What to tell your kid when their dad is not involved

child misses father

Dear Emma,

When my daughter was six months old, her dad left and more or less never showed up again. There were a few visits for a few years, and a couple of visits to family court for child support, but since then we have not heard or seen from him. My daughter is now 8 years old.

We don't talk about it much and I feel like it isn't such a huge deal. She is a great kid — does well in school, has lots of friends and is polite. We are close with my parents and siblings, who live nearby. I am glad that I get her all to myself and don't have to share custody like some of my divorced friends. Sometimes people say things to me like, “I feel so bad for her that she doesn't know her father.” She never mentions her dad, and I feel like she doesn't care. She doesn't know any different. What should I tell all these rude people who judge our situation?

— Shannon

Dear Shannon,

I'm not worried about your rude neighbors. I am worried about you and your daughter.

When a parent is absent from a child's life — no matter by choice, imprisonment or death — it is a loss. It is a loss for that child and a loss for those who love her.

We are all socially conditioned and predisposed with a deep need to know both our mother and our father. Socially, it is easy to understand that the majority of people grow up living with both a mother and a father — and nearly everyone else knows both parents. That is the norm. Your daughter is very aware that her family does not look like other families. She understands deeply that most of her friends have relationships with their dads and she does not.

We are biologically half our mothers and half our fathers. Humans have a intrinsic need for family. We yearn to know our relatives so that we can better know ourselves. When we are raised apart from our families, homelands and extended cultures, there is a sense of loss that transcends our daily experience. This explains why people who are adopted are compelled to find their birth parents — no matter how wonderful their adoptive families. This also explains why humans are driven to visit their ancestral homelands, even when they are removed from the place by generations.

Not every person will know both their parents. This is a fact. This does not mean that your daughter does not have a fantastic life, or that she is a wonderful child who will grow up to be a happy, productive and lovely adult.

Mourning when your child's father is not in his or her life

But those things do not preclude loss and grief. Your daughter has experienced a great loss. She does not know her father. She is different from other kids. And she also has a mother who dismisses this loss. When grief is ignored or belittled, it creates shame. I don't care what your daughter expresses outwardly, she is deeply affected by this situation.

Before you can help your child, you must address your own loss and grief.

Consider online therapy with BetterHelp >>

When your ex-husband left and abandoned your daughter, he also abandoned you — both as a husband but more to the point here, as a co-parent. You also suffered a loss in that you do not have someone to help raise your daughter — even if it means separately, as divorced parents. You do not have anyone to enjoy their sweet habits, or commiserate on the daily challenges of parenthood. You do not enjoy a co-parenting arrangement that gives you a break. Most of all, you suffer because deep down you know that your daughter is hurt. That, for any mother, is devastating.

This situation can be changed. But you must take action.

First, you must recognize the situation for what it is: A huge, giant, grave loss. It is not your fault. It is life. But it is your responsibility as a parent to address it. First, acknowledge how this has affected you personally. Lean into that pain. Right now you are avoiding that pain, which is why you are dismissing it in your daughter. Just sit with it. Cry, scream, punch the refrigerator or write him an angry letter you never send. Whatever is your way, go there.

Then, recognize that he is human. When a parent abandons a child, that parent is deeply wounded. There is a reason they cannot fulfill their responsibility. They do not recognize they are worthy of being needed, or can bring value to another person's life. Your ex misses out — in a very major way — of the joy of raising and loving his child. He also suffers knowing that he deeply hurts her. Every day.

Recognizing this is part of the process of forgiveness. It involves empathy and grace. It will take time. But you must get there — for your sake, and that of your daughter.

While you work through that, you must now face your daughter.

Talk with her. Say: “I've been thinking a lot about your dad. I imagine you do, too. How do you feel about the fact you don't know him?”

Ask her how she feels when she visits friends who live with their dads — or have visitation schedules with both their divorced parents. Tell her about her father, how you met him, what you liked and loved about him. Tell her stories about your time with him, and stories he told you about his life. Tell her about his family and jokes he told. Ask her what she'd like to know about him. Answer honestly — including about the part where he left. And why he doesn't call. If you don't know how to answer some questions, say so. “I wish I knew, but I don't.”

That is just the first conversation.

Have another the next week.

And the next.

