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.

Morning 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. 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.


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

My kid’s dad isn’t involved and I don’t know what to say

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

Should you date a guy who doesn’t see his kids?


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.

19 thoughts on “What to tell your kid when their dad is not involved

      1. I feel this type of article only serves to further the concept that one parent families aren’t “whole.” Using your logic, a child from a two parent family who is an only child must be spoken to about the pain and loss they feel because they see that other kids have siblings, while they do not. This line of argument does not hold water and only serves to hold old outdated stereotypes in place. What about kids of single moms by choice? Or adopted kids? Should these kids be forced to mourn for absent family members? Also this again places the blame and onus on the mother who was not the one to do the abandoning. Surprised and saddened to see something like this on this type of site.

        1. Just except it for what it is.
          Kids need both a mother and father in a household.
          “Out dated” stereotypes is the fundamental reason our youth is so troubled. Except it.
          Numbers and statistics don’t lie.
          I’m a single mom I get. That it’s hard to admit it. We are suppose to be strong and be both parents I have far exceeeded that but my children without a doubt needed and man of the house, father figure that they see everyday.
          My son needed a role model to aspire to be.

  1. Damn it’s hard. I have two children, 17 and 6 who saw their dad no matter what until 7 months ago when he had a girl with a 24 year old round the corner. For the 9 months he said he didn’t want a baby wouldn’t be there etc et. She befriended me for 2 years saying he was a loser etc and then the weekend before she gives birth tells us he takes ketamine, cocaine and will not be in her childs life and shouldn’t let him see my kids. Fast forward 7 months he has not bothered with my children apart from 1 card saying he loves and misses them so much!!!! But lives one road away and all his family are flaunting everything on Facebook even though they said they didn’t like the woman. Oh there was some contact, in October he threw a brick through my window
    At 1.30am, which also hit my car. He pleaded guilty went to court and is paying £50 a month compensation (£300
    In total) when the window and dent is costing me over £600. The day he went to court he broadcasted ‘ha ha what a result’. I am so hurt that I have to write this instead of keep reading everyone else’s comments. He lives round the corner earning £500 cash a week and the CSA can’t get anything off him, whilst the woman gets housing benefit ….
    Sad thing is this woman has a 6 year old son which he is bringing up. I tried to be honest with my kids and talk about it but it hurts. It hurts that he doesn’t care, love or fight for them but lives one road away. What do I say, ‘yeah he don’t care’ I put my house up for sale to move but cannot afford stamp duty etc and why should I move- to be happy? It hurts so much that for 20 years although not always together he cared and looked after and always saw the children. People says it’s the drugs but he doesn’t take drugs all the time. He said to me once she buys his drugs etc, but that is no excuse. How do I get over this?

  2. I had a child with a FWB years ago, I lied about being on the pill even though I knew he didn’t want kids but thought because he was a decent guy, he would stand by me. He didn’t, so I had to bring up my son up alone until I met my husband (the father always paid child maintenance but never had any contact with my son). It was my husband that made me realised what I had done to my sons father was very wrong. I didn’t see it at the time as I felt the father had let me and my son down but as my husband said, it’s wrong to force someone to do something they don’t want to do just to keep someone else happy (especially as we were not in a relationship). I look back and realise how selfish I was by trying to force this man into fatherhood and taking money from him for child maintenance… I no longer accept child maintenance from my sons Dad as my husband pays for him as he does with our own children. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, although it seems wrong for a father not want to be in a childs life, it’s not always as black and white as ‘it takes two to make a baby so those two people should be in the childs life’… I regret what I did to my sons father but I don’t regret my son being here…. I’m just glad I finally met an amazing man who is an amazing father

    1. You probably have no concept of the hell you brought to that man’s life.

      You need to beg that poor man for forgiveness.

      1. I agree that was wrong but what a gift. A child.
        Maybe that’s the chance someone takes when they have sexual relations outside of marriage.

  3. This is an interesting response. I wonder what you would say when it comes to gay families with two mothers and no father or two fathers and no mother? Or a single mother by choice (perhaps she used a sperm donor). Will all these children be suffering grave losses as well since they don’t have both a mom and dad?

