Helping a child cope with an absent parent
November 3, 2012 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Daughter's father no longer in our lives, unexpectedly, after some sad times. Daughter (5) now a stressed little kid. Therapy coming up, but… ?

My ex-partner has some redeeming qualities, but struggles with alcohol and drug abuse issues. After a booze-related ultimatum I threw him out when our daughter was a baby, and for the next four years he gave us financial support and spent Saturdays and Sundays at our house. The visits dwindled and ended over the summer -- offers to meet up with him wherever he was didn't fly -- and, anyway, now my mortgage is in arrears and we don't see or hear from him in any fashion. He has had the predictable run-ins with police -- DWI, domestic violence, drug possession -- and a restraining order is in place right now after he broke into our house (we weren't here) after a crack bender.

Our problems from the abrupt financial aid cut-off are pretty severe and I am under intense stress, which is an awful place to be right now when my daughter is dealing with this much trauma. We have appointments pending with a well-recommended private therapist who will get squeezed onto the credit card, and with a publicly funded free children's counselling service (who are taking a little longer to see us). We do have a pretty good support network. I homeschool in a small community and we are surrounded by very lovely friends and neighbours and so on. Still, this is…bad.

I need advice on how to help my daughter. I am particularly interested in hearing from adults who went through this sort of loss as children, and what the adults in their lives did or did not do that helped (or made things worse), and in hearing from people dealing with or observing similar situations.

Right now I have little reason to believe that her father will resume meaningful fathering. He was increasingly grumpy when he came to visit, to the point where our daughter just sent him on his way more than a few times. Under the alcoholism and depression was a guy who did try to do his best, though, and who offered a great deal of verbal what-not about how important she was to him -- very difficult, I think, to hear X and then get behaviour Y. She has many good memories of him mixed in with the bad. The other night she said he 'has the heart of a monster! Or maybe a devil!' and then went on to draw/write him an affectionate card. She is very hurt, very angry, and very heartbroken.

She was a mind-blowingly well-behaved kid; now there are bouts of "acting out." I wish there was an easy fix for the behaviour but am well aware that fixing the reason for it is the only cure here. Yet I don't know how you "fix" a loss like this.

I have stressed that: her father's problems/absence are not in any way her fault, that it is a good thing to have good thoughts about a person even when you are angry with them, that she can trust that I will never leave (quite dreadfully she wanted to know if there was any chance I would ever make her leave the house, as I did with her father!), that the outbursts/negative behaviour do not make her a bad person or mean she gets any less love, that her father is an aberration and [discussion of the many people in our lives who have never been ill-tempered or unreliable, etc] not the norm, that he tried but isn't well enough to be a father right now. None of this feels like enough.

Any insights on what I might hope for from counseling would be appreciated, too, including "beware of X; not useful," and anything I can do to prepare her/us.

I am trying to give us little treats and diversions and so on, but this is increasingly difficult with the disastrous financial situation -- we may lose our house, which she has lived in all her life and is quite attached to, and the loss of not just the house but the immediate community around it will be profound -- and we spent some time away after the break-in, but it was only partially "fun trip" and partially "I am angry with Dad for scaring us out of our house," which was of course not how I had framed it but I suppose an inevitable conclusion for a bright five-year-old. Ouch. Anyway, with the empty wallet and preoccupations with family law attorneys and the like, and my own stress, I feel like I am out of ways and means to make life nicer, which hurts. I know sitting down to play Lego with her is more useful than buying a new box of Lego; I suppose I am also looking for tips on how to manage my own stress to be able to offer her a more useful mother. Prior to the recent upsets with her father I was a relaxed, tuned-in parent who thoroughly enjoyed parenting and I am irate at the damage that's been done to that, and desperate to return to the previous status quo there.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered sending to her to school, which would give her more of a social network and you more time to work? I don't think physical objects do a very good job of filling the holes in our lives, but new people/experiences/challenges can.
posted by acidic at 1:49 PM on November 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I am probably the last person to be answering this since my family was more than just a little dysfunctional. I just posted a comment on my family situation, so I won't repeat that part here, but it does apply here.

As a child, what I needed to hear was that my father loved me no matter his faults. That's not what I got at all, but that's what I needed. It sounds like he does love her, but his demons are too strong for him.

Let her know that many people make mistakes and a lot of them who do have trouble dealing with those mistakes. Obviously, you want to try and give her examples.

There is no perfect answer here. It is tough and you never know if what you're doing is right.

Because of my childhood family life, I was bound and determined to make my marriage work no matter how bad the marriage was. I ended up the loser because I believe my kids now resent me for letting my ex treat us the way he did for so many years. He does love them, but he didn't love (or really, respect) me.

