way as if there had been a death. By processing those difficult feelings, children can begin to deal with the loss.


In telling your children, you must consider their ages. How you tell a 9 year old will be different to how you tell a 3 year old. Try to use words and concepts that they will be able to understand. However, the basic message should be 'dad or mum has chosen to move away and not be part of our lives any more. I am sad that s/he has chosen not to be in your life and I know that you will be sad too but there is nothing that you or I can do to change that. It is not your responsibility or your fault.' Make sure that your tone of voice is gentle and understanding.


It's important to offer children as much reassurance as you can. Younger children may fear that you may disappear too, so keep telling them that you love them and will always be there for them. Be prepared for anxieties when you drop younger children at school or nursery - again offer plenty of reassurance. Also be prepared for some regressive behaviour - possibly wetting the bed, wanting extra cuddles, sucking thumbs etc. Try to be patient around these things, they will stop when your child feels more secure.


Wanting to know about their other parent

As children reach adolescence, it is not uncommon for them to want to know more about their other parent. This is because, at the age they are, they are curious about who they are in order to unconsciously work out who they will become as an adult.


If you have been doing all of the caring for many years without any support, it can feel hurtful when your child is suddenly fascinated by their other parent. Try to be patient around this natural curiosity. You don't need to sing the other parent's praises but, equally, remember that your child will experience their other parent as being a part of them and so it is important to remain, at least, respectful about them if at all possible.


If you are able to offer something just a little positive about their other parent, this can help. Once your child's curiosity has been satisfied, their interest is likely to reduce. Remember, your relationship with your child will not be threatened by this curiosity even if it may, at times, feel like it.


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