You may not have weekly conversations about your daughter's father for the rest of your lives. But get into a habit of talking about him. About her father. Give her permission to ask, and to feel. Do not sugar coat the information, or your own feelings. Especially as she gets older, tell her what really went down, and how absolutely infuriated you were — and maybe still are. By recognizing your feelings and sharing them honestly with her, you give her permission to recognize and honor her own, complex and human feelings.

Only then can both of you move forward with a full, wonderful — and complex — life you were meant to have.


Related posts:

A dad explains: “Why I don't see my son.”

The real reason your ex doesn’t see the kids

How to get dads involved in divorced and separated families

Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? 50-50 visitation and no child support

Related documentary and books on shared parenting:

Recommended shared parenting documentary: Divorce Corp

Kickass Single Mom, Be Financially Independent, Discover Your Sexiest Self, and Raise Fabulous, Happy Children, By: Emma Johnson

Blend, The Secret to Co-Parenting and Creating a Balanced Family, By: Mashonda Tifrere

Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex: What to Do When Your Ex-Spouse Tries to Turn the Kids Against You, By: by Amy J. L. Baker, PhD and Paul R Fine, LCSW

Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing, By: Dr. Richard A. Warshak


Absentee fatherhood is a huge, complicated problem in this country. Incarceration, a culture and family court system that presumes fathers are incompetent, and other lack of support for shared parenting are among the causes for the fact that just 22 percent of fathers who don't live with their kids see them once per week or more, according to Pew Research, and nearly a third never see their kids.

This, of course, is heart-breaking for your child, and stressful for you as a single mom.  If your child’s dad is not, or marginally involved, there are a few guiding principles for addressing your child’s concerns and questions.

What to say to your child when his dad is not involved:

  • Be honest. Don’t say he died if he didn’t. Never say “He’s working far away.” Your child deserves the truth, even if it is painful for both of you to address.
  • Be kind, and keep your feelings out of it. “Being a parent is really hard for some people, and your dad wasn’t ready to be a parent yet.”
  • As you will do in your relationship with your child’s father, as well as in your own heart, you will keep the door open to future, improved relationships. At the same time, be very careful not to nurture false hope in your child. It’s a tough balance, but an important one. Note in the “yet” in the sample script above.
  • Answer all their questions. “I’ll tell you when you’re older,” or “We don’t talk about that in our family.” These create the notion of secrets, and secrets foster shame, self-hatred, and lack of trust.
  • Highlight the fact that there are all kinds of families, and every family is whole. Even if it feels silly, as you go through your day, or are watching movies or TV, point out gay families, interracial families, kids being raised by grandparents, multigenerational households, friends who live together, foster and adoptive families, how some groups of friends create families, and on and on. Then, name the people in your family — blood relatives, friends, your neighborhood network. Do this enough and nuclear, married, straight families start to seem like the weirdoes!
  • That said, do not dismiss or minimize pain that a child experiences by his father being absent from his life. It might be really, really hard to hear, but listen. It sucks to feel like you’re the only kid at school whose dad isn’t around. It hurts like hell when your birthday comes around and your father doesn’t call. You worry you did something wrong, or you’re unlovable, or deeply flawed — no matter how great your mom and life are. My father was mostly not part of my life after age 8, and there was no space for me to talk about it. Growing up with my mom, I heard no positive stories about my father, and no space for any of us to ask questions, or to share hurt feelings about the matter. The few times I remember asking about my dad, I was just reminded of how good our life was, which only made me feel stupid and selfish for feeling so horrible for not having an involved father. I think my mom felt really bad about the situation, and didn’t know how to deal with her own feelings, much less her kids’. Fast-forward to today, after plenty of therapy and other ways of processing my daddy issues, I now find myself answering my children’s questions about why they don’t know their paternal grandfather. While your son or daughter is not your bartender, talking with your child openly can be a wonderful way to heal your own heart, too.
  • Do not always wait for your child to ask. For many reasons, your child may not bring up the fact that her father isn’t part of her life. It is up to you to talk about it very early, even earlier than you may think reasonable. One day, when my daughter came home from school and said, “Today Sofia talked about how both our parents are divorced.” She was 3! Even as a toddler your child sees her friends with two parents. Movies and TV shows and books are powerful messages, consisting almost always of a mother and father. It is your responsibility to address this, even if she doesn’t initiate the discussion.
  • Remember: Life is long. The questions will continue throughout your life, and each conversation at each age will lend new perspective and healing for both you, your child, as well as your relationship with each other.

