Single moms struggle with many challenges: scrounging money to pay the rent, sitting up alone with a sick child, lonely nights. One of their biggest concerns, however, is how their child feels about not having a dad around, especially if he has completely disappeared from their lives.
Most kids start asking ‘Where’s my Dad?’ when they go to school and start comparing their family situation with that of their peers. Here’s how to deal with that question.
1. Don’t avoid the question
Tell the truth, say experts. Changing the subject, getting mad, or making up a convoluted story that the father is dead or living in another country will only make things worse in the future.
Some single moms feel that they’re ending the innocence of childhood, but most of them take it better than we expect. ‘Your dad and I fought a lot and he went away so the fighting would stop,’ said one single mom. When her daughter asked why they were fighting, she replied: ‘Well, you have classmates that you don’t like to play with. You have more fun with other people. Mom and Dad just didn’t get along that well.’
Some moms give more details, especially if prodded by their child’s unending curiosity. But only give the information when asked. They’ll be able to process it on their own as they grow older.
2. Watch your tone and body language.
You want your child to feel that it’s okay to ask you questions. Overreact today and you’ll have to work even harder to get him to open up to you. Also be patient if your child asks about her dad repeatedly. It’s normal for pre-schoolers to want to hear things over and over again to understand them. If you stay calm and positive, you send the message that it’s not a situation to be feared or get stressed out about.
3. Take your child’s cue.
It’s always best to wait until your child brings up the ‘Daddy question’ and then seize the moment to explain as well as you can. Choose words your child understands, and use your instinct. You know your child best, and you can gauge the best way to explain the situation given his personality. For example, an emotionally-sensitive child may need extra assurance, while another child may take it very matter-of-factly. Observe his facial expressions and behavior to see how he’s taking it.
4. Things to avoid saying
Never brush off questions or concerns with ‘when you’re older, you’ll understand’ because it makes the child feels powerless and less confident.
You should also stick to the facts, avoiding any words that color the experiences. Instead of ‘your father abandoned me for another woman’ say, ‘he left, and now he has another wife.’
Also leave out any ugly, unnecessary details. Not only will a pre-schooler be unable to understand them, but they plant the seeds of bitterness in your child’s heart. That, not the separation per se, is what can ‘ruin’ the innocence.
5. Prepare yourself ahead of time.
You may want to ask a guidance counselor or a family therapist about how to handle the situation, or at least help you take control of your own anger, frustration or resentment (which your child can pick up). As one single mom said, ‘ I didn’t want her to inherit any resentment or frustration I may have had towards her father.’ You cal also turn to friends and family for support, or join a single moms support group.
6. Talk to him about what a real family is about.
A child’s biggest fear isn’t lacking a father, but lacking love. You can say that even if your family is different, it is still whole: he has many people who care about him. It may be hard to explain this in developmentally-appropriate terms, so turn to books, movies and videos to help make this more concrete.
Books, movies and videos can also act as a springboard for discussion. For example, in the Disney movie ‘Lilo & Stitch’ there’s a line: ‘This is my family. I found it, all on my own. Is little, and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.’ You can use this as a chance to ask your child about what he feels about your family.
7. Assure him it is not his fault.
A child may think that his Dad went away because he didn’t like him or he did something wrong. Assure him that it had nothing to do with him: “It is something between me and your father.”