How Do Caregivers Talk to a Child About an Absent Parent?

November 20, 2019

Christine Wamble, MFT, works with individuals, couples, and families in our University City office. Read on to learn her advice to caretakers on how to talk with a child about an absent parent. 

Ideally, a caretaker’s response should be emotionally regulated and delivered in a developmentally appropriate way. Single-parent families exist for a multitude of reasons; possibly the parents were never together or there might have been a separation or divorce. In some cases, one parent has passed away, is struggling with addiction, is deployed in the military, or lives far away from the child. Regardless of the circumstances, it is important that those in the active parenting role disseminate information that neither demonizes nor diminishes the value of the absentee parent. Below is a list of helpful considerations for caretakers in these tough situations:

1. Ask for help. Help can come from a book or article, a discussion with a therapist, or a support group; eliminate the idea that you have to do this alone. We tend to live in our thoughts and feelings when we feel alone. Asking for help and receiving it allows us to create a more comprehensive and intentional plan for managing the situation. Asking for help teaches children they are not expected to know everything or handle everything alone. There is no failure in reaching out for help. We are modeling humility, vulnerability, trust, and the interconnectivity we share as human beings.

2. Listen. Listen to the child when they are asking about their absent parent. They may not be asking for the WHOLE story; they might just be checking if it is ok to talk about their absent parent. They may want to know WHERE they live but not necessarily, WHY they live there. These questions can, for obvious reasons, cause anxiety for the caretaker and they may feel the need to tell the child every detail to be honest with them. Listen to what the child is asking. They are letting you know where their concerns lie and you can meet them where they are without burdening yourself with the idea that you have to dispense everything in one big conversation. Afterwards, find a friend or therapist to talk about how hard it is to manage your own emotions and have these conversations.

3. Breathe. That’s it. Just remember to breathe. You’re doing great.

4. Journal about your own parents/caregivers. Write down how your family members impacted your development. Who taught you to ride your bike? Make a sandwich? Helped you get ready for school? Was there anyone you felt you could talk to about your worries/ fears? Who helped you feel safe and supported in your home or school? It could have been an aunt or uncle, teacher or school bus driver, neighbor or clergy member. There is ample truth to the proverb “it takes a village”. Recognizing that individuals are not made or broken by the absence of a parent or caregiver can give you some relief and hope that your child’s emotional development is not contingent on one version of a family. Mindfully constructing support systems, also known as your village, is an important step in creating a safe, secure, and emotionally supportive system for your child.

5. Let them feel the feels. No ice cream or trip to Disney is going to take away the pain of missing a parent. Trying to distract or convince your child that “they’re fine” only makes children feel like they can’t talk about their feelings. Children will miss the mother or father they never met. Why? Because where we come from is important. We have an inherent desire for connection with our biology. Children are sponges for reading energy. If every time a child brings up missing mom and the grandma sighs or changes the subject, the child learns it’s not ok to talk about mom. They may not know what to say to the kids at school when they ask where mom is. This child is learning that talking about mom is taboo. Internally, this child is thinking, “this topic makes grandma upset and I love her very much and don’t want to upset her; so in order to keep my home life stable, I have to hold in this uncomfortable feeling because it upsets everyone when I talk about it.”

6. Ask for help, again. Never stop asking for help when you need it. Isolation breeds depression, anxiety, stress, and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Acting parents that are already doing the job of two can become resentful for having to do it all by themselves. They may feel the need to prove to the absent parent that they are not needed and the child is fine without them. As a result, the acting parent is overrun with obligations they can’t possibly achieve including working hours that make it close to impossible to be present with their children. Ask for help so you can take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and spiritually.


Christine is now accepting clients at our University City office. If you are interested in therapy with Christine, request an appointment.