The absent parent question: facing reality

This week I have been challenging myself to broaden my thinking again about family separation.  This is part of my ongoing professional committment to ensuring that when I work with families I am seeing the whole picture and not simply pieces of the jigsaw. For those of us delivering whole family support to separated families, the key element of our work is to always be able to see how each person within the family, contributes, for good or bad and how working with this contribution can help to shift and shape change.  The overall goal being to create within each family we work with, long lasting sustainable change that is beneficial to children.

Family separation is a field in which practitioners must constantly be alert to their own personal and professional prejudices.  It is not enough to feel that one ‘knows’ the territory that is being traversed. Each and every practitioner should check that knowledge, renew that awareness and test whether, in the longer term, what is being delivered is truly relevant to the needs of each and every family facing change.

Given the column inches that I have devoted to the problem of prejudice within the policy and practice which surrounds family separation, particularly when it comes to serving the needs of fathers and ensuring that children maintain a strong and meaningful relationship with both parents, you could be forgiven for thinking that this and only this is what I am concerned about.  Indeed, I have been accused of being an MRA (men’s rights activist), and advocate for the equal parenting movement and in the nastier assumptions common amongst feminists, a danger to the families that I work with.  In truth I am none of those things, I never was and I never will be.  What I am is an advocate for children and their relationships with their families and my work, rather than being focused upon one side or the other, is only ever about how we achieve the kind of balance in our service delivery that truly supports each member of the family to give the very best of themselves to their children always.

And so this week, in the spirit of being mindful (one of my new year resolutions which is paying dividends already) and in the spirit of examining the work that I do, I am considering the reality of what happens to children when one parent is not interested in their children and either leaves and starts a new life or is never there in the first place.  For although each side of the parental rights based movement struggles to face this reality, it is a fact that some mothers and some fathers are absent from their children’s lives by choice.  What happens then to the children that they leave behind and how do we as practitioners face this reality and work with it.  Put simply, when a child says ‘where is my other parent’ and the other parent is not there by choice and is simply not interested, what do we say and how do we compensate (or not) for that in a child’s life?

Those of you who are reading this who have been prevented from seeing a child and who have fought tooth and nail against insurmountable odds to retain your relationship with your child, may struggle with this conversation.  You may struggle because you feel that it is simply not possible for a parent NOT to want to see their child or be part of their lives.  Others, particularly those in the parental rights movement, may simply deny that a parent ever walks away from a child, preferring instead to believe that every child whose parent is not involved in their lives has been somehow prevented.  Some of you will say that parents walk away because they don’t want to be controlled in their parenting by the other parent, some will say that there are a myriad of reasons why a parent walks away and we cannot assume that this is because they are not interested.  But those of you who are parenting a child whose other parent HAS walked away and other parent HAS shown no interest will know what I mean when I say that some parents, quite simply, walk away.  Some walk out of the door never to be seen again (my own father), some are ambivalent and come and go as they please blowing hot and cold depending upon whether they have ‘better’ things to do with their time and some are simply disinterested from the start.  Although we can never know fully why this happens, we can and I would argue, should, pay attention to what children need if this is what happens in their lives.

The problem with the parental rights approach to supporting children after separation is that it is focused upon the majority group and in order to uphold the position of the majority group, it can never be acknowledged that some parents act in ways that harm their children.  Just as parental rights groups concerned with mothers (Gingerbread), will refuse to acknowledge that mothers DO prevent their children from seeing their fathers, parental rights groups concerned with fathers (F4J/FNF) will refuse to acknowledge that some dads can and DO disappear from their children’s lives.  This polarisation of the argument never allows for open discussion of what happens to children when mothers prevent and fathers disappear and it completely silences any discussion about the impact of fathers who prevent children from seeing their mother or mothers who disappear from their childrens lives.  And yet these things happen.  These things are within the spectrum of childrens experiences after family separation and it is vital, as child focused practitioners, that we know what to do when children are affected by them.

But this post is primarily about what happens to children when parents leave or are ambivalent or do not show up on time or do not show up at all or, as in some cases, simply disappear.  What impact does that have on children and how can we help parents who are literally left holding the baby, to help their children to cope?

One of the core needs of children is to know that they are welcome in the world.  Children who feel welcome are those whose parents offer them the kind of unconditional positive regard and consistent attention that is necessary to inculcate (build an internalised sense) self esteem, positive self regard and individual security.  Attachment to people is an instinct in children which enables them to survive in the world and those parents who are present on a constant and predictable basis,  paying attention to the child’s needs consistently, are those who are building for their children a safe and psychologically as well as emotionally secure future.  

A parent who is not there consistently or predictably however, is giving the child a message that they are not importsant in the world and when this is a routinely delivered message, the child begins to build an insecure sense of self, an uncertainty within about whether they are welcome in the world.  Parents who disappear and reappear on a regular basis (as in the case of separated parents) can still offer the child the predictable sense of having their needs met that builds self esteem, if, when they are with the child, they are paying very close attention to the child’s needs over time.  This is why co-operative parenting is so important, working together, parents can come in and out of a child’s life and still build and maintain that sense of being welcome in the world that is so crucial for children.  A parent who comes and goes as he or she pleases however, constantly interrupting or disrupting a regular routine at their own personal whim, is NOT offering the child what the child needs but simply taking what they as adults need.  This kind of absenteeism, is detrimental to children and eventually creates such uncertainty that the child begins to wonder whether they have done something to deserve it.  Children in these circumstances will blame themselves and not the parent for the distress that they feel.

Recently I have been discussing with colleagues the issue of fathers who walk away because they don’t want to be dictated to by the child’s mother.  The kind of circumstance in which the mother is dominating the parenting agenda and is unable to allow the father to parent effectively by himself.  There are indeed some mothers who will go to extreme lengths to control what the father is doing so unable are they to allow him to parent as he is able to or as he would wish to. These are particular cases in which there are elements of alienating behaviour in the mother, which was likely to have been present BEFORE separation as well as after.

There are other cases however of fathers who are quite simply not invested in their children and for whom putting children first in terms of their needs as central to the role of parent, is an anathema.  There are also many cases of mothers who parent in such a way that their needs come before the child’s, only we do not pay very much attention to those cases at all, because mothering, in our culture, is synonymous with sacrifice, nurture and care (something I also intend to write about this year).

But this post is about parents who are not invested after separation and about how we help children to cope with the parent shaped hole that opens up when the other parent is not there by choice.  In the absence of the right to go to court to make a parent be a parent, what can we do to help children?

The major thing we must do is to help the child to understand that the absence of that parent is not their fault.  That it is not because they are not good enough or not loveable enough that the other parent cannot or will not be there.  Resisting the urge to over compensate, it is vital that we allow our children to understand at an age appropriate level, that the other parent is simply not giving the kind of good enough attention that children need.  Rather than saying that a parent is no good however, we need to find a way to let our children know that good enough parents are there for their children on a regular basis and that they put children’s needs before adults needs.  Gentle reassurance that the child has other good enough people around them who can offer the love that the missing parent is unable to offer, is a way of buoying up the child’s sense of self.  Central to the task of helping children however is naming for them the reality of what is happening. Far better to say that dad/mum is not acting in ways  that the child needs or deserves, than make excuses that eventually to a child sound hollow and defensive of the other parent.  Acknowledging the child’s sadness, loss and disappointment will eventually allow the child to come to a place of understanding that this is not about them, its about what the other parent cannot offer. Focusing on the behaviours of the parent rather than making it about them being a good or bad person, means that is always possible for the other parent to demonstrate change.

Absence by choice is a tough reality for a child to grow up with but it is possible for them to grow up with confidence and self esteem if the parent that they do have is able to be confident and calm when they deal with the issue of the other parent’s role in the child’s life.  Unfortunately, for too many parents, the only help that they can get after separation is based upon stereotypes rather than what they really need.  The ‘single parents you’re brilliant’ strapline being a prime example of how upholding parental rights misses the point of what so many single parents really need, which is support around how to help children.  Similarly, the fathers lobby, in their concentration upon equal parenting, legal changes and justice, overlook the reality that for some children, fathers (and mothers) are absent by choice and that this has devastating consequences for children.

Collectively and co-operatively, we need to brave enough to look within our binary and polarised parental rights approaches for the reality of what our children face when their parents separate. We need to recognise that building services upon stereotypes and majority need, leaves some families floundering without help.  Only when we do this can we call ourselves whole family, child focused practitioners.  