Is your child's father not as involved as he should be? How do you deal with it? What mistakes have you made? What advice can you share with other parents? Share in the comments…

Single mom parenting after divorce. My kid's dad is not involved and I don't know what to say to her. First, you must recognize the situation for what it is: A huge, giant, grave loss. It is not your fault. It is life. But it is your responsibility as a parent to address it.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.

70 Comments

  1. Single mom on November 11, 2019 at 3:31 am

    That’s bullshit. It is people like you who kept feeding those kids that they should be sorry, should be sad, should feel a loss in life. So the society thinks so too and look them all in pity. How did people live in matrilineal society ? If you don’t tell them they should be sorry , they would not be!

  2. Addy Dawn on October 24, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Mother of 2 boys here, ages 9 and 11. My kids father and I were together 11 years and then divorced. I didn’t really want the divorce. But he seemed to want to keep moving along with the filing process. So, after stupidly agreeing to a 50/50 schedule that lasted all of 7 months, we went back to court to have it changed with me having the boys the majority of the time. He was given standard visitation, every other weekend and every other week in the summer. The first summer, he only had them 1 week. He had started seeing someone within a few weeks of our relationship ending (January 2019), and started bringing her around our children almost immediately (March 2019). They didn’t say much about it at first, and then they were vocal about not liking her. He told them in May that he was going to move in with her. They didn’t like that either and they told him so. Now its summer and he sees them all of one week. Then it’s back to school time and our oldest is angry with him for something that daddy said and doesn’t want to visit with him. He doesn’t make him visit and he doesn’t apologize to our oldest, either. He only keeps our youngest 1 night every other weekend twice…..now we’re back to not hearing from him, not exercising his visitation. 7 weeks later he writes them letters and basically tries to blame his lack of involvement on Mom, and how he thinks it’s ridiculous that he has to call my phone to talk to them. It’s not like he has to talk to me….when he would call, I would hand the phone to the boys and they would answer it. Now he doesn’t respond to anything that I send him about the kids, examples: their grades, their accomplishments, after school activities and sports, pictures, important events in their lives. Am I wasting my time continuously trying to keep him involved by sending pictures through monthly emails? Is he ashamed of his behavior? He got engaged to this other woman in June and our children still do not know about this. He’s living with her and her 2 kids in a 33 foot camper. We live 30 minutes away from him and his doctors office is 5 minutes from our home. He has an open invitation to our home. I’ve talked to my kids about his behavior, about him not being around. Sometimes they talk about it, sometimes they brush it off. I’m sure they feel abandoned and rejected. Their parental family has basically abandoned them too. I’m guessing because he has to pay child support now. Who knows. I feel like I tried and tried and tried and just got rejected myself. So, for all of you single parents out there who don’t have a co-parent, I feel for you; I understand.

  3. Hannah on October 19, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    It’s not always the Father’s fault
    My son and my family hasn’t seen my grand daughter for over 2 yrs now
    She is now going to turn 5 yrs this year
    My son tried everything trying to locate his daughter wen he found her its still a problem
    The mother and her family is trying everything for us to c my grand daughter
    First tym after seeing her she was so excited
    It seems the my daughter is telling her wrong things about the family and us

  4. Grandparents on September 20, 2019 at 4:18 am

    Have a grandson we have had since birth he is 11 now. We had to tell him about his parents who were homeless due to drugs very unstable I tried to help my daughter clean up her life she choose not to but doesn’t think she is that bad. She still has issues 11 yrs later. The father of the child went back home to another because I refused to help him out anymore we couldn’t take care of all 3 of them Baby needed us more. Now the father wants nothing to due with the child yrs later when child tried to contact him he never kept promises. We had a heated discussion with father now he has backed out completely I feel really bad what do I tell this child about this situation. This child would of been taken and placed in the system I feel sure Mom and Dad both had drug issues.

  5. Father on September 1, 2019 at 7:45 am

    Sometimes the father is pushed away and misrepresented to the child by the mother and vice versa. Sometimes the situation is so much more than one parent’s abandonment.

