One of the great tragedies of divorce is when one biological parent disengages from a child. For example, as is reported in my book The Smart Stepdad, 10-15 percent of nonresidential fathers drop out of their kids’ lives.
Watching your child suffer rejection from an uninvolved and uninterested parent is heart breaking. Even worse, I’ve observed that an inconsistent parent who promises time together and then repeatedly breaks the promise can be even more heart-breaking to children. Their hopes are raised, only to be dashed on the rocks of disappointment again and again. Of course, this leaves the other parent to explain their absence.
Jennifer’s mother, Pamela, lived across the state. Pamela had remarried and had a new son. Jennifer lived with her father, Roger, and stepmom, Amy. Pamela’s new marriage and blended family, together with a growing career, took a lot of her time. However, her guilt for not making time to be with her daughter led her to (with good intentions) promise Jennifer special weekend visits that never happened.
As Jennifer entered adolescence she constantly wondered if her mom would finally keep her promises. She became increasingly oppositional toward her stepmother and father and unmotivated in school. Though previously a good student, her grades were failing fast and so was her father’s tolerance of her behavior.
A complicating issue was Pamela’s constant invitation to Jennifer to come live with her. She conveniently blamed her ex-husband for Jennifer’s trouble in school and implied everything would be better when they could finally be together. This kept Pamela and Jennifer pseudo-connected, sharing an empty fantasy.
Eventually Jennifer began to ask why her mother didn’t care to be with her. Her increasing age and cognitive abilities gave her a new ability to see through the empty promises her mother repeated numerous times. When she finally admitted her mother’s deception, she sank into depression and self-blame. Her father, Roger, asked me what he should say to help Jennifer.
Coping with reality
I first reminded Roger that no explanation would take away Jennifer’s pain and nothing he or his wife could do would stop the longing in Jennifer’s heart. Parents cannot take away a child’s grief; they can only help them cope with reality. I also suggested that it was okay for Roger to share his anger toward his ex-wife as it related to Jennifer’s pain, but that he should then redirect conversations back toward Jennifer and her feelings.
In response to Jennifer’s statement, “Does Mom think paying child support is enough?” Roger might say, “This is extremely hard for you. It feels like your mother just doesn’t care. My heart is so sad for you; I wish your mother would keep her promises. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” Such a response communicates an understanding of her pain and validates her experience.
Jennifer’s father should not openly criticize Pamela (“she is selfish”) or make excuses for her (“she’s just so busy at work”). Focusing on Jennifer’s feelings and helping her to develop a plan for how she will relate to her mother is the best approach. In addition, finding a therapist for Jennifer might offer her a safe outlet to talk about her loss, anger, and sadness.
A stepmom who wanted to fill the gap
Jennifer’s stepmom, Amy, wanted desperately to fill the gap in Jennifer’s life. In some ways she could, but in other ways could not. I encouraged Amy to pray for her diligently and to keep a respectful tone when talking about her mother. (The trap in this situation for stepparents is joining the child in their frustration only to have the child turn on you.)
I encouraged Amy to look for opportunities to discuss what Jennifer says and does, but not to become overly emotionally invested in her decisions or conclusions. For example, when Jennifer is crediting her mother with being responsible even though she isn’t, Amy should engage the conversation gently. “I can tell you are certain your mom will show up as promised this weekend. (Now shift the focus to the child, away from your critical opinions of the parent.) You really are hoping to see her, aren’t you? I hope you get to. You are a great kid and deserve to spend some time with her.”
The trick is not getting caught in the trap of trying to change Jennifer’s fantasy about her mother. That is, unfortunately, something she has to teach herself (and it will be a sad day when she does).
Finally, I promised Roger and Amy that these suggestions would feel grossly inadequate to help Jennifer. And they are. In such circumstances we cannot get rid of a child’s pain, but we can hug the hurt. “Reinforce your love for her over and over,” I suggested. “And hold her when she cries.”
Should you make the children go see a disengaged parent?
Frequently a parent and stepparent will ask if they should make a child go see their disengaged mother or father if the child doesn’t want to. Some children grow calloused toward an undependable parent and prefer not to be around them (and you can’t blame them). What should parents do?
- Young and pre-teen children should be encouraged to keep the visitation schedule, even if the withdrawn parent pawns them off on grandma.
- Teens can consider the decision more thoroughly and should have a stronger say in whether they visit and how often.
- Consider the custody agreement. You don’t want to be accused of not honoring court orders. Consult an attorney to discuss the implications of letting the child stay home.
- Never stand in the way of reconciliation of a disengaged parent and child, but do become an advocate for the child. For example, you might say, “I’ll tell Johnnie you are taking him on Saturday when you arrive, but not until then so he’s not disappointed again.”
Pastors: what you can do
Fatherlessness is a major issue in America today, and divorce makes it worse. One classic nationally representative study found that less than half of children age 11-17 with divorced parents had seen their fathers the previous year and almost 40 percent had no contact with their fathers in five years1. As advocates for the child, children and student ministries should go after these dads—with tact and grace. Invite them to re-engage and give them opportunities to do so through your ministry.