In considering famiy separation, we need to look at what is missing in our conscious awareness, to ensure that we plug the gaps in support to parents for whom the absent parent question does not often get answered.


  1. It isn’t quite fair to say that the fathers’ groups deny that some fathers choose not to be part of their children’s lives. They are set up to support fathers who do not choose this, so it is fair to say that they ignore and do not discuss irresponsible fathers, but not that they deny their existence.

    The F4J document Family Justice on Trial, which is also reproduced in O’Connor’s book and formed part of the F4J submission to the Norgrove panel, is honest about the issue, “No one can deny that some men walk away from their responsibilities”.

    While I accept that the article is more concerned with how to fill “the dad-shaped hole”, something dear to my heart, it is important to emphasise that there is a paucity of research into absent fathers and it is therefore very difficult to ascribe motive to an individual father’s absence – we simply don’t know. I am sure some fathers ARE irresponsible, but I can’t prove it; similarly, I am convinced that a culture that tells dad he is irrelevant and non-essential plays its part. Irish Times columnist and campaigner John Waters writes, “I do not suggest that Irish men never walk away from their children. But even those who do so cannot be said to have made free choices: to some extent, they follow a pattern dictated less by individual conscience than cultural conditioning. A society that honoured fatherhood would not have this problem.
    A society that makes it almost impossible for men to stay in the lives of their children has no right to judge those who choose footlooseness and alienation rather than insanity and despair”.


  2. There are some really helpful points in here, Karen, which I shall use with both my own daughter and my stepson – thank you.


  3. From many, many conversations I have had, there appears to be a very widespread assumption across many levels of society that the primary male duty is to be a bread winner – an earner. The male responsibility as CARER – is widely considered an optional extra…even these days.

    With responsibility having been so long polarized like this, and clearly continuing even up to today with so many, it is little wonder that men in general have been so invested in their identity as earners above all else. In the balance when weighing up the kind of decisions involved in leaving…the pressure from society has overwhelmingly been towards men focusing on this economic aspect of their lives…and the pressure towards responsibility for being physically present can be almost absent. Especially when there are some difficulties in regard to this (and which relationship has no issues whatsoever?) – but even perhaps when there have been none of particular severity – the economic imperative in a man’s life can be overwhelming.

    How many of the cases you describe can be attributed largely to this factor – who knows…but surely it must be many? Geographically long distant relationships are very hard to maintain. Immediacy wins out almost every time.

    For those of us who wish to be involved with parenting our children, and are being prevented from doing so – this issue can also be a big factor. There is enormous prejudice against our being involved with our children by many OTHER people as well – because of the belief that it is NOT, as men – what we should be concentrating on.

    So the two issues (of absence or presence) run inseparably side by side, in my opinion.


    1. Woodman, what would your advice be to parents bringing up children where the other parent isn’t interested?


  4. Where and how do fathers learn the principles of being a good parent that you refer to? There’s no obvious font of know-how or learning that I know of other than through observation. Some may know them instinctively from their own upbringing. Others will be less fortunate and need to be taught or trained. It’s not right that people, particularly politicians like Cameron, disparage fathers as feckless when these men may simply not have had the opportunity to acquire or learn those sound principles.


    1. Isn’t the desire to put ones childrens needs before your own something we all have instinctively, or do we learn it? But the blog is about childrens needs when a parent is not there by choice, what are your thoughts on that, how do we help those children?


      1. I think we observe altruism in our own parents (I am fortunate in coming from an intact family) but I think the desire to look after one’s own children is largely innate as we see this right across nature. Where men are, generationally, growing up without fathers or suitable male role models in a tough environment where families are composed mainly of young single mothers with unplanned children, perhaps of varying origin, altruistic instincts in male partners may not be wholly present. A lot of these relationships also appear transient. How can those children he helped to adjust normally is difficult to say but education has to be considered. Staffing the schools with male teachers might be a starting point but from what I hear men who specialise in teaching young children are fast becoming a scarce breed in some parts. My sister teaches young children. She tells me every single pupil she looks after comes from a broken home or family with social services involvement. Some children grow up to recognise what they missed in their own parents and so determine not to make the same mistakes themselves. These are the resilient ones.


      2. I think we observe altruism in our own parents (I am fortunate in coming from an intact family) but I think the desire to look after one’s own children is largely innate as we see this right across nature. Where men are, generationally, growing up without fathers or suitable male role models in a tough environment where families are composed mainly of young single mothers with unplanned children, perhaps of varying origin, altruistic instincts in male partners may not be wholly present. A lot of these relationships also appear transient. How can those children he helped to adjust normally is difficult to say but education has to be considered. Staffing the schools with male teachers might be a starting point but from what I hear men who specialise in teaching young children are fast becoming a scarce breed in some parts. My sister teaches young children. She tells me every single pupil she looks after comes from a broken home or family with social services involvement. Some children grow up to recognise what they missed in their own parents and so determine not to make the same mistakes themselves. These are the resilient ones.


  5. “But this post is primarily about what happens to children when parents leave or are ambivalent or do not show up on time or do not show up at all or, as in some cases, simply disappear. What impact does that have on children and how can we help parents who are literally left holding the baby, to help their children to cope?”

    I admit to struggling with the reality of this statement because I have seen many parents apparently give up parenting in the face of opposition to their desire to retain their position as parent to their children.
    A case in point was a father I saw on the Jeremy Kyle show. He is there to prove that he is the father of a sixteen year old girl who has been raised by another man. Even though the real father is proven through DNA test in front of everyone on the Show the teenage girl vehemently and aggressively rejects the biological father. The surrogate father re-assures the teenager and fully supports the teenager’s rejection of the real father. Along with the mother, Jeremy Kyle and his entourage of “experts” and an audience baying for blood the so called “absent father” is told how he is not worthy to be the father. The real father’s only support comes from his new partner.
    Nobody seems to comprehend why father isn’t on his knees begging for forgiveness from his estranged daughter. This is because they lack emotional intelligence. For those of us who don’t understand the meek, seemingly inquisitive rather than beggingly apologetic attitude that Mr. Kyle demands I suggest further reading. (Ref: The Prodigal Father by Mark Bryan, an epic tale of the effects on a man’s emotions when faced with his partner’s rejection and the resultant devastating effect on his relationship with his son).

    There are many more cases I have witnessed in which a father (and sometimes a mother) becomes emotionally detached and estranged from their children against their will. Some will tell you, in the face of opposition that it was in the best interests of the child…………….but that doesn’t mean to say that they have lost interest in the child nor that they still don’t love the child. Essentially they have suppressed their emotions (love of child) in order to continue functioning in a practical way.
    A man once put it to me this way. “Every so often when I have time to daydream I metaphorically open the draw that contains my children and we may play a little, but when the pain of my loss wells up inside me I close the drawer again and return to reality”
    These parents who have experienced long term detachment from their children are in a desperately sad place. On the surface they may appear cheerful, but in their minds is an emotional detachment waiting to be healed. Just as their children suffer from an absent parent so too the parent suffers this loss.
    Another parent who asked whether I thought their father loved them (he had recently died). I had never met the father but I had heard some of their story through his daughter’s eyes (now in her 40’s). Once detachment from the child has taken place (especially where it has been reinforced by others) the estranged parent finds it extremely difficult to re-engage.
    In some cases re-engagement takes place when the other parent encourages it and portrays the estranged parent in a good light. (This is less likely to take place when the parent who has brought up the child has led them to believe that the other parent simply ran away or was “not fit for purpose”)
    There is a lot of healing to be done. Many thanks for caring.

    Kind regards


  6. Great post Karen! An important and overlooked subject, which I am sure applies to intact families as well. I think from fiction we are all familiar with the disappointment of the child whose father promised to come to the football game/school play/concert, but yet again does not. As long as the family is intact this kind of behavior can to a certain extent be compensated for, but once the family breaks down that extra effort of seeing the children will just not happen. I know a couple of mothers who are in this situation, in neither case has the father walked away completely but is unreliable regarding seeing the children. Both mothers find this very frustrating and both have taken on the responsibility of keeping the children in touch with the extended paternal family, in particular grandparents. Thus at least those wider family bonds in these cases do not suffer as a result of the fathers’ ambiguity towards their children.

    I think you are very right the best way to address it is to help the child acknowledge that their parent’s behavior is deficient rather than think that their parent is bad. A fine line to tread, but with a conscious effort a possible one. As you say the help for parents in this situation is unlikely to come from the single mum groups or the the father’s rights groups, neither of whom are very prepared to widen their perspective beyond what they perceive to be the problem.


