Absent parent

— Skylight Trust

When a parent is absent from a child or young person’s life, they are likely to experience a range of thoughts and feelings about the situation.​

They are lots of reasons why a parent may be absent and away from their children. It may be due to working or living in another town or country, a serious illness or disability, being in prison or because a parent chooses to leave and not to be part of their children’s lives.

Thoughts and feelings they may experience are:

  • confusion - not understanding why it has happened, or if the parent is ever coming back
  • a sense of rejection, abandonment, betrayal - loneliness - anxiety about separation
  • low self-esteem - feeling ‘not good enough’, to make the parent want to stay
  • a sense of insecurity - fear of further rejection or abandonment - unwillingness to trust adults
  • embarrassment - social awkwardness
  • stigma - getting negative responses from others
  • feeling that they themselves are to blame for their parent’s absence - guilt - self blame
  • anger and resentment - often with conflicting feelings of love and longing for that absent parent
  • conflicted loyalties - loving the present parent, but wanting the absent one - ‘taking sides’
  • feeling helpless
  • deep sadness - possibly depression - see
  • denial in accepting that the parent has really gone - imagining/convincing themselves they’ll be home any day now.

It's grief - and it hurts:

Grief is the normal human response to any loss. Children and teens of absent parents will experience grief reactions to their loss, over a number of years. As they grow and develop, reaching different milestones, they will see the situation through different eyes and sense the loss in varying ways. Living with strong feelings of loss and grief for a parent who has left, may sometimes be seen in ways like:

  • difficulty in managing their anger – outbursts, aggressive behaviour
  • negative changes in school performance
  • withdrawal – unwillingness to engage with others, to trust others
  • attention-seeking and clinginess – wanting to dominate the attention and focus of others, perhaps even using bad behaviour to achieve this
  • siding with just one parent (either the present or absent parent), and displaying very negative reactions to the other
  • spending an increasing amount of time imagining or believing that his/her parents will be reconciling – trying to ‘be good’, to make this happen
  • searching for the absent parent – looking for them to arrive home, or see them down the street or at the shops etc
  • lowering self-esteem, based on the fact that they consider themselves to blame for the parent’s absence – sense of failure – not being good enough. Can show up also, as trying hard to please all the time, to make up for what has happened
  • depression – a sense of sadness and helplessness that does not lift.

How to respond?

ALL AGES AND STAGES IN THIS SITUATION NEED: patience, understanding, keeping routines up, cuddles, hugs and affection, lots of reassurance and encouragement and good communication – listen well, be honest, and answer questions truthfully. Please download the Absent Parent PDF for more information.

Into the future

The young person may potentially meet the absent parent at some point in their lives – even if it seems unlikely or impossible right now. You can invest in some kind of positive connection with this parent, in the present—and even the future—by:

  • telling them any positive, good things, that you once shared or can remember – tell them positive character traits that the parent had
  • showing/giving them photos of the parent, or giving them possessions of theirs to keep
  • making a memory scrapbook with them, that has photos and stories and good memories for the child to keep and refer to, over the years.
  • avoiding being negative about the absent parent.

Remember that if the absent parent should ever come back into the young person’s world, you need to keep the child’s or teen’s welfare as your highest priority – no matter what your personal feelings are.

You might also be interested in:

Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

Request a Pack Library

Online Shop

Our online shop features Skylight's own publications and other specialist titles from New Zealand and around the world. Search titles, keywords or category headings by clicking the shop button.