How to talk to your child (aged 4-8) about an Absent Parent

absent parent

When children start school, it usually becomes more obvious to them that many children have two parents - if not in the same home, then present to some extent in their lives

This is a contributory article from One Family

For children in Catholic schools, the First Holy Communion preparation often encourages them to explore their family tree. This can be the first time it becomes obvious to them that one of their parents is not a part of their life.

Here are some suggestions on how you can start to talk to your child (aged 4-8 years) about their other parent:

1. Create a safe space to talk

There are lots of books written on this topic which you can use to read to your child to introduce the topic. When you are reading about the giraffe that has no daddy, or the penguin that has no mammy, you can then start to relate this to your own child.

2. Share information about the other parent

Tell your child that they do have another parent and a bit about what they are like. Show your child a photograph of their other parent, if you have one. You can tell them you were tidying up and came upon it.

3. Tell the story of finding out you were expecting a baby

Give them a positive story about how you felt. You can then also tell them a little bit about how their other parent felt. Maybe they were scared to become a parent as they knew it was such an important job, they worried they would not be good at it. Tell them that you said ‘I can do it’ and took on this wonderful adventure with your child.

4. Don’t overshare – keep stories short

Sometimes at this age, children will not ask that many in-depth questions. They may be happy with some basic facts and just move on, they may not even seem that interested. That is fine, but don’t use it as an excuse to bury the issue.

5. Be consistent

When you don’t talk about the other parent, you may think that is good, you are not saying anything bad about them; but saying nothing about the ‘elephant in the room’ sends a negative message to children. Talking is key!

6. Focus on the other parent’s good qualities

If your child is curious or feels sad that their other parent is not involved, talk with them some more. Tell them about your relationship with the other parent. Tell them about things you did together and the fun you had, maybe you can do some of those things with your child.

7. Create a shoe box parent

Many children don’t need to have the parent physically present, but they do want to have something that represents them. Tell your child to decorate a shoe box and then give them a picture of the other parent to put in it. Draw pictures with them that represent stories you have told them about the other parent. Give them mementos to put in the box – a shell if they enjoyed going to the beach, pictures of food they liked to eat, etc.

When the child wants to feel close to the other parent or they need space to think about their family, they can go and sit with the box. The stories inside it will comfort them and allow them to, in some way, spend time with this person.

8. Keep things factual

Children do not need to know the story of your relationship as a couple. Tell them that you believe the other parent does love them, but they don’t know how to show it. Tell them that you don’t know if they will ever meet the other parent. You have no control over that.

9. Ask your child questions

Find out what they think it would be like if they met the other parent, what they would do? Try to identify what needs the child feels the other parent would meet. Then as the parent actively present to your child, see if you can meet any of these needs. If you can’t, acknowledge them and listen.

10. Give your child permission to talk openly about the other parent

Often at school children will ask other children about parents. Make sure they feel confident to answer the questions. Usually when a child has a solid relationship with at least one adult who loves them they are often not concerned about who maybe absent from their lives.

Final thoughts

  • Remember you can’t ‘fix’ it; you can’t undo the past and you can’t control the future. Allow your child to express their feelings and say thank you for sharing afterwards.

  • You don’t have to justify anything. Children process information by talking and asking questions, they may even ask you the same question many times over, as is their nature. Be patient with them and help them to process their feelings and the world around them.

  • Using books can really help to show them that their family form is wonderful just like any other family.

  • Having belief and confidence in your family unit will support your child to know they have a great place in the world with a parent who loves them.

For further resources and information on this topic, go to

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