    1. Thanks for your comments Kat, useful to hear about the ways in which some mothers continue to keep the bonds between the children and paternal family intact. I know from personal experience the issue of the ambivalent father, also of the disappearing father, it is helpful to hear of other families where this happens. My major concern is about how we help children, it always has been, I don’t think we can unless we are able to look at the whole and not just pieces of the whole.


  7. It is once again apparent, on reading responses to this post, how difficult some people find it to beliee that some parents just do not care, or care in sort of hot and cold way, or sometimes, quite simply, disappear. But they do, I can attest to that and, over the years, in my work as a project worker for one parent families, I did much work around the ambivalent ‘other’ parent. There is research out there about these issues and not all by feminist researchers either. Christine Skinners excellent book ‘Absent Fathers?’ Takes an indepth look at the lives of dads who are not involved in their childrens lives and my own work on isolated lone parents also involved examination of families where fathers were not present through choice. This is a small group within the overall whole, which is exploited by the single parent lobby group to demonise fathers, but it does exist, as do mothers who walk away or who are not interested in being parents. Unpalatable and difficult as it feels to contemplate this, unless we do, we leave some children and their families without the help that they need which is why I am writing about it and why we will be writing about it more in the coming months on our new online hub.


    1. Hi Karen…it’s not that we do not believe that fathers might “not care”, but that there is the suspicion this “not caring” might in fact be a deep and complex phenomenon which may be very difficult to unpack. I’ve had a quick look at the kinds of books available…and as you say, there is not really been that much research been done on it – and of that which has – how much has really been able to get to the bottom of it? I can’t imagine that these type of men will be able to be particularly forthcoming or self aware…except for the rather rare type as described by Anonymous above.


  8. Long time no see Karen, Hi, hope you are well.

    Yes it would be impossible to disagree with your posting here, for it is inevitable that some parents do indeed withdraw from their children’s lives, who could argue with that. However, there are hundreds, if not thousands of fathers out there, who have withdrawn from their responsibilities out of sheer frustration and a feeling of desperation at a family court system that seems hell bent in making sure they feel that way. Some fathers stick with the battle to stay in their children’s lives and may last it out till the bitter end, unfortunately many give up at the second hurdle and I can tell you understandably so. I know Karen that you are not referring to such parents in your reasoning here, but those that just don’t want to know and probably don’t care either, they just turn their backs and leave after a breakup or divorce. And yet I feel that it is possible that even these still retain the love they originally had for their children in spite of walking away. My reasoning for this is that perhaps they had no intention whatsoever in becoming embroiled in a fight within an a court arena that they may have come to know as: “The last chance saloon.” The saloon where dads don’t stand a chance and all the hired guns are faster on the draw than they are and the head sheriff wants to run you out of town as fast as he can. Having gone through the horror of this saloon (The family courts) for 5 years, my advice now to any dad that wants to see his kids is, (and I’m sorry to have to say this) is: just walk away and just hope that some day your kids will coming looking for you. Yes many parents walk away completely, we may never really know why, is it foresight about the pain they don’t want to suffer in the courts? Could it be because they have come to a psychological state where they are just so down and fed up of trying to reason with their ex that they have to protect their own sanity by taking that walk, a walk that they don’t really want to take in other circumstances but those they find themselves in? No one has the right to judge these parents, not unless you know the individual circumstances you don’t. I feel that family life is in free fall and it is getting worse, the courts have made it that way by encouraging a fatherless society, I will not be persuaded to believe anything else. I know many parents who have given up on the very children they love, they live with it everyday of their lives, they are not supermen, they do not have the strength to go on any longer, and if they did they just know they would probably go insane. Our kids need the love of both parents, they need nurture and care and should come first. And yet speaking for myself I am thinking of walking away, for If I don’t I will be no good to my son, if he should come looking, and no good to myself! Now you may know why many walk away, TO SURVIVE!


    1. Hi Paul, hope you are well too, thanks for your comments, what would you do to help children who have parents who have just walked off because they are not interested? Its how we help those children that interests me in this blog discussion. Very best K


  9. Dear Karen

    A slight disagreement if I may?

    As a father who has been denied access over 12 years off embittered struggle, and as an F4J activist, I and Matt O Connor have publicialy acknowledged the fact that, of course some men walk away from their children. For F4J to suggest otherwise would be silly, for that’s life. Shame on these men, but that’s the way it is.

    F4J simply advocate that there should be no barriers preventing normal, decent, loving man and women from having relationships with their children. This has always been our position, officially and in private. No society is perfect, but government should support those of us who want to do the right thing, as opposed to tarring us all with the ‘bad dad’ label.

    I hope this clarifies F4J’s position, one I’ve always maintained cannot be faulted on grounds of principle and equality and common sense.

    Darryl, F4J


    1. Ok so I focused upon f4J and Gingerbread as the two polarised positions and that was probably naughty of me but the reality is that in the middle of these two positions are a group of parents and their children with absolutely nowhere to go for help in supporting their children. I am not attacking either F4J or Gingerbread here, each upholds faultlessly the cause that they set out to highlight though I think Gingerbread win out over F4J in the stereotyping wars given that they have succeeded in making the ordinary person in the street believe that all dads are absent by choice and it is necessary to tackle that imbalance which F4J does very well.

      But this is about how to help those children whose parent walks away because they are not interested. what are your thoughts about that?


      1. I have no response to that which is even going to come close to what you’ll be able to offer; there I am entirely in your hands, I defer to you and Nick on that issue. How sad. That this concurs out if choice is as alien to my instincts as child abuse.



      2. Sadly Darryl, it happens, I like Nick’s response as a therapist, its close to how I work with these children and those of us working with children and families need these tools in our tool boxes because we have to do what we can in these circumstances. K


  10. Keep up the mindfulness, Karen, it’s bearing fruit already in your blog, which is becoming gentler while still remaining clear and insightful. And if you do achieve enlightenment any time soon, please stay around as a compassionate bodhisattva to help the rest of us who are still floundering in the mire…

    Seriously, this compassionate mindfulness points to a very different kind of personal politics from the kind built around self- and group- empowerment and the assertion of rights. As a father who has been excluded from the life of my child, I don’t find it easy to acknowledge that there are fathers who don’t want to be present to their children. I feel as though I’m betraying the cause and leaving our flank open to attack by our enemies. But it is precisely these considerations that make the Gingerbread feminists so entrenched in their positions on the other side of no-man’s-land. And it is children who get caught in the crossfire.

    Moreover, this pressure-group argy-bargy is offputting to onlookers, who are likely to come to the conclusion that both sides are to blame, that neither side is willing to face uncomfortable truths.

    If only we could move beyond it. But doing so can be very costly. Admitting my own shortcomings as a parent (acting under enormous pressure) didn’t do me much good in court, whereas my ex-wife’s rigid self-righteousness seemed to impress the professionals, even the judge. Still, she has lost important friendships as a result of how she behaved in court, and who knows what conclusions our daughter will come to when she is old enough to think things through for herself. Maybe we should be less focussed on getting immediate results – the results we get in the longer term may not be ones we bargained for…


    1. Daddy H U, thank you for your comment, I am glad that you can feel the mindful vibes coming through, I don’t suppose enlightenment is easy to achieve but paying attention and observing how I and others act and react is certainly helping me to think deeply and perhaps as you say be more gentle with myself and others. I think too the pressure group argy bargy as you put it is something I have very much tired of. I want to help people as much as I can. I know that my polemical writing helps people because they write to me and tell me so but I want to offer more than that this year. I want to offer a place and a space where we can work together, as men and women who have suffered, but as men and women who can also help and heal. I hope you will stay with us as we unfold this journey DHU. K


  11. As Woodman above says, it’s a deep complex phenomenon. Those fathers who are absent from their children’s lives need to be understood.

    The danger in accepting that there are some men and some women that walk away from their families without a care in the world (I don’t accept this view myself), is that you play into the hands of the single parent brigade and those who feel justified in blaming one parent for not being around.

    Surely it’s best to understand every situation and try to make the whole family function better. One parent may need more specialist help than the other but this is not beyond our capability.

    A friend of mine, a man on his second marriage who is a great caring father to his child has two daughters from a previous relationship whom he never sees. You can not label this man as feckless based on his current relationship, but you can bet your bottom dollar that the woman from his first marriage will be telling all those who care to listen that this very same father is a feckless one.

    The problem is the breakdown of communication between the parents and their inability to recognise how the children lose out when the parents cannot find a way to share in the children’s upbringing.

