There is no ideal way to raise a child. What children need is support, community, health and to feel loved. Families don’t always have to be nuclear to be functional. However, when a family starts with two parents and one leaves, this can cause a rift and emotional trauma. It causes even more confusion when an absent parent returns abruptly. In the event of a separation, an ideal situation would be mutually rewarding co-parenting. But not every separation is amicable. Some partners disappear from the lives of their spouses and children, creating a vacuum and unprecedented burden. Sometimes, the separation can be friendly but the co-parent still slacks off and fails to show up. How should you handle it if they suddenly return?
The absent parent, explained
This is a parent who doesn’t do their parenting duties at all or inconsistently. They also don’t offer any insight when it comes to decisions about the children. An absent parent has absconded and failed to provide support to their co-parent. An absent parent is any who hasn’t been involved in their children’s lives for any amount of time. This doesn’t include a parent who is away for work or service.
Reasons for absent parents
Some parents abandon their families because they are overwhelmed by the duties involved. This can be a trauma response due to a rough upbringing or feeling unprepared to take care of a child. Child abandonment happens on a spectrum where some absent parents vanish due to irresponsibility while others have mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or financial constraints. Others may also leave their children because they don’t feel fit to deal with children.
It’s not up to anyone to shame people into becoming better parents. More mental health support is needed for multiple parents. In addition, childcare is expensive and daunting and there is rarely any systemic support beyond subsidized maternal healthcare. Eventually, an absent parent may get treatment, or the finances they need.
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How to manage the return of an absent parent
The reasons why an absent parent returns vary. For instance, they can return because they miss their children, received support, started a new family and had to make amends, or heard that the family they left got a windfall. Some absent parents may return after a few weeks while others return after decades.
When an absent parent returns when the children are already adults, it’s best to let them decide whether to start a relationship with the absent parent. The absent parent could pressure you into forcing your kids to give them an audience. However, this isn’t advisable as the kids could resent any forced interaction.
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If they’re still young, say under 13 years old, they may not fully understand how to deal with the sudden return of an absent parent. They should be introduced to the idea of meeting them anew slowly where they fully understand the role that the absent parent will play. This will require extended discussion between you and the absent parent to determine what role they will play. Prior discussions can also help evaluate how much they’re willing to commit. If, for example, the parent has been absent because of substance abuse, it can be hard to enforce sobriety. And that shouldn’t be your responsibility. There are some universal steps to take when the absent parent returns and you want to protect yours and your kids’ wellbeing.
1. Establish boundaries
Having a meeting before they come back into the fold not only confirms their intentions but also lets them know which lines they can’t cross. For example, the returned parent can’t see the kids without your knowledge. In addition, they may not be allowed to see the kids without supervision from you or another trusted member of the kids’ support system. If the absent parent left to start another family, they shouldn’t overwhelm your kids with the new family.
Understand each other and whether they want an active co-parenting role or not. This way there can be no misunderstandings or fights over the role to be played. As the relationship between you, them, and the kids is re-established, they can also outline what they hope to offer—including child support. Parenting: 6 Tips For Teaching Children About Their Own Boundaries
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2. Get it in writing
Sometimes you may need to involve the courts to determine how to share custody of your children upon their return. When the absent parent returns, ask them to share their intentions in writing to ensure that the courts have a full picture of your willingness to cooperate. This way, a judge can best determine what’s best for the children, if they’re underage. Even if the legal system isn’t involved, getting the absent parent’s intentions in writing prevents any potential miscommunications.
3. Be honest with your kids
If they’re old enough to understand why you separated from their other parent, they deserve full knowledge of why the absent parent has returned. This also helps them process their emotions instead of being blindsided by someone who abandoned them. If you’re the absent parent, you should make sure to get their caretaker’s permission and not ambush the children. This can cause a traumatic response and damage your relationship before you have a chance to fix it.
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4. Focus on parenting
While your rage and frustration are still valid, your kids’ well-being is more important when directly addressing the returned parent. Avoid arguing or fighting with them in front of the kids. Try to come up with a co-parenting schedule that causes the most minimal disruption.
5. Prepare for another absence
An absent parent can disappear again just as abruptly as they reappeared. This is especially common for parents with substance abuse problems or mental illness. Help your children understand that this is a possibility and it shouldn’t be internalised as something that is their fault. They should also understand whether the disappearances will be a common occurrence. This helps them decide whether it’s something they want to deal with. When the kids are older, they can make these decisions for themselves.
Don’t abandon your current support system for the absent parent who has returned. Don’t uproot your lives for them, even if they come into better financial prospects. Until more solid support structures are in place where a repeat absence wouldn’t disrupt your children’s lives, maintain your routine.
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