Talking with a child about divorce and abandonment is difficult at best. Your own emotions are undoubtedly raw. Your child’s emotional state is painful not only for them, but for you. You are supposed to be able to keep your child from being hurt, but some things are beyond your control. So how do you talk with your child about his/her trauma, hopes and fears in a way that is both realistic and comforting? With much consideration and care.
Almost all children go through a phase where they wonder: “What if I had….” They devise ways that they could be better children. They dig up things they have done and exaggerate them in their minds until they are much larger transgressions than they ever were. “Daddy wouldn’t have left if I were a good girl.” “Mommy would call more often if I didn’t cry when she has to hang up.” So untrue! And even if a parent dared to profess them as truth, that weakness is within the parent – not the child! Children need to be told that any difficulties that led to a divorce and/or abandonment had nothing to do with them. “Mommy and daddy decided that it was better if they lived apart.” “Mommy/Daddy has some problems that they need to deal with on their own.” Always stress that the “missing” parent still loves them. Your personal feelings should not bear on what your child needs to hear.
This being said, I do not believe it is “right” to degrade a parent to a child – ever. Honestly, they can be a drug addict or an alcoholic; they could have committed an infidelity in the marriage; they could have abused their spouse, but the child does not need to know any of these things. The child needs to know that it is not their fault. There were several reasons for my own divorce. Instead of discussing them with my children, I simply told them that their father had some problems that he needed to work out before he could be happy being part of a family. I have always told them that he loved them. I believe that he did and still does – in the only way that he knows how. It is not the ideal parental love, but it is all that he knows how to give. What I stressed always was that the problems were his and had nothing to do with them.
If you know how to contact the noncustodial parent, give the children options to contact them, even if that parent does not make the effort. I understand those parents who believe that giving their child the option of contacting the noncustodial parent leads to further emotional pain. You are probably right. However, if you restrict communication between the child and the noncustodial/abandoning parent, then that child can essentially blame you for the lapse in communications and/or that parent not having a place in their lives. This is not a productive situation for you or for the child. If the child makes attempts to contact the noncustodial/abandoning parent and they refuse their requests for contact, then the child will experience further feelings of rejection; however, they will also be forming their own opinions of that parent for which he/she is solely responsible (i.e., you cannot be blamed). Yes, you will have to pick up the pieces and soothe your child. Yes, it is hard to see them learn these lessons about their own parent. However, their relationship with their noncustodial parent should be built – or not - between the two of them, with as little influence from you as possible.
The exception to the rule applies when the noncustodial/abandoning parent is a potential source of physical or emotional damage to your child through abuse or neglect. When my daughters were very young, my ex-husband would make decisions about their well-being that he felt were perfectly acceptable, but were, in truth, quite questionable. For example, a seven year old child should never be made to ride in the floorboard of a truck, tucked underneath the dash. I get shivers considering the possibilities had they been in a car accident. He never once considered anything out of the ordinary in this. With this being the climax of a string of such decisions, I applied for and was granted supervised visitation. This may be quite necessary in many cases. It could even be that you should have the court rule for an order of no visitation. Please remember that even if the noncustodial parent chooses to blame you for not seeing their children because you request needed restrictions, you are not at fault. They made the choices that led to the request through behavior that put your child(ren) at risk. This is one time where you must stand strong and if the blame comes flying at you, just take it with a smile. Better safe, than sorry.
There is no way to spare your child the pain when divorce and/or abandonment become a part of their lives. What you can do is help them to understand that they are not to blame, that they are loved, and that you will always keep them safe. Keep the lines of communication open and hug your children every day.