    If one parent chooses to apparently run away then that is a problem in itself, but I am not convinced that having brought a child into the world that a parent isn’t at least intrigued at the prospect of producing someone who has their genetic fingerprint. Some women do not want the real father to be the one they would like for the role, others wish to conceal the true father of their child because it is not the biological one of their married partner. From the moment of conception children can be led the merry dance of “whose your father” and reluctant fathers can feel tricked into a fatherhood they never intended. Nevertheless once paternity has been proved I can’t contemplate a father that wouldn’t feel some primeval instinct to connect to his child in some nurturing capacity. Granted this may not be obvious, and he may enter a period of denial, but I suspect he has a desire to parent on his own terms.

    Call me naive!

    Kind regards


    1. Not naive, I am just interested in what you think needs to be done to help the children whose parent has left and is not interested, many words on the why, not much on the what can we do.


  12. There is a prevalent attitude in society today where fatherhood itself is undervalued, if not quite regarded as insignificant altogether. This is particularly espoused by those on the left but never counteracted by others who ought to know better. Thus you get blatant bias against men, for example a home secretary who regarded family separation as a “positive development” that “improved women’s choices” or the police being allowed to get away with their unwritten “arrest the male” domestic violence policy or family law judgments where politicians have stood idly by in over twenty years’ worth of Children Act judgments that have seen those fathers who positively want involvement, held back and firmly stereotyped as the supplementary “contact” parent with inadequate time awards to suit their inferior status. Is it any wonder then why men don’t face up to their responsibilities as fathers.

    Walking away is arguably a rational response to all of that. Given that we are where we are, there is little point in a simplistic, Cameron-style analysis that simply blames men as feckless with calls for them to be hounded. It requires a shift in paradigm now and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. A few more riots might help. Meanwhile, as individuals, we do what we can on a micro level, in our own actions as fathers and by speaking out to others.


    1. I don’t think anyone here is being simplistic when we write about the impact on children when a parent walks away, we are trying to offer help to a group of parents and children who are not able to access that from the mothers or fathers groups. What is about that which is so wrong do you think? Should those children not be helped? Should those parents who are coping not be able to talk about their experience and get help to help their children? I see a lot of discussion going on this morning about why those parents might walk away but not much at all about how to help children, why is that?


  13. I agree with Woodman59: the posters here are not denying that fathers disengage, but speaking entirely for myself I believe we are on very shaky ground if we try to attribute motive in such a poorly researched area; this is “a deep and complex phenomenon which may be very difficult to unpack”. Some time ago I exchanged correspondence with Jonathan Bradshaw – co-author with Christine Skinner of Absent Fathers – and he confirmed the lack of research since 1998 and indeed put me in touch with Christine to check he hadn’t missed anything. One reason for the lack of research is that those commissioning it (usually governments) assume they know why fathers disengage and that research is therefore redundant.

    In my own family my three children/step-children have 6 disengaged biological parents/step-parents between them, and you can take that up to 7 if you include the nearly 8 years I was prevented from having contact with my son. All are “absent” – such a pejorative term – for different reasons and to different amounts; some have been very involved parents before disengaging. I would not presume to speak for them in speculating about why they are absent; my job is to do what I can to fill the dad-shaped holes.

    Better than filling these holes would be to stop them being carved out of our children in the first place, and we can only begin to do that if we first try to understand what causes parents to disengage.


  14. I totally ‘get’ what each of you are saying about ‘absent’ fathers but each of you are making the same point – that there has to be a reason why fathers (and some mothers) walk away. You are scared that if we accept that some fathers (and mothers) simply do not care, that we are ‘playing into the hands of the single parents lobby.’

    That single parent lobby uses EXACTLY the same approach when they are scared that they are going to play into the hands of the fathers rights lobby – they always say that there ‘has to be a reason why mothers stop contact’….

    We know that the truth is that some mothers stop contact because they can, because they are more focused on their own beliefs, needs and drivers than their childrens.

    And so the truth of the matter is that some fathers (and mothers) walk away, because they are more interested in their own beliefs, needs and drivers than those of their children.

    Sometimes it is just enough to accept that some parents are simply not interested in being parents, or that they want to be parents but only on their own terms, not the terms dictated to by virtue of being a parent.

    The fact is chaps that ‘absent’ parents in the true meaning of the word absent – ie: not there…and by choice…do exist and my interest, in this post, just as when we discuss the impact on children when mothers deny contact, is quite simply the impact of that on children, not the reasons why such parents have chosen to not be part of their childrens lives.

    To fail to do that is to leave a group of parents and children without the help that they need and being a whole family, child focused practitioner, I am thinking about elements of my practice that I may at time overlook.

    Its hard to swallow I know, but it happens and when it does, the impact on a child is ghastly. How to help children when that happens is what this post is all about.


    1. Some absent parents who walk out of there child’s life have no reason ! Apart from they just don’t care about there child ! And only care for there own self needs !!!! What about the child they have left behind ! Who doesn’t understand why there absent parent does not want to be a part of there life’s ! 😡 This is very sad !! And if you make a child in the first place , you should be there for your child always !!! Your child must come first in any situation 😡 !!! They are the ino cent ones !!!!😡


  15. The work that I have done with separated families over the last 15 years does, indeed, tell me that many fathers who ‘walk away’ do so because of the structural barriers that prevent their ongoing parenthood. These range from a general under-valuing of fatherhood at one end of the spectrum to financial and legal discrimination at the other.

    My original motivation for working in this field was a need to understand – and a burning desire to change – a world that seemed set up to exclude me as a father when my family separated. All of the years of working with separation have served only to increase my understanding that the barriers that fathers face in continuing their parenting are, more often than not, are immense.

    However, I also work with mothers who would like nothing more than for their children’s dad to be present. Mum’s who are left, and are left to do all of the work of bringing up their children. I also meet dads who really aren’t that interested or who are more interested in pursuing a relationship with another woman than with maintaining a relationship with their children.

    To deny this as a reality seems to me to risk doing exactly the same as the single parent groups do – presenting only one experience to the exclusion of the other.

    I think the danger for fathers like me, fathers who are motivated by an experience of being pushed out of their children’s lives or fathers who have had to fight to remain involved, is that we base all of our thinking and all of our reasoning on our own personal experience. We are also in danger of surrounding ourselves with people who share our experience and confirm our world view for us.

    Karen is absolutely right in her belief that it is the duty of every practitioner who works with families (as opposed to those who campaign on behalf of one particular experience) to challenge our assumptions and work with all of the different experiences that exist.


  16. ps This is an article I wrote on the subject which I hope parents in this position may find helpful:

    In most cases, both parents will remain involved in a child’s life after separation. Sometimes, both parents remain very closely involved in their children’s lives. In other cases, one parent provides most of the care with the other parent being less closely involved. But sometimes, a parent chooses to walk away from their child completely.

    This can happen for many different reasons. Sometimes, it’s because that parent simply isn’t interested in bringing up a child. Sometimes, it’s because the separation was acrimonious and they felt it was too difficult to stay involved. Sometimes, it’s because of reasons such as alcohol or drug misuse. Sometimes, it’s simply because a parent has no model of engaged parenting.

    As the remaining parent, you may feel let down and angry. However, it’s entirely possible that you feel relief at not having to have any kind of relationship with your child’s other parent. However you feel about it, the absence of a parent can create some difficult emotions for your child and, if these are not addressed, it can lead to more serious long term problems for your child.

    Common problems
    Children who have never known one of their parents or where one of their parents has walked away will often fantasise about that parent. They can imagine that this parent is perfect; the most perfect parent there could be.

    Children can believe that they are responsible for the parent’s absence. They can feel guilt and shame and believe that the absence must be a result of something that is wrong with them.

    Children who are shielded from the truth can blame the remaining parent for the absence of their other parent.

    How should I deal with it?
    When children lose a parent, it is exceptionally painful for them. The feeling can be very similar to that of bereavement. However, if children are going to deal with the loss, they must know the truth and be allowed and supported to grieve, in much the same way as if there had been a death. By processing those difficult feelings, children can begin to deal with the loss.

    In telling your children, you must consider their ages. How you tell a 9 year old will be different to how you tell a 3 year old. Try to use words and concepts that they will be able to understand. However, the basic message should be ‘dad or mum has chosen to move away and not be part of our lives any more. I am sad that s/he has chosen not to be in your life and I know that you will be sad too but there is nothing that you or I can do to change that. It is not your responsibility or your fault.’ Make sure that your tone of voice is gentle and understanding.

