Grandparents have the potential to be important figures in a child’s life, but it’s not a guarantee that every kid will get the opportunity to interact with them. Some grandparents pass away before their grandkids are born, and others aren’t allowed contact with them for a variety of reasons. I’m estranged from my father, so my situation happens to fall into the latter category.
My parents divorced when I was in fourth grade and outside of the occasional birthday or Christmas card, my relationship with my father withered and died. Now at almost 30 years old, I don’t know where he lives and I haven’t spoken to him in at least a decade. My father was abusive and for me it’s a wound that’s healed. I rarely even notice his absence.
My kids will notice it, though. In fact, they’re already starting to become aware of it. The other night at dinner I mentioned something about my son looking a little bit like my father and my three-year-old daughter looked at me like I’d sprouted a second head and gasped, “You have a dad?”
For now, it’s enough to tell my daughter that my father lives far away and we don’t get to talk to him, but I know that answer won’t always work. I know there will be questions. And, if I’m being honest, I sometimes worry about the effect our severed relationship will have on my kids, even though I know the lack of contact is in their best interests.
Bobbi Parish, a Family Therapist and Trauma Recovery Coach, recently shared some tips with Mommyish on how to approach the subject of estranged parents with your kids. It’s not an easy conversation, but as with most things, honesty really is the best policy.
First, Parish stressed the importance of providing information that is matter-of-fact and age-appropriate. She says there’s no perfect age for having this conversation, so she advises answering questions as they arise and tailoring language and concepts to the age of the child. She also stresses the importance of keeping your explanations basic.
“A lot of information can feel overwhelming to your child. And often, the things they want to know aren’t the things we are guessing they want to know. If they want more information they’ll ask you. Let their questions guide you.”
Parish also says that although it can be difficult, she advises explaining estrangements without a lot of emotion. Seeing a caregiver get upset can distract kids and make them worry about healing our hurts instead of focusing on their own feelings and questions about the estrangement.
Finally, Parish says to keep the lines of communication open on the subject. Make it an ongoing conversation that evolves over time, rather than a one-time thing. If your kids don’t start asking questions on their own, around age 10 or 11 is a good time to broach the subject of their absent grandparent and see if they have any confusion about it.
“By 12 years old our children are very aware of relationships in the world, and knowing how relationships influenced their parents might be very helpful for them.”
Above all, know that you’re not hurting your kids by doing what’s best for your family. With honesty and open communication, they will come to understand the unique circumstances of these relationships, and you might even make your own relationship with them stronger in the process. Estrangements are unfortunate, but sometimes they’re necessary for our own safety and well-being. Kids will come to appreciate the reasons behind your decisions with time.