I wish you the best of luck and it sounds like you're doing everything right so far.

Oh and I don't recommend sending her to school. I'm sure you're familiar with that already. I homeschooled too when they were young.
posted by magnoliasouth at 1:54 PM on November 3, 2012

She honestly just most likely needs the good, happy, safe time with you--and it sounds like so might you! Let it be a good, happy, safe time for you too: schedule it into your day, to sit down with her for 30 minutes before bed, etc. and just do something together, draw pictures, read a book, talk, play Lego, watch a favorite tv show snuggled up together, whatever you can do together that will allow you to focus on her (put your phone away, no distractions with work stuff, etc.).

Her counseling will likely focus on a combination of play and talking as a means to her expression about her loss/trauma (I'm a kid therapist in community mental health, and I work specifically with kids after trauma and loss). It will probably be a great experience for her to have the chance to talk/play about her experiences with someone whose feelings she knows she can't hurt, who she knows can't get mad at her, who she knows will protect what she says. This will not mean that she doesn't want to share with you about her feelings/thoughts, but that she is needing another kind of outlet for some of the stuff that's going through her head. She still needs you, in particular to reinforce what a safe and loving relationship you have that she can rely on no matter what.

She's still so little, and although she is clearly very very bright, giving her a lot of logical solutions to feelings may not exactly work for her natural level of cognitive/emotional development--you're doing great, telling her it isn't her fault and not everyone is like her dad--but little ones need the experiences that show her safety and validation and love, a lot more than they can process the words that express these ideas. For her, time with you is #1! One of the most important factors in positive outcomes for kids with trauma is a good bond with a significant adult in their lives (parent, foster parent, whoever it is)--let this be a comfort and a goal as you remind yourself to stay as calm as you can around her, to experience joyful times together, and to just be with her as you can be. :)
posted by so_gracefully at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the happiest daughters are the ones with happy moms.

Your daughter's emotional well being largely hinges on how well or stressed you are. Figure out how to take care of yourself emotionally in what sounds like a phenomenally stressful situation and also go to therapy to take care of yourself.

Your daughter's health depends on your own. Happy mom = happy kid.
posted by discopolo at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, try to truly believe everything will get better for you and her, that you guys are strong and you have each other.

I think her dad sounds so unstable that maybe get a restraining order until he's clean? I don't even know if that's possible but I hate that he can just come in and upset your lives.
posted by discopolo at 2:18 PM on November 3, 2012

My mom made it week-to-week with help from a good family therapist. That kept her on a relatively even keel, which helped us too. If you don't do therapy, maybe weekly visits with a particular friend to vent would do the trick. My mom was also very very reliable. Our day to day routines didn't change much, which added up over time to feeling more secure. When we had to move out of our house after the divorce, she found a home to rent not too far from the old neighborhood and still within walking distance of our elementary school.

We relied a lot on family members for help with things like before-school care (she left for work super early), did church/Sunday dinners together, etc. We had a regular night during the week for library trips, did soccer and swim at the Y. Again, routine and reliability helped. We also had a lot of close adult family friends who were backup parents for us, which was essential sometimes when we were sick and needed to be picked up at school and mom couldn't do it.

I never went to Al-Anon, but my brother did a few times and found it helpful. I think, for both of us, it just helped to have the facts repeated, to be reassured, to have a reliable routine, and to know that we had other people looking out for us as well as our mom. We also had access to our therapist whenever we wanted to go (we saw her more at the beginning, but still visited occasionally even in high school). One thing we most definitely did NOT have was a lot of money. That mattered a lot less than all the other stuff.

Your daughter will need time to process what just happened, of course. Right now you're in crisis mode. But this situation/her dad is something that she'll continue to think about for years to come, and being a non-critical listener is the best thing. It's not something anyone can fix for her -- instead it's something she'll figure out and come to terms with over time.
posted by hms71 at 2:21 PM on November 3, 2012

I sometimes use language with kids who come into foster care about judges-that a judge is someone who helps us all make really important rules and decisions. Right now, the judge has decided that your daddy can't be around you because your daddy is sick in a way that makes him not safe for you. Your daddy loves you, and we all hope that he will get better and we can have a different rule....