    It’s important to offer children as much reassurance as you can. Younger children may fear that you may disappear too, so keep telling them that you love them and will always be there for them. Be prepared for anxieties when you drop younger children at school or nursery – again offer plenty of reassurance. Also be prepared for some regressive behaviour – possibly wetting the bed, wanting extra cuddles, sucking thumbs etc. Try to be patient around these things, they will stop when your child feels more secure.

    Wanting to know about their other parent
    As children reach adolescence, it is not uncommon for them to want to know more about their other parent. This is because, at the age they are, they are curious about who they are in order to unconsciously work out who they will become as an adult.

    If you have been doing all of the caring for many years without any support, it can feel hurtful when your child is suddenly fascinated by their other parent. Try to be patient around this natural curiosity. You don’t need to sing the other parent’s praises but, equally, remember that your child will experience their other parent as being a part of them and so it is important to remain, at least, respectful about them if at all possible.

    If you are able to offer something just a little positive about their other parent, this can help. Once your child’s curiosity has been satisfied, their interest is likely to reduce. Remember, your relationship with your child will not be threatened by this curiosity even if it may, at times, feel like it.


  17. Though a study of English or British social history will no doubt confirm that society has always thrown up examples of absent fathers, I doubt very much that it has ever existed on anywhere near the scale seen today. It is now regarded as a recognised social phenomenon in itself, drawing all kind of adverse comment from right across the political spectrum. As such, the problem can be studied methodically but I’ve not heard of any studies or real research into the problem. Until that’s done, it’s too simplistic to say it comes down to bad character. Why are so many fathers disinterested or refuse to engage with their progeny? A working hypothesis indicated by here is the ripple effect stemming from the decline of marriage – an institution which binds the married man to his children – and the effects of broader social policy which one could loosely describe as social bias against men generally. To me, that’s a better starting point for discussion though it doesn’t excuse the individual’s callous behaviour.


    1. But the discussion is about the impact of what happens to children when a parent is not interested, not why a parent is not interested. Why is it that you are avoiding what I have actually written about I wonder?


    2. It is difficult to generalise other than mouthing platitudes. When a parent leaves or isn’t there, it falls to the parent with care in the first instance to fill the physical, emotional and financial void that is left. An astute parent would presumably elicit the support of others too so the child can mature as normally as possible. I imagine one would have to be particularly sensitive to factors such as self-esteem and self-confidence so the child doesn’t lack in self-worth.


      1. Thank you Paul, all things that I too think are important. These things are all within our shared ability to offer help and its that which I think we offer when we work and think together. Thank you for joining in. K


  18. Another good post, but I disagree with this comment:
    “parental rights groups concerned with fathers (F4J/FNF) will refuse to acknowledge that some dads can and DO disappear from their children’s lives.”
    From my experience there’s no denial that parents do just walk away, infact some people come to FNF seeking to involve the other parent in their children’s lives and are supported in trying to do that.
    The purpose of “parents rights” groups is to address the injustice and bias in the system which allows perfectly good and willing parents to be excluded from their chidlren’s lives. After all a parents’ rights group cannot force unwilling parents to parent their children. If neither parent will be there for their child then someone else must step in, either another relative/friend or the state.


    1. Fair enough point but the blog is about the impact on children when a parent walks away because of lack of interest, any thoughts on that?


    2. Yes, it starts very early and it’s cultural. Maternity is all about the mother. Birth, babies, toddlers, play groups and up to primary school is all about the mother. Fathers are not encouraged to get involved and are often not welcome. Just look at the cultural and media reference to small children and you’ll see that fathers are almost completely absent, or behaving like children themselves.

      When you’re constantly told you should have nothing to do with parenting other than discipline and sport or outings, it takes quite a shift in your own perception of yourself to say that you want to be a parent, with equal capacity for care and love and equal contribution to your children’s upbringing.

      I am constantly annoyed by the portrayal of fathers and men in general, on television, in children’s books and in the media. I’m always inserting Daddy & Mummy in stories I read my children instead of Mummy. Fathers are constantly dismissed as irrelevant to children, so why would they not get the impression that it won’t matter if they leave?


      1. Brian, you are still talking about WHY it happens, I am talking about what is the impact on children WHEN it happens and WHAT can we do to help children, any thoughts?


  19. I really don’t think anyone is denying the reality of the phenomenon and I certainly don’t think anyone is scared of acknowledging it – both FNF and F4J readily accept that fathers sometimes choose to have no involvement with their children, indeed they are well aware that it is a major threat to the credibility of their campaign, so I think you are setting up something of an Aunt Sally proposition.

    I don’t think, either, that anyone denies some parents simply don’t care; I’m sure most of us accept that is one reason for disengagement, but it is by no means the only one, and it is important to identify the reasons, both so we might be able to prevent disengagement in the first place and so we can best help those children whose fathers (or mothers) have disengaged.

    The same is true of understanding why some mothers prevent contact. “Because they can” isn’t actually a reason, it simply explains why they get away with it. “Sometimes it is just enough to accept that some parents are simply not interested in being parents” – not for me! I want to understand why this happens!

    It is also necessary to point out that no father can take decisions outside of the culture in which he finds himself. No father can decide to disengage outside of a culture which constantly tells him he is not necessary, and may even be a threat to his child.

    Of course we need to understand how best to care for the unfortunate children of irresponsible parents, but don’t they deserve to know why their parents disengaged?


    1. Sometimes Nick, it just is the case that parents do not want to be parents and beyond that there is no reason. Take the case of the Lesbian mother and Gay father who just wants to be a sperm donor which is being reported this week, he just does not want to be a father, he never did and I guess you can analyse why that is until the cows come home but the fact is he is simply not interested.

      I absolutely take your point that decisions are made within a culture that affects how we behave but the reality is that some parents quite simply do not wish to be parents and though it is hard to accept, we have to do so and focus not upon why they do not wish to be involved with their children but what the impact is on children when this happens.

      Because ultimately, our focus has to be on children and how they are impacted upon all of the diffferent experiences that family separation brings. How decisions that parents make are driven by outer things is something we can consider so that we can campaign to change legislation to make things easier or shape behaviour, but at the core of our focus as whole family, child focused professionals, our core driver is the impact on children and how to assist them to adapt to adult decisions.

      What we are talking about here is the difference between the narrow focus of parental rights arguments and the broader focus of the generational impact of positive and negative behaviours of parents and how that impacts upon childrens lives.

      And to avoid setting up an Aunt Sally as you put it, if you tell us where the information, advice and support for families where a parent is not interested in on F4J or FNF, or where their exhortations to all fathers and mothers to always be involved in their childrens lives are, I will gladly put that up here, as I would if Gingerbread put information up about mothers who prevent contact and why they should not do it.

      Disenagement by parents is a reality and sometimes it is because a parent simply does not care and rather than us trying to debate the nuances of that, why not focus on what it does to children when that happens, which is what this post is all about.


  20. I suppose we will have to agree to disagree; no one denies this happens, but we have to be careful when making generalisations about why it happens.

    The question of F4J (now pretty irrelevant) and FNF has already been covered: these organisations campaign on behalf of fathers who have been excluded, not those who disengage, or for mothers who want fathers to engage, that does not mean, however, that they deny the reality of the phenomenon. I’m not familiar with FNF literature, but I’ve no reason to believe it isn’t mentioned.


    1. I’m intrigued Nick, what is it that you think we are disagreeing about? I want to talk about the impact on children when a parent disappears or is not interested, not whether this happens or not and if it does why. Are we simply focused on different things? My blog is about how to help children, most of the responses are about why this might happen or whether it does or not. I am interested in the thoughts about how we help children in these circumstances and increasingly, why that seems so hard for people to talk about. That for me is an issue in itself which is emerging this morning from the responses to the blog. Because that group of kids and the parents who are bringing them up are in a really difficult place in terms of getting the help that they need. Gingerbread don’t give it, none of the other single parent groups seem to give it and I cannot find it anywhere on FNF sites. So who helps this group of people? That’s what the blog was about.


  21. I don’t think anyone helps them – or perhaps I should say us! There seems to be a startling lack of help and support for the parents and step-parents of these children. But I don’t think anyone is reluctant to discuss it, I just think it is not sufficient to say that these disengaged parents just disappear and don’t care as if that were understanding enough, and I think the failure of governments and others to address that question is part of the problem. How are we to access the impact on children and understand how we are to help them if we don’t know what it is that has impacted on them? I only used my own family’s case to illustrate that this is not a simple case of parents not caring, some parents who are no longer involved were once involved. What changes for them, and how do we stop that? Surely prevention is better than cure? There is a very uncomfortable finding by Edward Kruk that the more involved a father is before separation the more likely he is to disengage after separation. We cannot account for that with a simple explanation that he doesn’t care.

