Abandonment can stem from a hostile divorce or from a parent that simply “walks away” from his/her family. Abandonment is characterized by lack of communication, visitation, and support.
No one really understands abandonment, especially when they are involved in the situation in which it occurs. How can you accept, much less explain to a child, that their parent (your partner) has it within them to simply turn their back and live as if you and your child cease to exist? At least with death and divorce there is an action that leads to a conclusion. With abandonment, the end result is the unknown. This is hard for adults to understand, much less children.
There are several things that need to be carefully handled by the custodial parent:
• Make sure the child knows that the situation is not their fault. They didn’t drive the other parent away. They didn’t do anything to make the other parent angry.
• Make sure the child knows that they are loved and lovable.
• Do not degrade or demean the other parent in front of the child. This one is not easy to do because of the anger and pain that goes along with abandonment. However, for the sake of the child, it is necessary.
Discipline can become a major issue because the custodial parent is always the “bad guy”, enforcing the rules and teaching responsibility. The child will use the illusion of the parent they do not know in retaliation. The parent they don’t know becomes perfect in their eyes simply because they do not have a base of comparison. There are several things you will need to do as a parent in order to make these situations easier on both you and your child.
• Develop a “thick skin”. Your child is simply frustrated, angry and hurting. You are not the one to blame. Yet you cannot place the blame on the other parent in front of the child. It is instead necessary to allow the child to learn the truth through your example and consistency.
• Remind yourself that your children are children, not adults. They cannot handle their emotions in “adult” manners because they do not have the experience and/or maturity.
• Give yourself a “time-out”. Often this is more important in maintaining a good parent-child relationship than any action taken with your child. This allows a time for both you and your child to back away from the situation and handle it fresh at a later time.
• Don’t back down! Be firm in your decisions, yet compassionate for the differing views and feelings of your child. Help them understand that it is all right to have differing views, but that as the parent, you make the final decision.
The lack of communication that exists between the child and th eir other parent is the choice of the other parent. The child may choose to contact them, however. If you have information, don’t hide it. Allow the child to initiate contact if they request to do so and if doing so is not dangerous. Yes, your child may get “hurt”; however, it is better they deal with reality with you to aid them than to blame you for “keeping them from” the other parent.
One of the most difficult situations can be attempting to answer a child’s questions about the other parent. As they get older, these questions will be more frequent and more demanding. Conversations with friends and schoolmates make them realize that they are missing an important piece of their life and they are not going to accept this lightly. There are a few guidelines that will make these conversations a bit less confusing.
• Don’t lie. Lying will not do anything but diminish trust in you.
• Don’t slander. The child is having enough problems with his/her feelings about the absent parent without adding your feelings to them.
• Don’t pretend to be all-knowing. Quite frankly, you may have no idea why the other parent has chosen to have no contact with you and/or your child. It is best to say exactly that!
Children react quite differently to the situation of abandonment. My oldest daughter kept false hope alive for years. She often heard her friends talk about outings with their fathers or normal day-to-day interactions with their fathers and she felt a very normal emotion – envy. She kept telling herself that her father would come to his senses and want these types of interactions with her, too. I wish that had been true. There were so many promises that he made her before he left her life that he never kept. As each one approached possible fruition, her hopes would elevate, only to be dashed. It took years of disappointment before she was ever able to let go of any possibility of her father being a father. My youngest was very different. She never really knew her father, so the only ideas she had were the normal expectations of what any father should be. She didn’t dream about the possibility of “one day”, but when she turned 13, she decided that she needed to face him and find out why he wasn’t in her life. We found out where he lived and arranged for a family friend to take her for a visit. (Neutral parties can assist in many situations!) She was very disappointed in what she found, but she realized that this man would never be the father she wanted – it is beyond his capacity. Without the years of heartache her sister experienced, she resolved her search.
Abandonment is never easy for any of the parties left behind – adult or child. As adults, we have to be very careful not to place our own feelings of doubt, anger and fear onto our children. They will have enough of their own. So, while we need to be there for them to share their feelings with us, we need to be sure that we are not sharing our own insecurities with them. If I have said it once, I have said it fifty time – counseling, both individual and family, should be seriously considered to assist in overcoming these difficult times.
Above all, please remember that it is neither yours nor your child’s fault that you have been abandoned, but rather the inadequacies and insecurities of the one who has abandoned you. Be strong; be safe; and know that you are not alone!