Even under the best of circumstances, a parental separation can be incredibly emotional and confusing for kids. They’re used to seeing both parents at the dinner table and at soccer games. Then suddenly one parent is gone. It’s a huge adjustment, even if both parents remain involved in the kids’ lives. But when your partner disappears from your lives and doesn’t make an effort to see the kids, it falls to you to help them process this huge shift.
Because you want to protect your child, your instincts might tell you to fudge the truth behind your ex-partner’s disappearance. It’s hard to tell them that Dad left because he cheated or that Mom moved away because she has an addiction. Wouldn’t it be easier to tell them that their parent left because of an exciting new job opportunity?
Maybe, but this strategy can backfire. Instead, separated parents should tell kids the truth in an age-appropriate way. Emphasize that the kids have no responsibility for the parent’s absence. “Daddy moved away because he fell in love with someone else and he decided to go live with her. He did that because he wanted to, not because of anything that you did wrong, and he still loves you so much.” You might even add: “Someday he will probably realize he made a mistake by not seeing you more. I’m so sorry that his decision is hurting you.”
Kids in this situation might worry that their remaining parent will abandon them too, especially if they misbehave. One parent left, what’s keeping you from going too? Tell them in no uncertain terms that you will never choose to leave, even if they’re messy or get bad grades.
Once your kids understand that the absent parent is really gone and isn’t reliable, they’ll need your support. You can’t fix the situation or make your ex become a better parent. What you can do is encourage the kids to express how they’re feeling.
If they’re angry, let them vent to you without trying to offer any solutions. Give them access to art and writing supplies and encourage them to express their feelings. Offer frequent affection and remind them often how lovable and wonderful they are. If you’re in a position to send your child to a therapist for a few sessions, offer that as an option too.
Does the other parent makes promises to come see the kids but often fails to show up? Make backup plans for those scheduled times. When Dad doesn’t arrive at noon like promised, spend the afternoon at the mall or at a park having fun. And be mindful to not badmouth the other parent, even after the person hurts your child by bailing. Calling your ex names or getting really emotional when talking about the situation may make your kids afraid to express their feelings.
Separated parents who have primary custody are under a ton of pressure. You’re solely responsible for kids who are dealing with being hurt by their other parent. If you’re like a lot of people who find themselves in this situation, you probably feel overwhelmed and angry. It’s important to acknowledge those feelings – without making your kids feel responsible for fixing them. Ideally, you’ll talk to a therapist about everything that you’re juggling. If that’s not possible, schedule weekly vent sessions with a sympathetic friend.
And don’t forget that you’re not Superparent. You’ve got a lot going on – if the kids eat chicken nuggets every night and miss the occasional shower, celebrate how much you’re getting right instead of beating yourself up.
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