I once heard a wise psychologist tell a struggling single-mom that if her child was old enough to ask the question about where dad was, then that child deserved an honest answer. A child’s realization that their family structure is different from other children is only one of many heartbreaking situations single-parents deal with as they attempt to shape their children into strong, responsible, open-minded, and caring people. The dilemma is often about whether or not to tell our children the truth about the absent parent and the steps we are responsible for in assuaging the difficulty for our children.

What is the truth about the absent parent? Are they absent by their choosing? Are they being kept away from the family unit for a good reason? Are they irresponsible and deadbeat? Are they ignorant of the needs of their children or perhaps unwilling or unable to contribute in a healthy way? (Notice this article is not addressing parents who have passed away or have no control over their ability to interact with their children.) Whatever the reason mom or dad is absent, whenever it is based on free will and autonomy it feels ugly and like something to hide. But perhaps we don’t need to cloak this aspect of single-parenthood. Many parents have found that their children are resilient and thoughtful little beings, able to process information and hard truths with amazing coping skill and reason. There are three keys to encouraging this type of resilient bounce-back and processing to happen.

1. Tell the truth on the level of your child’s understanding.
Your child is capable of understanding the truth, in his/her own way. If your child is five years old, perhaps a long drawn-out explanation about how mommy and daddy didn’t love one another anymore is hard to comprehend and confusing. A five-year-old is just starting to wrap her mind around the concept of sharing and being fair and making choices of consequence. So use that level of understanding to deliver an explanation about mom or dad’s choice to be somewhere else. Highlight the fact that mom/dad is making a choice that may actually have some hard consequences—missing out on the good stuff that’s happening with that kid in school, at church, and at home, etc. Sympathize with the missing parent aloud to your child, showing how it’s that parent’s loss not because they’re missing, but because they’re missing out. No matter the age of the child, learn to build your kid’s self-esteem when addressing this issue in order to head-off the self-blame that can set in with our children and lead to other risky and destructive behaviors later.

2. Protect your children with a healthy love.
The natural inclination of many loving single-parents is to compensate for the absent parent. Often this compensation can be an overreaction and even an over-indulgence of the child that is not helpful. Remember you’re striving to shape an eventual-adult, a grown person who values concepts of care, personal responsibility, and respectful autonomy. Your values will be your guide to rearing your child in an environment where they may feel some deficit. Thus the one reasonable way to make up for the deficit they may sense would be to provide the love, correction, and guidance that could have come from the absent parent. Yes… the work of a single-parent is hard and it is virtually doubled, and it is not the work that can be bought off with money or things or overly permissive parenting. It is a thoughtful and conscious set of behaviors that have an intention and an end-game as guiding principle. So the protection that is needed looks like praising your kids when they do well, setting clear boundaries with logical consequences when transgressed, and most importantly demonstrating unconditional love just because that kid exists. Often the basic obvious step is the right answer. In this case, it is important to understand that love acts as a protection against the deleterious effects of divorce on children. Empirical study has shown that individuals who have experienced trauma can come through unbroken and even stronger when internal and external resources are clear and available 1. Internal resources are those thoughts and feelings that give us confidence that we have strength, intelligence, worth, and value; individuals who have strong internal resources are said to have “grit” Grit TED Talk that mysterious element of being that pushes through difficulty all the way to the other side of positive results. External resources have to do with those people, places, and things we can put our hands on when we need help. In this case, it looks like the present parent being available to listen and allow crying and disappointment when it occurs, validating these painful feelings and experiences. Think of it this way: We trust in external resources to work for us when we need them. We call 911 during an emergency; we expect someone to pick up the line and send help. We trust that the mechanic has a skill that most of us don’t have and can fix the car when it is broken. The same concept of trust applies when our children experience difficulty and need a trusted safe-haven (read, shoulder to cry on/ ear to hear without judgment) when things get hard.

3. Take care of your issues surrounding your ex’s absence.
Finally, it is critical that you take care of yourself and the anger, resentment, sadness, and hurt you have surrounding your relationship with your ex. Many people think they are doing a great job of hiding their hurt and anger, only to be dumbfounded when they find themselves blowing up in angry outbursts that are out of proportion to the situation, or crying during professional interactions at work (hate when that happens). The fact of the matter is if you haven’t dealt with the dissolution of this very important relationship wherein you and another human engaged one another to the point of bringing another life into the world, you’re going to have a problem. The problem with the greatest consequence will actually not be crying on your job or blowing up at the local grocery store clerk, it will be the way your issues seep into your interactions and reactions to your child. Note that in all of the above examples, not one of these individuals had anything to do with your relationship with your ex. The problem is that everyone except your child is probably grown and knows how to compartmentalize your behavior and may even give you a pass. Your kid doesn’t know what to do with your anger, your resentment, your overreaction, your over-indulgence, or your sadness. In fact, the go-to response of most children is to internalize and swallow whatever their parents are putting out. This can have devastating results now and later. Many single-parents entertain the notion of reaching out to the absent parent and somehow holding them to some degree of responsibility towards their children. Often this move is more about holding the absent parent responsible toward themselves (the present-parent) and all the work they have been left with, including dealing with their emotions and handling the fallout with the kids. I won’t presume to know each individual situation and give counsel on this one way or another in this article, but I will stress that one valuable principle of human interaction is the concept of autonomy. You want it, I want it, and we want our children to have it. Autonomy gives us freedom and responsibility for our own actions. You will need to be the model of this for your children. As you do this, be careful about forcing another person (through guilt or threat) to do what you want them to do, even if it is the right thing, a thing like caring for their kid. Take care of your real need– your emotional need, your economic need, your need for support by looking to other resources besides your ex when it’s possible and appropriate. You may find more productive and substantive results in yourself and in your kids. If you need help dealing with any aspects of single-parenting, including getting professional help for your responses to the ending of a relationship, helping your kids access their internal and external resources or enhancing basic parenting skills to be the most effective and loving parent you can be, seek professional help. Marriage and Family Therapists have expertise assessing and developing interventions to bring solutions to these problems.

1 Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, M.D.
Traumatic Stress, Bessel A. Van Der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, Editors
Posttraumatic Stress Disorders in Children & Adolescents, Raul R. Silva, M.D.