    Moving on, again from my own experience it seems to me that how we can help children in this situation depends on many factors, including the willingness of the child to be helped. There seems to be a “window of opportunity” perhaps ending some time during the early teens, beyond which intervention is less helpful. Social services understand that adoptions work best in early infancy, and I am aware that many (is it 40%?) fail. The same seems to be true of step-parents who try to fill the dad-shaped hole.


    1. I don’t think I am saying that all dads who disappear out of their kids lives do so because they don’t care Nick. I am saying that some do disappear because they don’t care or don’t care enough to put their kids needs before their own.

      Its that group of kids that I am interested in helping. The ones whose parents don’t want to be their parent either at all or anymore. The ones who are left sitting on the sofa waiting for their dad to turn up only to find he’s gone to the pub (my own daughter) or the ones who want their dad to be dad but he’s too busy being dad to his new kids to be able to be the dad that his first children need. The dad who decides that having given his sperm he wants nothing more to do with the child (as reported this week in the Lesbian and Gay case I spoke about) or the dad that is just disappears out a child’s life never to be seen again (in this case my own father who decided six weeks before I married Nick that he wanted his own life with his new woman and so left my mother in order to go and live it. When I asked him how he thought I felt that he had put his own needs before my need and desire to have him present at a day so important as my wedding day he replied that ‘he was sorry but that’s just how it was and I would just have to get over it.’ Being an adult I did get over it but the dad shaped hole in my life is made up of knowing that he valued his own personal happiness more than his role as my father on such a special day for me which sort of renders my interest in knowing the ‘why’ he felt that way a little bit null and void. That’s only my personal experience but it echoes some others that involve younger children in families that I work with and knowing how it made me feel, I wonder sometimes just how deep that scarring goes when a parent simply doesn’t care.


      1. It actually scares me to think , what harm it has realy done to my 4yr old , that his farther he has had all is life no longer wants to be a part of his life ! Also when he walked out he took my sons two step siblings aswell , who my child’s ask’s do every day ! 😭


  22. “So who helps this group of people?” I would argue that Wikivorce helps those parents with peer-to-peer support. There are a great many parents using that forum who have found themselves – and their children – in this situation, whatever the reasoning behind the disengagement from the other parent. I am not aware of any other support organisation where parents of both genders, and from all different situations, actively support one another and talk positively about co-parenting and shared parenting, and how children benefit from them.

    The issue of disengaged parents is not new, it’s not insignificant and it isn’t going to go away. It’s a huge issue that affects many more children than we are probably aware of. It’s right that this issue is put out in the world for discussion, and so we can try to learn exactly why some parents disengage from their children. Thank you for providing the platform, Karen.

    The little research that has been done on disengaged parents (fathers) is not just sparse, but tends to only put forwards the views of the parent “left behind” (usually the mother) – as far as I am aware, there is NO research that has been undertaken to show why some parents disengage, from the disengaged parents’ perspective. Such research would give us a far greater insight. I suspect that this research will never be forthcoming.

    It is wrong to state that disengaged parents don’t care – we can not possibly know that is true of all disengaged parents. I speak to parents every day, and have spoken to a number of parents who are disengaged – they all have had different reasons for walking away, but not one of them has ever said they didn’t care about their children. It is dangerous to be presumptive about the emotions and state of minds of others.

    This issue affects me both professionally and personally. Personally, I can not fill that huge “dad-shaped hole” in my daughter’s’ hearts and lives (they are blessed to have a wonderful step-dad who shades that area in) – No matter what I do, I’m not Dad, I can’t give what Dad could, and used to. All I can do is parent consistently, keep the door open for Dad, talk about him positively, love them, support them, listen to them, validate their emotions, give them my time and attention and, for my younger daughter – work with her to help her overcome her depression, anxiety, almost-non-existent self-worth/confidence at her speed and in a way that she is comfortable with.
    What I do know is that having had a loving, wonderful father in their lives, and for then him to not be there, to not want to be involved in their lives, to put his “new” family above and beyond his children has had devastating effects on both our daughters, and has left them damaged. I hope/pray that the damage done can be slowly undone over time, and that one day Dad will want to be involved again. That door will always be open for him, be it next year, or 10 years down the line. But for my children, they (and in particular the younger one), live in a constant, perpetual cycle of grieving.

    It is the phenomenon of once previously devoted, fully engaged parents who walk away/disengage that puzzles me the most. And one I am struggling to begin to understand.


    1. I’m really struggling with the idea that ‘it is wrong to state that disengaged parents don’t care,’ quantumvaleat. This whole thread seems to have got bogged down in finding reasons why parents (by which most posts mean fathers) walk away.

      My experience tells me that most find it impossible to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of their continued parenthood. But, seriously, there are no fathers just can’t be arsed? I have to say that we must mix in different circles!

      This blog is full of people talking about what has become know in some circles as ‘contact denial’. I’d have to check, but I’m not aware of any of these comments being posted by people wringing their hands trying to find reasons and justifications for why parents ‘deny’ contact – only that something should be done and should be done now!

      There seems to be a collective denial going on here. The important question for me is why everyone seems so intent on avoiding the question at hand.


      1. Hi Nick – I don’t feel that there is any collective denial going on here.

        Fathers who absent themselves without obvious reason might simply be categorized as ‘bad’ people…but among people dealing with offenders (and the children in these cases might very well be seen as victims) – as far as I am aware in the discussion around this it is normally felt to be far more productive to move on to WHY people do the hurtful things that they do, as soon as is possible.

        When the person involved is a parent this is far more important, at least at some stage…as the child may very likely feel that the behaviour of the parent has a strong link with their own capacity to live life.

        The extremely hurtful things explained by Karen, for example, speak of a person who has missed out on a lot of essential parenting themselves, for example…which has left them without sufficient maturity to fully take on the adult role of parenting.

        The more that we can find sympathy for people who do terrible things – the more likely it is that we are to be able to come closer to coming to terms with the damage they have done.

        As far as the central question that you both want us to address – yes, that IS extremely important, but those of us who frequent this forum are not necessarily in the best position to assist with it. It is not automatically easy to help the children of other people – when our own children have been so violently torn from us.

        However, personally speaking…long before this situation became an issue for me (i.e. for the last 20 years at least) I have been arguing for us to move towards what I have called the “community family” model. This is an open family structure in which many people of all ages who are not biologically related, can share. The idea is that potentially every person who exists could be part of one…an environment where they are encouraged to give and receive nurturing alongside the biological family members.

        If this were to be developed fully – then there would no longer be any person of any age who was now isolated from a family. Those whose nurturing ability was greatest would be able to express this freely…it would be seen by a wide range of people as being best practice – and would inevitably stimulate and enable others to also to their best.

        This collective model of family, would to my mind, be the best solution for all the issues yourself and Karen work with on a daily basis.

        It is ambitious and utopian, perhaps – but for me personally, to work towards this is the best I can do. Others may feel there are other, more conventional mentoring types of support they can give, but as mentioned – we are ourselves a traumatized community…and this needs to be borne in mind when reaching out to others.


      2. Thank you for your response Woodman it is full of things which I think we can think about and use. What is interesting to me is that those who have had the opposite experience are often the very people who can find the right words and right solutions to terrible things. So, for example, my father disappeared out of my life six weeks before I got married and my daughter’s father wasn’t what you would call committed, this experience, instead of making me find it hard to empathise with dads whose kids are prevented from seeing them, meant that I understood the impact on those children of that and it drove me to work harder for those children by uncovering all of the layers of prejudice that are stitched into our culture and legislation around family separation. A traumatised community is very well placed to give solace and hope to other traumatised people because you understand the way that loss of a child feels and so you can empathically understand what the loss of a parent might feel like. That for me is about how we, as people who work in this field, can come together and help each other and this is what I have been trying to grapple with today. Thank you for joining me in that journey. K


      3. Hi Woodman. I really don’t feel that this about judging parents or not for their choices. For me, this is about acknowledging that some parents do choose to absent themselves from their children’s lives (as opposed to being forced out of their children’s lives) and ensuring that the reality for the parents and, especially, the children living with the consequences of that choice have their experiences validated and are supported to deal with the repercussions.

        What concerns me is that, in ensuring we validate the experiences of one group, we should not ignore or invalidate the experiences of another and that adults and children who need support are able to find it – whatever situation they find themselves in.