  4. That response is crap! Dear Shannon I am in the same boat as you unlike the person who responded, who has no clue because they haven’t lived it. I have. I am successful, a homeowner, never been on state assistance and I’m the only one listed on the birth certificate of my child. No child support and no stress. You do not need a man to save you or provide for you. The social norm is 6 O’clock news if you can manage to stay off of that show then yoy are going to make it in thos world. For me, Since I was never married my personal life is just that.. Personal!!! If some rude people out there ask you about your situation it’s because they are not strong enough to endure it, tell them your personal life is none of their business before they drag you down with their pitty. I have judges ask me who I’ve had sex with in court to try and get me to name “John Doe” if you are like me it’s no bodies business, not the judge, not the school, not your friends or family. There are a lot of religious people especially lawyers who will see you as a prostitute based on their religion that you have a child out of wedlock. You need to flip those people the bird! Mariage is part of religion and you can have a happy relationship with children and without ever getting married. There are plenty of little girls who don’t have a father and that doesn’t make you a bad person. I tell my kid that every ones family is different. Some people have 2 mommys, or only 2 daddys, some people only have grandma, some people only have grandpa, some people don’t have any grandparents and that it’s okay if you’re family is different from someone elses. Now if we could only change the religious views of the Marine Corps and the way they view single mom’s that have full custody. It used to be a man’s world but the world is changing men like other men and straight women need to be able to become the masculine role on society. Don’t let anyone bring you down with a pity party or some psychology that they read in a book without actually experiencing it for themselves.

  5. I was hoping to find some advice on what I should do here, without commenting but I guess it’s the only way I will get any feedback (besides family & friends who honestly, don’t know what to tell me anyway!) So my daughter will be 10 weeks old tomorrow, her dad has not been in the picture what so ever, but his parents are who I am concerned about. They are good people and are very active in their grandkids lives (I have never met them but I know this) –I know he hasn’t told them about his daughter, do I send his mom a friend request on fb and message her? Ask for her number? And even THEN, what do I say to her?? We don’t live in the same town, they actually live about an hour away from us. I have NO IDEA what to do, so you guys please help me out!!

    1. Your situation is very similar to mine. My son’s father abandoned me while I was pregnant and did not tell his parents or any family. I knew their names, so I looked them up and I sent them a letter telling them I was pregnant by their son, he had left and I also reassured them I was not seeking any money. I just wanted my son to have the chance to know his dad’s side of the family. His parents contacted me and they were kind, but they also said they had called their son and he denied it was his child (be prepared for that ok). I told them I understand their concerns and that I would get a DNA test so they could comfortably be involved. We stayed in touch. I sent them pics of the baby at birth. His mom called and said he was identical to her son. They lived an hour and a half away from us and didn’t come meet him until he was one years old. His dad evaded getting a DNA test for 2 years. I even offered to pay for it and told him that if he thinks it’s not his child, then he should take the DNA test to get rid of us. He didn’t do it until the court system forced him. Results came back that it was his child. His parents were very happy to have the confirmation. He still didn’t come around for years after that, but his parents remained involved. My son is now a teenager and his dad calls him once a year, twice if he’s lucky. But my son has spent Christmas, etc with has grandparents. His dad blamed me for him not seeing or talking to his son. None of which is true. I always let him come or call whenever he wanted to, he just has always been uninterested in seeing him. I used to try and involve him in decision making for our son, but he would always say, just do whatever you think is right. My point is this… contact his parents, but be as gentle as you can about the approach. Keep in mind that he his their child, they love him and you are a random chick they know nothing about. Expect backlash from your child’s father after you make contact. He will more than likely try and tarnish your reputation as a woman and be willing to accept the fact that his parents may side with their son. Also, let them know you are willing to get a DNA test. Don’t expect your word to be enough. If you know he is the father, then you have nothing to worry about. And just know that telling his parents and getting their involvement in your child’s life, does not mean that the father is going to want to be apart of the child’s life. Good luck to you. I hope it works in your favor with his parents as it did for me.