I'm so sorry. You're doing all the right things, it's just that nothing will make this easy right now. Persevere-it will get better.
posted by purenitrous at 2:40 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband became depressed. He started drinking and taking drugs to self-medicate. Actually, our local doctor and nurse caught up on it immediately, but to no avail. For several years, he was in a different universe, and even homeless for a while.
At some point his drug-addict girlfriend made him open a case for visiting rights. In a sense, it ended up being a good thing, because the lawyers made it clear he needed to clean up his act, if wanted to see his daughter. I got a restrainment order on him, because his girlfriend was stalking me, and he was supporting it with threats. At about the same time, his family contacted me, and they decided to make an effort to bring him back into real life. After that, there was a tough process of good things. But if I had said to my inlaws I hated my ex, they would have given up entirely.
Today, we are best friends, he is clean, and we share a lot of things apart from our love of our daughter. Sometimes, it is a good idea to be tough, while keeping in mind that the goal is to be a family.
Our daughter understands that while her dad had a bad time in his life, he is trustworthy today.
posted by mumimor at 2:54 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there a reason you're homeschooling, rather than sending her to public school? Could you agree to do that for a year, and re-evaluate school vs. homeschool at that point? Because it seems that some of your stress is financial, and getting a job (or increasing your current hours) would probably help a bit in that regard.

Baring that, can you rent out your house, and move in with family for a bit?

Drastic times call for drastic measures.

Making new decisions doesn't mean you're a failure. It means you're adapting to a new situation, and making new choices as a result. It's often quite silly to expect you can soldier on as though nothing has changed, when everything has, indeed, changed.
posted by barnone at 3:39 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sorry - of course there's a reason you're homeschooling. That was poorly worded. Perhaps it would be better to ask, "What are the overriding reasons you're continuing to homeschool, given that another choice might be able to help with some of your concerns?"
posted by barnone at 3:41 PM on November 3, 2012

My half-siblings' dad was an alcoholic and a drug addict. He lived with the family until the kids were 13 and 8, and then one night when he choked my mother and threatened her with a gun, she took the kids and went to a women's shelter and they hid from him for a few months. Then the kids got some limited contact with him again (supervised by someone appointed by the court) and then he killed himself on my sister's 9th birthday.

The kids were a total mess for about three years after that, acting out to the extent that we feared for their physical safety. They did have counselling, which seemed to help somewhat. Now (about six years on) they seem like awesome well adjusted teens.

I only have a couple of things I noticed making a difference one way or another. Mainly time was the thing that helped. But here's the few things I can generalise about:

- it was very very hard for the kids when people said they resembled their dad in any way. They knew our mother was scared of their father, and that other people in the family hated and feared him. So even just random remarks about how they looked like their dad, or had got X (positive) trait from him, seemed to get interpreted by them as "you are a monster too just like him."

- people did do a good job, especially after his death, of reminding them of the good times they had with him as little kids, before the alcohol and drug problems got bad. It seemed to help them that photos of them all together came back out of storage around that time, and that people talked more about his addictions as diseases that masked the real him.

- giving them clearer signals about when and whether it was okay to talk about him would probably have helped in the early days after they left. They picked up pretty quickly that talking about dad made mum cry and so they clammed up. If a grandparent or uncle or aunt had let them know they could talk about him with them, that might have helped. Or even just someone saying straight out, "Don't talk about dad with mum right now, but you can talk about him with me." Because I think they were getting conflicting messages - people were SAYING they should talk about their feelings, but then getting upset when they did.

- I don't think anyone directly talked to them about their acting out (and scary feelings) being related to the trauma of what happened. It was obvious to us adults and we talked about it among ourselves, but it might have helped to let the kids know that was going on. Instead I think my brother in particular might have got the idea that he was just a bad kid, like his dad was bad, and that he was destined to be violent. The counselling helped with that eventually I think.
posted by lollusc at 7:46 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here's my perspective as a former child who's dad was a first class unemployed alcoholic fuckup but who's mom did the most awesome job imaginable when dealt that crappy hand. My mother basically validated every confusing thing I felt for years on end by making the following points whenever they were appropriate, individually or as a whole:

1) Her dad loves her but is too sick to be a good dad right now

2) That he loves her even though he is sick

3) That it's OK to be angry with him and that doesn't mean he doesn't love her

4) That it's OK to love him and that doesn't mean you don't love her

The other thing she did was continue to share the good parts of my dad with me. She'd say things like "You have the most beautiful blue eyes, you get those from your dad, you're so lucky!" and "You have your dad's sense of humour; he's so funny." and other things that basically let me feel good about him.

I am sure in retrospect that she was enraged for huge pieces of my childhood but I never saw that. As far as I knew, my mom really liked my dad, my dad really loved me, and it was sad he couldn't be around.

I figured out he was a first-class gobshite all on my own much later, but at 40 I still love him and like the parts of myself that come from him. My mom gave me that gift.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:49 AM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

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