        I absolutely understand you when you say that people who have been through the trauma of having their children removed from their lives may find it difficult to offer input around a situation that is so far removed from their own experience. I do hope, however, that Karen’s blog reaches an audience with a wide and divergent range of experiences and that, in talking about family separation from different aspects will influence practice in a positive way.



      4. Nick,
        I’m certainly not in denial! I also didn’t say there were no disengaged parents at all who don’t care – I’m quite sure there are some who don’t; but as Woodman has said previously, this is a very complex issue with a myriad of different scenarios so I don’t think it is fair to generalise when we don’t know the facts.

        If me trying to understand the why in my children’s’ situation so I can support them the best I can and find the appropriate services to help them is me “wringing my hands”, then mea culpa.

        I would have thought that the why denotes the how. The why is crucial to my own children in helping them understand and being able to cope with the situation they have been left in. The why surely is important in how professionals (and parents) provide the right support for children, which is what this blog is about?


      5. Hi QV, I don’t think anyone is generalising but neither do I think we necessarily need to know ‘the facts’ of the cases where parents are not interested in their children because some parents are simply not interested full stop. Its those cases I am talking about on here, the ones where parens are not there because they cannot be bothered, because they are not interested, because they are not invested, as you said previously, there are plenty of them about.

        I don’t think you were wringing your hands though, I thought you were simply exploring the issue.

        The why though is not, for me, necessarily important in these cases. What matters for children is not why their father or mother doesn’t care but what that makes them feel. If we focus too much on exploring the why with children, we create an intellectual defense mechanism which disconnects children from their real feelings. The process for helping children in my experience is to acknowledge what the parent has done and how that makes a child feel and acknowledge that the behaviour in the parent has created that feeling. After this it is about helping the child to recognise that the behaviour displayed by the parent is not what they should expect from a parent. That allows the child to stay connected to feelings without self blaming and enables perspective that allows them to see that if the parent behaved differently they would feel differently. At all times it is about allowing children to grieve what they don’t have and what they desperately want so that feelings do not become damned up and stuck. If you, as the other parent, wants to know why the other parent is behaving as he or she is then its fair enough to explore it, but it must be done away from the child who should not be involved in that process. It is not for a child to carry the burden of why their parent cannot deliver the parenting that they need. In real terms, we don’t know why and may never know why but the why is not important when we are helping children, its the how it makes them feel and what we can do about it that matters most, that’s what this blog is about x


  23. I like this article.

    Karen always seems focused on the children, no matter what.

    It is refreshing to see these kinds of inquiry when everyone else that sticks their nose into the family is just concerned with defending the status quo, women’s rights, and how to make money.

    I don’t think anyone denies that parents walk away, but in their defense, I would say that perhaps they have been brought up to feel that whatever they could contribute is just not good enough, so why bother trying. I am actually always surprised that more fathers don’t walk away, because it is as if they have been trained to believe that their role is not just superfluous but unwanted.

    I have little respect for mothers who prevent a relationship between fathers and their children, but the mother who takes the father to court to get him involved would be a hero in my eyes. Instead of rewarding this kind of thing, though, the government continues to reward conflict.


    1. Thank you D. Yes, always about children and always trying to see things from the perspective of children and this year, trying hard to be mindful and considered in all areas of my work. As we progress towards the launch of our new family separation hub and the National Network for Separated Family Centres I am digging deep into my own soul, my own personal and professional self, so that what we create is truly about the power of the relationships between us, which is for me, where healing really begins. K


  24. Just supposing my children’s mother were suddenly to disappear for no apparent reason what would I tell them?

    Well I certainly wouldn’t say she was bad.
    Nor would I say she was deficient in any way as a parent or a person.
    I see no benefit to the children by defining myself as one who needs to judge.

    I would try to locate her with a view to understanding her motivation. If I felt she was deliberately trying to put distance between herself and her children I would offer to make amends in whatever way she chose. Was it something I said or did?

    I would help the children remember Mum’s birthday, keep photos of her in happier times around the house. I would take responsibility for her absence. Whilst trying on the one hand to ensure mother’s return I would be trying to help the children to not shoulder the responsibility of an absent former ever loving and present parent.

    Any negative press directed toward someone who has left can only be counterproductive.

    Of course the reality might be something quite different. How do you stop someone who is determined to opt out?

    If my Dad walked away on my wedding day I would feel deeply hurt, regardless of any explanations. I could only specualte about the reasons; hurt pride, jealousy, job done.

    For myself I intend to know my children until the day I die. Perhaps that’s why I am so passionate about the family.

    Kind regards


    1. I think they key thing is that negative press towards someone who has left is a natural instinct but that it needs to be kept under control. Many parents say to me that they don’t know what to say when their children express sadness that their parent doesn’t seem to care, they say that they try to make light of it or try to avoid the subject. I say that acknowledging how a child feels about a parents behaviour towards them is crucial if you want that child to grow up knowing their own mind and their own feelings. If dad is too busy to turn up or decides he is not interested anymore, then its vital that the way that this makes a child feel is acknowledged. I am talking here about the parents who do walk away or who are ambivalently connected to their children remember, not about parents who are being judge not good enough by the other parent.

      In terms of my father’s motivations in walking away, the only thing I was and am able to understand is that he valued his own personal satsifaction and desire to be with the woman he had been having an affair with, over his relationship with me and role in my life as my father. Had he walked away from my mother and explained to me that their relationship was over I could have, perhaps, felt something different. HIs choice, to leave my mother six weeks before my wedding day, walking out one day never to be seen again, said simply that he mattered more than I did. His words to me ‘you will just have to get over it’ when I did try to talk to him about what I could do about my wedding day, told me that his life, his choice and his own personal world, meant more to him than I did. For a while I blamed myself for not being able to keep my parents together, for being deficient as a daughter, for being unloveable. After a while though I realised that his choice, to leave our family after 40 years, was about the man he was and probably still is. It was not about me, it was about him. When I turned that corner, I could heal, when I healed I realised that he is just a man, born 70 plus years ago, when men were not perhaps as invested in their children. Just a man who decided that he didn’t want to be my dad. The issue for me however is that it is I and not he who is left with the legacy and it was I and not he who stood alone at the Registry office on the day I got married.


  25. A very good article. Yes there are several parents, both fathers and mothers who walk away from their responsibilities. The reasons may be myriad too. Some may be forced to even walk away because they cannot afford the legal expenditure that may help them to get a pittance of role in a child’s life and I like the way you have been careful enough to mention that too.
    This article is, primarily only about what children feel in the absence of a parent who may or may not want to be part of a child’s life.
    But I do have a concern however. What if the parent of a child whose other parent is forced out of the child’s life using biased laws as a weapon uses your advice to inculcate a child to eventually thinking that the other parent did not need them?
    How would that child know if the other parent fought tooth and nail for the child but failed? The child would grow up eventually hating, or at least believing that he/she was better off without the other parent.

    You have given an excellent advice to those parents who actually are facing the absence of a missing , non committed ,irresponsible partner or parent… but your advice may be misused as a weapon by many individuals out there to bring a child up to disregard a parent who really did try their best to be with their child by placing every need of theirs a step lower to their child’s need.


    1. Thanks for your comment Biju Mathew, I cannot see where my advice could be used to inculcate the belief that the other parent didn’t want them. If you read it again you will see that I am advising that parents comment on the behaviour and not the person and that they should acknowledge a child’s disappointment if a parent doesn’t do what a parent could or should do for a child. Now, there may well be parents who will, whatever happens, manouvre and manipulate reality for the child and they may choose to tell the child that the other parent is not doing what he/she could or should but those parents will do it anyway and will point to the other parents shortcomings regardless. They may misuse the advice I have given but I suspect that they won’t need it and definitely won’t be reading the pages of this blog.

      I am intrigued though by your last paragraph. You seem to be suggesting that by offering advice to the group of parents who ARE coping with this problem that I have somehow done something which will contribute to other parents being pushed out? What is it that makes you feel that? Is it that this group of parents has been acknowledged and supported or is it that someone who writes about how parents are pushed out should not also be writing about parents who are not interested in their children?

      In this polarised field, it is clear that not being on one side or the other is a really difficult place to be. Something akin to being the child of two separated parents perhaps.


  26. A parent who walks out on a child’s life may feel that they are unwelcome or that they see better prospects in far off places or desire relief from the mental anguish they are suffering.

