Holidays are double-edged swords. In happy families, they’re wonderful. In unhappy homes, they can be miserable. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, holidays, may be downright traumatic for kids whose dads aren’t in the picture. Here are ways to help children deal with absentee parents.
* Don’t ignore it. We sympathize with kids of deceased parents. Children whose fathers (or mothers) left or don’t acknowledge them, we shy away from. I won’t say “kids without parents.” Everyone has parents whether parents acknowledge them or not. As sad as death is, rejection is harder. Be sensitive these kids’ unique pain and teach other students to do likewise.
* Actively quell shame and guilt. When my parents divorced in 1969, I was angry, but not at them. At myself for not being a better daughter and keeping them together. Helpguide says my experience is pretty normal. My parents said it wasn’t my fault. But it’s taken me a lifetime to believe that. Children with absent parents blame themselves. So let them process. Then persistently remind them they’re not to blame. Even if someone says otherwise (unbelievably cruel, but I’ve seen it happen).
* Comfort without judging. Sometimes children blame themselves because it hurts less than feeling unloved, unwanted. Don’t sugarcoat, rationalize or make excuses for dad, but don’t run him into the ground. The child will defend dad and blame himself more. Remind the child you’re there for him.
* Identify positive male role models. Make a point to include other significant men besides dads, when you’re making Father’s Day cards or presents. This way, the child with the absent father doesn’t feel left out. Perhaps there’s a grandparent, uncle, step or adopted father, older brother, priest, minister, imam, rabbi, spiritual leader, godfather, scout leader, coach, teacher or family friend she could acknowledge?
* Provide outlets. Journaling, art and music therapy help kids access feelings and express them in healthy, creative ways. Have kids write unsent letters work, telling dad what they would say to him if they could. Don’t censor. Let kids mail them if they want. Both father and mother of one of my students were incarcerated. He coped by writing to them daily.
* Keep them busy with positive things. While you shouldn’t ignore or teach kids to ignore feelings, you can distract and diffuse. On Father’s Day, take her to a non-family related movie and out for ice cream. Walk in the woods. Do crafts together.
* Celebrate diversity. There are as many family structures as there are families–single-parent, bi-racial, sibling-raised, blended, transgender, gay and lesbian, adopted, foster, grandparent parents. Don’t emphasize the traditional family to the exclusion of those that look different. And remind kids there is no “model” family. None are perfect. And it’s our wonderful humanity that makes a family.
* Have a potluck. Ask children to make a favorite family meal. I did this once and a student brought hot dogs and box mac and cheese. I was worried kids might laugh and call it “daycare food” like I secretly did. Boy was I wrong! It was the most popular meal on the buffet! Food is the great leveler. It takes our minds of sad things and makes every event into a party!
Happy Father’s Day to dads, men who care about kids and the children who love them.