  6. I’m sorry, but I have an almost 4 year old that doesn’t see her father. We split when she was 2 because he was mentally and verbally abusive. Not to mention a sociopath and very manipulative. It got to the point where he was going to be physically anusive, and she witnessed this. Up until 9 months ago, I gave him chances to have her every other weekend, which he did until he decided he didn’t want to deal with it anymore. I’d go over there and bang on the door, my boyfriend too, because she wanted to see him. In 9 months since that happened, he’s asked to see her 3 tomes, and never follows through. At first it was rough because she wanted to see him. That lasted maybe a month or 2 and now she doesn’t ask to see him. Shell casually mention him, but never in regards to seeing him. For her being 4 she is very well aware of the situation. We’ve talked to her about it. Even asked her how she has felt. I’m 33 weeks pregnant with mine and my boyfriends baby. She knows she won’t have the same last name. She’s OK with this because my boyfriend in her mind is her dad. He might not have that “official” title, but he’s hers and she is his. I don’t think she’s hurting, she’s happy and healthy and in a good stable place with two people that love her. Even if I didn’t have my boyfriend, she’d still be ok. She’ll always know her situation is different but who cares? This is a very old she cool approach and not an OK to me. There’s so many different types of families and situations and as long as the children are happy that’s approach that matters. I would never stay with someone or be with someone who didn’t treat me and my daughter like we’re suppose to be treated. Be it her father or my boyfriend or whatever. It’s ridiculous people try to make others feel bad because there’s no dad or mom around. Shannon you’re making you daughter happy and that’s great I applaud you. Some people stay in crap situations or feel they need someone else to help “make things whole” and whatever. Don’t listen to negativity and take of you and that sweet girl. Clearly she doesn’t care, and neither should you.

  7. From my experience, Id give very different advice. Try hard to get the other parent to be a parent but after giving it a go (in my case for 7 years) let it go. You can’t control others. Children are smart and can set their own boundaries. Why would you want to make them emotional sitting ducks? By all means, validate their feelings (this is standard psychology) but don’t be a Pollyanna and pretend their father is a good guy or is visiting them.

    My son complained a lot from age 2-5 and rightfully so. That’s when we were married no less! As the father became a worse and worse person- my son and even I are ok w his absence. He’s not good or safe to be around. He’s not healthy.

    Be honest. Supportive. Validate. But if your kid is healing, why put a snag in that? There are some people out there that are very unhealthy and can’t or won’t parent.

  8. Her father is a sociopath that trapped me, he doesn’t feel bad everyday that he hurt or ruined my daughter’s life and mine.

  9. My daughter’s dad while we were having a FWB situation made it clear that he did not want kids at all. We are the same age in our mid 40s, both stable and all. I got pregnant and my FWB wanted me to have an abortion. I refused as I saw the pregnancy as a blessing and as a validation of my womanhood. I had severe fibroids too so never thought I’d conceive.
    When he abandoned me while pregnant, I must have said I’d do it on my own. He works next to my house and never ever saw me pregnant. He didn’t return my texts throughout the pregnancy and even on the day of the scheduled Caesarean section, I informed him which hospital I was in and pleaded with him to come see us and also give me moral support. He never showed up.
    Anyway, I went ahead and had my beautiful baby girl who is a carbon copy of him. I named her after my own mum and she took up my surname since I figured what was the point of naming her after my ex FWB??
    Anyway, the fact that his work place is next to my house kills me every day that he can’t even show up to my house to support his daughter. His friends have told him that what he’s done is wrong.
    6months ago, I ran into him while out of town and he had a girlfriend. I text him asking him if he was not interested in seeing his child. That was a wake up call coz the following week he text back stating that why was he being forced into something he was against all along bla bla bla. He told me to let him be and that time would tell. I’ve steered away from texting him though it hurts as hell when I look up to his office from my house. The psychological damage it has on me now and in the future his daughter, will be irreparable. Oh , he’s also never ever supported his daughter even with diapers or clothing etc. Myaughter turns 1 next week Wednesday, should I inform him? What do I do?

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