Some parents simply drop out of their children’s lives after divorce, taking off and barely calling or even writing to check in on the kids. Other non-custodial parents may become highly unreliable – constantly breaking their visitation arrangements in a way that leaves kids literally hanging by the curb; calling at the last moment to cancel because something came up; or disappearing from the kids’ lives for long stretches at a time only to reappear later. Whatever the circumstance, this type of neglectful and deficient parent creates a new problem for children that the custodial parent must address.
The importance of parental approval and interest in a child’s life
When a parent is unreliable or disinvolved like this, a child feels not only neglected, but rejected – discarded by their parent, not worthy of their love, not desirable enough to want to spend time with. This can create a rather severe social injury that scars a child in lasting ways.
Each and every child has a strong, inbuilt desire to strive for the approval of and connection with their parents. Testament to just how strong this yearning is can be seen in the people who go through tremendous lengths to try and contact a parent they never knew who either gave them up for adoption or disappeared when they were too young to remember. Why would people devote such time and energy towards seeking out a connection with a complete stranger, even decades later? Because a sense of connection with one’s parents is a powerful emotion. Other children with disinvolved parents may pretend not to care, but they say this with more than a tinge of disapproval towards the “deadbeat” or “egg donor” who gave them up – an obvious mask for the anger and hurt they feel inside.
The bottom line is that all kids have an inbuilt need for approval from their parents. They constantly seek connection with their roots. When this is threatened or denied, it often creates a festering social injury that is aggravated with every broken promise, every display of rebuke or disinterest. These wounds are brought to the surface with every message in the world at large which exhibits what they’re missing: commercials and TV shows showing fathers and mothers happily spending time together with their children, seeing other dads pick their kids up at school, passing mother’s or father’s day with no one to celebrate with. When a parent is disinvolved, kids go through life feeling as though a part of them is missing, and they can spend a lot of time trying to fill the void.
What parents can do when the other parent is unreliable
A) If the non-custodial parent is unreliable or regularly breaks their promises to spend time with the child, try to surround them with other adults (preferably of the same gender of the parent in question) who do keep their promises. Someone who can take a day off to spend time with them on a fishing excursion or by taking a trip to an amusement park. Having others take an interest in them and spend time with them will help ease some of the social injury inflicted by the neglectful parent. It let’s them know that they are desirable, they are worthy of devotion, and they are someone that others can love. The more connected a child feels, the more it eases the burden created by the missing parent. It helps them understand that the problem is on the parent’s end, not the child’s. It’s the parent’s problem that they can’t show love, not the child’s problem that they can’t elicit love or aren’t worthy of it. This eases the social pain, and it’s a lesson that can’t merely be told to a child. It needs to be demonstrated by others around them.
B) If you’re dealing with an on-again, off-again parent, help kids temper their own expectations. While you don’t want to discourage their interest in their parent, you want to help ease some of the disappointment if they don’t show: “I really hope you’re able to spend some time with your dad this weekend. But if something comes up, maybe we can do something fun together instead.” If you have a parent who is a constant promise breaker, this is the one circumstance where it’s okay to keep these visitation arrangements secret until you know he’s actually showing up, so long as this isn’t going to create conflicts with the child’s own schedule.
C) Regularly remind kids that the problem is with the parent, not with them. Say things like, “you’re so much fun to be around. Your father doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
D) Encourage kids to be compassionate and fill them in on some of the reasons for the other parent’s inconsistency. If they struggle with substance issues, or if they have a hectic work schedule, talk about these things in an empathetic way. Explain that this doesn’t excuse their neglect or disinvolvment, but that everyone struggles with their own problems, and we need to try to understand their shortcomings. Don’t fuel the anger; kids will be upset enough as it is. You’re making the other parent out to be someone who should do better but is simply a horrible person who doesn’t care will only make their mental anguish worse.
Resources to help kids deal with parental absence or abandonment
Neglectful parents are such a problem that we’ve created a kids book to specifically address these issues. Our eBook Fools Gold is intended for children in preschool and elementary school and it helps kids frame parental disinterest or abandonment in a productive way. It’s just $2.99 and your purchase will help out other kids in need.