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Coping with abandonment

Sometimes it is not possible for both parents to be involved in a child's life. When children do not have contact with one of their parents, assure them that none of their thoughts, words, or actions caused their parent to leave. 

Abandonment can happen in different ways. Here are three ways it can occur.

Complete, sudden abandonment

When there is complete, sudden abandonment:

  • The children have no relationship with one parent. The children may never have known the other parent or there was a relationship in the past but the parent completely and suddenly left the children’s lives.
  • The parent who left is practicing the most direct form of abandonment by walking away and refusing or ignoring attempts to have contact with the children.

Sporadic abandonment

When there is sporadic abandonment:

  • The children have an inconsistent relationship with one parent.
  • The parent who left may send an occasional card or gift, phone periodically, or drop by to visit every year or so. Yet, this kind of parent is mostly absent.

Gradual abandonment over time

If abandonment occurs gradually, over time:

  • The children experience a gradual loss of a once-close relationship with one parent.
  • The parent who left tries to maintain relationships with his or her children immediately after the divorce. They then reduce contact over time and eventually let the relationships die. This may happen with a parent who moves away or remarries.

Should I tell my child abandonment is wrong?

Addressing the loss your children feel when the other parent is no longer in their lives requires care. Despite your own feelings, it’s important to avoid telling your children that the other parent’s leaving was a mistake. If your child asks you if the other parent was wrong to leave, you might say that everyone makes mistakes at times and this “might be” one of those times. However, withhold your own judgment on the matter. Focus on helping your children deal with any feelings of rejection or guilt they might have.

Take time to think through how you will handle the issue of abandonment with your children. Helping your children requires acknowledging, validating, and accepting how they feel about the loss of their other parent. Avoid talking negatively about the other parent and find ways to help your children remember the good things about their other parent. If you feel that you and/or your children need outside help, find a professional.

What to say to your children about abandonment

Consider your child’s age when discussing abandonment. Here are suggested scripts for different ages:

  • Children under 10: “I know you’re sad when you can’t see them. Sometimes adults make choices because they are not happy, and then that hurts other people.”
  • Children 10 and older: “I can't fully understand how you feel, but I see that you are sad sometimes and angry at other times. I am always here to talk, no matter how you are feeling.”

Sometimes children blame themselves for a parent leaving and not contacting them. It's important that you assure your children that they are not to blame. Try saying something like: “You need to know that nothing you have done, or said, or thought, made them leave. Their problems make it hard for them to be a parent right now.”

It's also important to assure your children that they can always depend on you—and that you won’t leave. Say something like: “Sometimes I get sad or angry about everything that’s happened, too, but you need to know that no matter how I feel, I will always be here. We are a family and there are many people who love us.”

From now on

Like other issues in your children’s lives, abandonment is not going to be resolved in one discussion. Be available to your children by listening and checking in with them often. Let them know that it’s safe for them to show and discuss their feelings. Watch for signs that they are feeling guilty or taking responsibility for the other parent’s choices.

As your children’s remaining parent, you have the ability to give them everything they need to become healthy and productive adults. This includes openly discussing difficult issues with your children — even if they do not bring them up. They need continuous reassurance to grow into healthy adults.

Related resources

Depression in Children and AdolescentsNational Institute on Mental Health — There’s a chance that your child is more than “sad.” Get to know the signs of depression, treatment options, where to go for help, and more.

Rose M. Allen, Joanne L. Musich,  Ellie M. McCann, and Minnell L. Tralle, Extension educators in family resiliency

Reviewed by Ellie M. McCann and Sharon Powell, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2023

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