Your toddler will need lots of comfort to deal with parental abandonment.

How to Talk to a Toddler About Parental Abandonment

by Kathryn Rateliff Barr

In an ideal world, you would never have to talk to your toddler about why your partner left and never sees him any more. Unfortunately, it happens, and your tot will feel abandoned by the absent parent. Questions such as “Why doesn’t Daddy love me any more?” and “When will Daddy come home again?” can tear your heart out. You and your toddler can get through this together, but it won't be easy. One of the first steps is to answer those tough questions.

1 Don’t lie to your toddler although sometimes the lie is easier than the truth. Explain that your partner has decided not to return or that he can’t return. For example, if your partner died, you can explain that it wasn’t his choice to leave and not come back. If your partner chose to leave and not return, gently explain that he decided to leave.

2 Assure your toddler that she didn’t cause the parent to leave. It isn’t uncommon for young children to feel that they did something to make the parent leave, so deal with that directly. You don’t have to explain why your partner left. She needs to hear she wasn’t so bad or unlovable that she drove the parent away.

3 Tell him you aren’t going to abandon him. When one parent leaves and doesn’t return, it is normal for the child to wonder if the other parent will also abandon him. Assure him of your love and your desire to stay with him. Express your love with words and with action.

4 Explain that it’s okay for her to feel sad, angry or upset. You might admit that you also feel sad or angry. She needs to know that whatever she feels is acceptable and won’t change your love and support. Understanding that you have negative feelings about the situation might help her feel more comfortable with her own feelings.

5 Express your belief that the two of you will be okay. It might be difficult for a while and things will change, but you will pull through. You might assure him that he can come and talk to you about his feelings and fears any time he needs to. You might also tell him that he can talk to other family members or close friends about his feelings.

6 Avoid the temptation to cast blame or talk badly about your partner. This won’t help the situation and makes things worse because she will have to deal with your emotions and hers. You might suggest she can pray for your partner if prayer is a common part of your faith practice. You might also let her know it’s okay for her to continue to love the parent. Avoid making her feel that loving the absent parent is betraying you.

About the Author

Rev. Kathryn Rateliff Barr has taught birth, parenting, vaccinations and alternative medicine classes since 1994. She is a pastoral family counselor and has parented birth, step, adopted and foster children. She holds bachelor's degrees in English and history from Centenary College of Louisiana. Studies include midwifery, naturopathy and other alternative therapies.

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