    • Mother on September 20, 2019 at 4:07 am

      Sounds like you are having a bad experience but you need to be there and prove yourself, just be there not matter what, they will come around if what your saying is all the whole truth. Just don’t walk away to easy you look guilty and you wont earn your child respect. Too many fathers do the easy thing and WALK, Don’t be that father.

    • Rob on November 8, 2019 at 1:10 pm

      Exactly this happened to me. I was banned from seeing my daughter. She was intensively brainwashed by my ex and both her grandmothers, one of them was my so-called “mother”. Now my daughter absolutely hates me. I can’t do anything about that. I will never ever be able to talk to her.

  6. Frank on August 18, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    Dear Shannon

    I think you have been wonderful to raise your child without needing to worry about her father having left the family very early and that you have been filling the gap without a sense of void, and worse – an array of negative feelings – being emphasised. Bringing up the father will accentuate this void given that it cannot be solved with the father returning to a loving relationship with yourself.

    The judgemental views of peers around your daughter would be best managed by continuing to discuss them with her (your daughter bringing it up in the first place, and not being silent, shows she has a good initial relationship towards the subject). Single families are common now but were very common anthropologically throughout many times and cultures, and her peer’s judgements are largely themselves simply wanting others to appear more like them. If your discuss it in this way with your daughter she might be even more empathetic to them, emboldened and less concerned about their judgements.

    Frank

    • April on August 23, 2019 at 7:49 pm

      Oh the parent that left is not deeply wounded. Most of the time they’re just irresponsible and probably abusive. Sometimes their narcissistic or borderline and don’t really feel a connection to anything or anyone. Are there cases of a parent being deeply wounded that’s why they run out of an innocent child’s life and shirk all responsibility? Sure but they’re far and few in between. They’re just not a good person. Let’s not sugarcoat it.

  7. Amanda on August 15, 2019 at 1:04 am

    What would you recommend telling a child with no father who was conceived out of rape? This is the case with me and I was onboard with having my baby as soon as I found out I was pregnant cuz gods will is mine but for the last 8 months I have anxiety thinking about what I will tell her. I am not a liar and I believe the more we speak with children the broader their understanding is but it’s such a severe situation I wouldn’t know how to tell her.

  8. Tess on March 16, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Any advice please….. my daughter is 9yrs old her father wasn’t the best to begin with wasn’t around when I was pregnant barley around when she was a baby but she doesn’t remember any of that he started been involved properly when she was around 4yrs old, and I mean having her 50% of the time which was fantastic so I could work etc. He didn’t help financially because he had no job but anyway I really didn’t mind because they had a fantastic bound, August last year he suddenly left with out a trace of where he had gone after some digging I’d found out he’d moved back to his home town of London we live in the north of England so a 2 hour train journey, he told me mentally he needed to go back he wasn’t in a good place I understood because we had a good friendship. But then come the hard part I have to explain all this to my daughter (also he has another child he walked away from when he was a baby who he has only just started seeing now he’s grown up and back to London where his child has been living since he left to come to the north when he meet me) anyway all that aside I had to then explain to my daughter her farther had gone I told her the truth he wasn’t feeling well in his mind and wanted to be near his family. And I needed space and would call her when he is feeling better. 6 weeks went by and he started calling her she seemed pleased with that he made a trip to see her before Xmas she was so excited. But when she didn’t finally see him she was very quite and wanted to come home to me. She got very upset and said it felt strange been with him and she felt she didn’t know him anymore. She has been having support in school and is suffering rejection and attachment issues now from myself before all this stated may I add my father died of cancer (her grandad) whom was like a dad to her so that’s all ready a loss she suffered before her farther left. He’s now started trying to come out for a few days every school holidays but the past 2 times he has come she has refused to see him refused to answer his calls when he rings she says it’s to upsetting and like loosing him all over again when he goes back to London. And what’s the point it getting upset to see him for a few hours. I’ve never forced the situation and just rolled with her feelings any thoughts on If I’m doing the right thing? And just going with what she wants part of he’s is sad and protecting her myself and her heart, but she is also angry and says she only needs me in her life and her step farther (my partner who’s been like a dad since she was 4 yrs old) any help would be perfect please I’m so worried thinking am I doing the right thing or will she regret me not forcing her to seem him when she’s older. She is very strong minded and advance for 9 also thanks in advance

Leave a Comment