7 Ways Helping Kids to Cope When a Parent Leaves Home

helping kids learn

7 Ways Helping Kids Cope when a Parent leaves

Kids say the darnedest things, but they may not say anything at all during times of stress. When a parent leaves the home because of divorce or incarceration, children feel that loss deeply. They may not understand what’s happening, or they may think it’s their fault.

Clamming up is a common way for kids to deal with the pain, but these are the times when it’s most important to talk to them. A child should understand why his parent or guardian is leaving and what to expect in his absence.

You may be tempted to protect your kids from the truth, but that may not be realistic or healthy. Parents are human. They screw up, and lovingly talking to your children about mistakes teaches them important lessons about owning up to their actions and taking responsibility. Communicating honestly — even about difficult topics — fosters trust and helps kids come to terms with tough situations.

These tips may come in handy when you’re speaking with your kids about your partner leaving the home because of divorce or incarceration:

1. Spill the beans. Be proactive and specific when telling your kids what happened. Be clear, but keep it age-appropriate. If you’re getting a divorce, you can say something like, “Mommy and Daddy won’t be living together anymore, but we both still love you.”

2. Encourage them to ask questions. Asking your kids “What else do you want to know?” is a powerful way to get insight into what’s really worrying them about a situation. If your kids throw you a curveball and you don’t know how to answer, tell them you’ll think about it and let them know later. Establishing trust during this volatile period is critical.

Some topics may be uncomfortable. Questions such as “Why is Daddy going to jail?” and “Can you and Daddy get back together?” are not fun to answer. Keep your answers brief and empathetic. A child doesn’t need all the gory details of his dad’s crime or what brought about the end of your marriage, but he deserves to have accurate information.

3. Don’t mislead them. Be sensitive to kids’ feelings, but don’t lie to make them feel better. Don’t tell them you might get back together. Don’t say, “Maybe Daddy will be home in a year” if he’s been sentenced to five. Concealing key information causes confusion and inspires false hope, later followed by resentment.

4. Ask how they’re feeling and what they need. Kids tend to respond “I’m okay” even when they’re hurting. Let them know that it’s okay to feel sad. Divorce and incarceration are hard on kids. Tell your kids that they don’t have to hold in their anger or sadness, and give them a safe space to let out those feelings. Brainstorm together on ways to make the situation easier on them. Weekly family dinners or regular visits to see Dad in prison might make them feel less disconnected.

5. Create a reassurance plan. Making sure your kids don’t feel abandoned during this time should be your top priority. Before telling them that Dad is leaving, work with your partner to come up with ways he can stay involved in your kids’ lives. Whether it’s creating videos for special events, scheduling regular check-in calls, or promising to be at important school functions, make sure it’s something to which you can both commit.

6. Support your partner. It may seem counterintuitive, but helping your partner through this tough time can actually benefit your children. Let your kids know that it’s okay to care about him and that bad choices don’t make him a bad person. Use examples your child can relate to.

Keith Zafren, founder of The Great Dads Project and author of “How to Be a Great Dad,” has coached thousands of incarcerated dads on becoming better parents. He’s witnessed kids experience their fathers’ love and approval for the first time after they’ve left prison, and according to Zafren, this is often only possible if Mom is in their corner.

“Help your man get the help he needs,” he advises. It may sound like this support is more for the father, but it’s the best gift a child can receive.

7. Prepare kids for hard questions from others. As uncomfortable as it might be for you to talk to your kids about their father leaving, it’s much tougher for them once the kids at school start asking questions. Having a parent in jail can feel embarrassing, shameful, and lonely.

mother and daughter talking

Explain that many kids (two in every 100) have a parent in prison and that they don’t owe their friends elaborate explanations. They can simply say, “My dad is in adult timeout for a mistake” if they’re young, or “My dad was sent away for making a mistake” if they’re older. Most importantly, reassure your kids that Dad’s actions don’t reflect negatively on them.

Having a parent leave the home hurts — there’s no way around that. But talking to kids about what’s happening in a loving and honest way softens the blow and makes them feel comfortable expressing their fear and grief. This experience teaches them to accept the people they love — and themselves — for their successes and failures. A painful time can actually be an opportunity to rebuild trust and develop a more realistic and compassionate view of the world.

Catherine Hoke is the founder and CEO of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit serving people with criminal histories nationally. Defy Ventures “transforms street hustle” by providing entrepreneurship training, executive mentoring, startup funding, career development, and job placement. The company hosts “Shark Tank”-style business plan competitions in which people compete for $100,000 in startup funding. Defy Ventures is currently enrolling its next class of entrepreneurs.

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