After my divorce, I attended a support group where we talked about the emotional well-being of divorcees. One of the points made was that it is very different for an individual to lose a spouse through divorce than it is to lose them through death. When we lose a spouse through death, the individual usually did not choose to leave us, we have no control over the situation, and they are removed from this world. There is a sense of finality to the relationship. However, in divorce, choices are made on both sides, rejection becomes an issue, and the spouse continues on with their life. Unless the divorce is amicable, this situation can lead to emotional baggage ranging from rejection to guilt to blame & shame. This is not to say that losing a spouse to death is easier; it is, however, different.
The same is true of children who are abandoned by a parent versus those who lose a parent through death. One is not worse than the other, only different. This difference is the amount of emotional baggage they will carry into their life. As parents, it is our job to help them deal with this baggage in a constructive way.
Rejection is a common emotion for those who have been abandoned by a parent. Children do not understand how an individual who is “supposed” to love them based upon a parental relationship doesn’t love them enough to 1) stay with them, and/or 2) keep in touch with them. I immediately think of Bernice in the film, Hope Floats. She follows her father to the car after a visit, suitcase in hand, crying uncontrollably that her father needs her and must take her with him. He refuses, even locking her out of the car, and drives away, refusing to even look at her, as she stands at the edge of the street, screaming after him. Her mother is left to deal with her child’s unbearable pain.
Guilt and blame are common. Children will go over everything they have done in their short lives trying to find the one thing that was unforgivable. They will construct entire scenarios of how their actions did irreparable damage to the love of their parent. They will convince themselves that they are unlovable and that they deserve to be abandoned by a parent – can you imagine?
How do we, as the custodial parents, help our children deal with these emotions? The over-simplified answer is that we give them lots of love. Children who feel rejected by a parent begin to fear that this rejection will extend to others in their lives. After all, if a parent can reject them, then surely everyone will eventually see their “true self” and reject them, too. We must reassure them that this is not true – in any aspect. First, the abandoning parent did not leave because of that child. There are many reasons that parents divorce and the noncustodial parent makes the decision not to remain in contact with their children. Some claim that it is too painful to see their children for short periods of time and to have to say “good-bye” after every visit. Some claim that the custodial spouse keeps them away. Some are wrapped up in addictions and do not even bother with excuses. Some have lifestyles that are simply not conducive to being a parent. Even if an abandoning parent blames the child – due to behavioral issues, health issues, or any other reason – the truth is that it is not the child’s fault. In such cases it is a weakness within the parent that allows them to abandon a child that needs them even more than most.
While it is not all right to tell your child that “daddy is a drunk” or “mommy is a druggie,” it is all right to let them know that mommy or daddy has problems that they have to deal with before they can be a good parent. It is all right to let your children know that the problems have nothing to do with the child and everything to do with the weakness of an adult. Parents are human and humans are not perfect. Sometimes we have to work on ourselves before we can be good for anyone else. It is okay for children to know that their parents are not perfect, as long as we are not imparting this knowledge in a way degrading to any involved.
Constant and repeated assurance that they are not to blame is often necessary with children. The younger the child, the more they need to hear of your love and reassurance that they are not to blame. As your children grow older, they may not need to hear it as often, but they will need to hear it. Do not close down any subject with your child(ren). Your children are not going to stop asking questions just because you refuse them answers. Remember that if your child is going to someone else for answers, you won’t know what answers they are receiving.
One additional contributor to whether or not your child successfully handles the abandonment of a parent is your attitude. While it is true that you, too, are going through feelings of abandonment and rejection, those feelings must remain “hidden” from your child. It is okay to say that mommy/daddy hurts, too; it is not okay to allow your children to see your despair or deep emotional pain. It is important that you find a support group or a counselor to help you deal with your own emotional trauma so that it does not spill over onto your child. It is the only way that you can keep the perspective needed to help your child(ren) deal with their own emotional trauma. Additionally, it is not a sign of weakness or bad parenting if you find that you need professional assistance in dealing with a child’s emotional trauma from abandonment. It is simply good parenting to obtain the assistance your child needs to move through this trauma with the minimal of scarring and the self-assuredness to become the healthy, happy, productive adult he/she should grow up to be.