How To Help Your Children Handle An Unreliable Parent

child waiting for an unreliable parent

If your ex is unreliable, or completely MIA, you may know not what to say to your children. There may be information you don’t want to share because it would hurt them. Or you may not even have the answer. But you need to give your kids some kind of explanation. Here are some steps you can take to help your children cope with an unreliable parent and develop relationships with people who are good for them.

Wondering if they’ll ever see their other parent again makes kids live in a cloud of ambient anxiety and unknowns. Their take-away from this experience is the belief that people can’t be trusted, which will make it hard for them to form secure attachments later on. Here’s how to change this.

Understand their experience. You may wonder why your child still loves or even idealizes a parent who is unreliable and/or abusive. You may resent feeling that the love and consistency you provide appears to have no impact on your child, who only seems to care about the unreliable parent. Remember that your ex, no matter how terrible, is still “half” of your child. If their other parent is “bad,” this means they’re defective as well. In order for them to feel good about themselves, they may need to whitewash their other parent’s bad qualities and idealize the good ones. Be the adult and don’t make them feel guilty for glorifying you ex. In time your child will gain a more balanced perspective.

Give your child age-appropriate explanations. You may panic when your child asks, “why doesn’t [Daddy or Mommy] visit?” How do you explain why a parent doesn’t prioritize their children by showing up for parenting time? What you tell your child will depend on his age. Give only enough details as you have to.

For instance, if a 9-year-old asks why the other parent doesn’t visit, first acknowledge the pain: “I see how much it bothers you that Daddy/Mommy isn’t more involved.” Then give information appropriate for a young child: “Daddy/Mommy has issues that make it hard for them to be a parent. I don’t completely understand why, but I do know that it has nothing to do with you.”

Let your child know you’re there to listen. Let your child know that it’s okay to come to you with their feelings and questions. And let them know it’s okay not to talk, if they don’t want to. Kids, like adults, have different ways of dealing with painful feelings. It may be too overwhelming right now for your child to speak about the other parent. Broach the subject from time to time, but don’t pressure your child to have a conversation they don’t want to have. The message you want to send is that they are entitled to whatever feelings they have, and you’re available to listen when they are ready.

Handling erratic contact. If your ex comes in and out of your child’s life at whim, you need to take steps to protect your child. Erratic reinforcement sets kids up to become almost addicted to the unreliable parent. They get a “taste” of being with, or hearing from Dad, and then never know when they’ll see him again. This keeps them in a constant state of longing; it’s human nature to want what you can’t have. If you have sole custody, explain to your ex that contact needs to be consistent. It’s not okay to promise to call or visit and then not come through. However, keep in mind that you cannot control your ex’s behavior, so you need to teach your children how to protect themselves. Explain that their other parent has personal issues that make it hard for them to be consistent. Tell them if they want to have a relationship with that parent, they will need to lower their expectations.

Empower Your Child. The best thing you can do for your child is to teach her that she can make her own choices. Your child does not have to be available for an unavailable parent. If they do want to maintain some kind of relationship with the other parent, via email or phone, they can set their own boundaries and let the parent know how she wants to be treated. This includes telling the parent how  unreliability affects them, asking for what they want, and stating what is and isn’t okay . You want to teach your children to be able to deal with their other parent directly, instead of expecting you to solve their problems.

Help Your Child Cultivate Healthy Relationships. Toxic hope is waiting for an unreliable parent to morph into Parent of the Year. Help your child identify people they can count on, who will love and care for them: extended family, grandparents, teachers, coaches, members of your religious community, family friends. These relationships won’t take away the pain of the other parent’s abandonment, but it will enable your child to form healthy attachments to trustworthy people.

Resenting your ex for hurting your children is understandable. But being consumed by anger and bitterness will drain your energy and never make your former spouse a better parent. You can’t erase your children’s pain, but you can empower them so they don’t set themselves up for further disappointment – from your ex, or anyone else.

Have questions about child custody? Want to change your parenting time arrangement? We can help. Contact us today to schedule your initial consultation with one of our compassionate and experienced attorneys. Secure your children’s future.

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