Wednesday 28 January 2015

'My daughter is convinced her absent father is dead'

David Coleman answers your parenting questions

Picture posed

I am a single parent with a four-year-old little girl. Her dad was in and out of our lives for the first few years of her life. She hasn't had any contact with him in over 14 months, and briefly saw him over 12 months ago, when he ignored her and left her crying on the footpath.

She has convinced herself that her dad is dead, and tells everyone he is. I have told her he isn't but that I don't know where he is – that he lives far away. It is a terrible thing to say but we are far better off without him in our lives. It was a very difficult relationship with a lot of emotional abuse. He decided he wanted nothing more to do with us, and I have not made any attempts to contact him. He never bonded with his daughter and did not want to be part of the birth, or the raising of his daughter.

If I ask her why she thinks he is dead, she tells me it's because he doesn't come see her any more. She gets upset if I correct her – so do I let her believe he is dead?

I don't know whether to keep correcting her, but if I don't then what do I tell her when she is older?


David says: It is always very difficult for children to make sense of parents' extended absences from their lives. In many cases, they will blame themselves and believe that they must have done something to make their parent go away.

For example, what child would want to accept or believe that their father has no interest in them and wants nothing to do with them?

That could easily imply to a child that they weren't worth knowing or spending time with.

In other situations, as has happened for your daughter, children will accept that it was something outside of their control that led to the parent being away.

In such cases, though, a child will still need to have a reason, outside of them (and often outside of blaming the missing parent), for why the parent can't come to visit or make contact.

Working or living abroad is often an easy excuse for the remaining parent to use, and ideal for a young child to believe.

Creating some story to explain a missing parent is a natural coping strategy for any child.

I think this is what has happened for your daughter. You'd like her to believe that he just lives far away, but for whatever reason that doesn't fully explain or justify to her why he doesn't try to see her. Rather she has chosen to believe that he is dead.

I wonder has she had any recent experience with death – perhaps another relative close to her has died? If indeed she had learned about death, it may have been explained as a permanent loss, somebody gone forever.

That means that there is always the possibility he might seek contact again in the future.

So, in the long run, it won't be helpful for her to believe that he is dead. I think you are right to gently challenge this assertion each time.

It is also good to have an alternative explanation ready for why he doesn't see her.

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