    If a parent walks out of our lives then we have to find them. If a child is young then this responsibility rests on the shoulders of the resident parent. Then when we have found them we have to talk to them and listen to them. If they don’t tell us what we would like to hear then we have to explore why the parent might be saying something we don’t agree with.

    This is not an easy task because we are hurt by the parent leaving us. What we would like them to say and what they do say are different.

    Nobody can undo the past but we can reconnect if the desire and motivation are strong enough.

    There is always a reason why we do things, leave children behind, make breakfast, shout at the ex who has upset you. As therapists it is not our job to label people according to their actions but to create a healthy environment which makes healing possible. In our minds we may wrestle with the past, but it is our present moments and the way we behave toward each other that open the doors into endless opportunities.

    Kind regards


    1. Someone, I cannot agree with you that when a parent walks away it is somehow the responsibility of the resident parent to go and find them and find out why. Some parents walk away and their choice to do that is their choice not our responsibility. As therapists working with children whose parents walk away it is not our responsibility either to find out why a parent has walked away but to help the child to cope with what that makes them feel. No-one is talking about labelling parents, we are talking about naming feelings and acknowledging for a child how the actions of a parent makes a child feel. If we do this then healing for a child is possible because they stay connected to their real feelings and they understand that some people in the world will behave in ways that hurt but it does not mean that they are the cause of it. Finding reasons why parents walk away is the task of adults and if adults want to pursue that then they can but sometimes some parents walk away simply because they are not interested and al lthe questioning in the world is not going to change that. It is not the role of the parent who is left caring for the child to take responsibility for what the parent who leaves has done, it is the parent who leaves who is responsible for that. The parent left caring alone is only responsible for taking care of the child’s needs and the impact of what has happened upon the child. That is the healthy environment that the child needs to heal, one in which the people who do care and are still there are able to acknowledge and sit with the reality of what has been done.

      Your response to this makes me wonder what your motive is for telling parents that they must go and find the other parent and find out why they have left. Is it that you believe that all parents who walk away must have done so because the other parent has pushed them away. Or is it because you cannot bear the thought that some parents simply do not care?

      We must sit with the reality that some parents are absent by choice and what that makes us feel inside to discover what our motives are and as therapists who work with children, I would argue that the only thing that matters when we work to support children in these circumstances is how a parents disappearance makes them feel and what we can do to enable them to understand that its not their fault.


  27. The problem of father absence ought to be acknowledged more openly in the health service. The NHS could provide help to a mother given the potential mental health implications for the child. Yet where is this help and just how qualified are doctors and nurses to assist? It seems to me that both recognition of the problem and the means to deal with it from the child’s standpoint are lacking.

    From my own case, what I found with the NHS is an appalling ignorance of a child’s true needs. NHS doctors made multiple referrals to social services on the strength of the mother’s false allegations against me. Yet it was eventually found by a forensic child psychiatrist appointed at court, that my child, far from being abused by me, was showing signs of emerging alienation. When the truth came out these same doctors then did precisely nothing to retrieve a situation they had partly caused. They were completely ignorant of the issues. And the mother’s pattern (of extreme control) continues to this day, manifested in a different way.

    Just how competent, therefore, is the NHS in providing decent psycho-social support to a mother when the father has walked away? Ought this not to be something the NHS should be thinking about since father absence is now such a mainstream issue? What about support from social services too? Perhaps that’s a step too far as it’s probably wiser to keep well away from children’s services!


    1. Not competent at all Paul, not at all and it is clear from your experience how much false allegations are accepted by Dr’s but alienation reactions are not. We are working on educative programmes for the NHS around the issue of alienation, its a slower progress than we are making with Social Workers but we will get there if we keep trying. K


  28. Dear Dad

    I have recently read on a website how some Dads leave their children behind and simply just don’t care.

    It’s been sixteen years since you left and I can still remember the last day I saw you leaving in that rusty old heap of a van you had. Mum used to jokingly call you “white van man”. It was the 29th May 1996 two days before my third Birthday. I have never been so unhappy in all my life. Of course I didn’t know at the time that you were leaving for good and even though you never said goodbye I realise it was a very painful time for you also.
    Towards the end I remember you and Mum shouting a lot and people whom I’d never seen before telling us what was best. After you had left my sadness turned to anger. I felt as though those special moments we had together meant nothing to you. You used to make me feel so good, swinging me around in the park till I was quite dizzy, tickling me affectionately in the ribs and pulling funny faces. The last book you bought me got torn in a fight I had with my brother but the remnants remain in my special box, the one with the pink lid. There have been times when I thought I might throw it away but each time I try the guilt I feel sometimes stops me and I stroke the torn pages once more returning it to its rightful place.
    I never heard from you and I don’t know why. If you did tell me then it would break my heart because surely nothing could make you leave your daughter. Over the years we have (or should I say Mum and brother J….. ) have come to expect that you won’t come back but I still hold a torch for you. I don’t really know why but this is my fifth attempt to write you a letter, it’s been such a long time I don’t know what to say.
    I don’t want to frighten you away again but if you’re still alive I’m very angry with you. Your brother Uncle Tom told me you had a new family in Australia and that you were very happy there with a new wife too. I’m in college now and studying for a degree in Tourism. Maybe we can meet up if I come over next Summer Hols.

    Your daughter

    A…………………. x


    1. Dear A,

      Thank you for your letter, I am glad that Uncle Tom told you where we live, I am very happy in Australia with my children who I suppose are your half siblings, I never really thought about it that way before!

      I am sorry but I won’t have time to meet up with you, I have a very busy work schedule and when I am not working I have to be at home with my family. I know this is difficult for you but you are a grown up now and so you should know that the reason I left you back then was because things weren’t great between your mum and me and so I decided that it would be better off if you all just got on with life without me. It sounds as if you have done ok though, studying at college and getting on with your life, maybe you could write to me now and again and let me know how you are getting on.

      Its a shame I won’t be able to meet up but perhaps we could be friends on facebook? I will send you a friend request and then we could share some photos.

      Lots of love



    2. Someone, perhaps the letter you think would come back from A would go more like this….

      Dear A,

      Oh how I have longed to hear from you, how I have missed you since that day your mother threw me out with all of my belongings. I have tried and tried to see you, longed to be with you, searched for you and done everything I could to find you. I wrote to you every week, did your mum not tell you that, what did she do with my letters. I am so happy to hear from you, I am booking a flight to come to you straight away, I have missed you so much my wonderful child, I am so happy to hear that you have missed me too.

      I will soon be with you.

      With all my love



    3. The reality is that the answer that A receives could be one or the other or a mix of both. A however, in your letter, is clearly a child who in your mind has been affected by her dad going away and not knowing why. You are starting your exercise with the premise that a child MUST know why a father has left because knowing WHY, helps her to understand.

      I suspect you are also starting from the premise that A’s dad cared about her, wanted to see her but was sent away in his van.

      How about this letter then, this time from a teenager whose father was quite simply not there for her. What would you say to this girl?

      Dear Karen,

      I don’t know if you can help me but I am writing to see whether you know what I can do to make my dad be my dad properly. I am fourteen years old and have never lived with my dad. Over the years he has sort of been there and not there, sometimes he seems to really care about me and other times he seems to be more interested in his motorbike and his friends than me. He told me last week that he is going to Germany this summer to work so he won’t be seeing me from April to October and when I got upset and said that I didn’t want him to go he told me I was being selfish and should stop putting pressure on him. I don’t want my dad to leave, I want to be able to see him every Sunday like I usually do. Sometimes on Sundays its really nice and we make cakes and a roast together but other times, when he has been out on a Saturday night, he is really grumpy and cross with me the whole day, then I want to go home to my mum because he is just horrible to me.

      Can you tell me if I can take him to court to make him be a proper dad and to stop him going to Germany, how would I do that, will it cost any money? Could you help me to tell him that I don’t want him to go to Germany and that I want him to be a nicer dad to me all the time? My mum said that she doesn’t know what to do and that I should try and get someone to help me because he won’t do as she says and anyway, when they talk to each other they just end up arguing. Can you help me please?




  29. Hi Karen, I have never commented before but have been reading your blogs for some time now as it is a subject very close to my heart.

    My story, i have a now adult son from a previous relationship, when he was 3 years old i walked away from the then family home and left my son in the main care of his dad and moved back to my parents and the start of shared parenting began. Fast forward 10 years, when my son was in his teenage years we were talking about times gone by and he said to me ” you didnt love me once”!! I dont know to this day if its something he really felt or if it was something said to him, i didnt dare ask, but i reassured my son and explained to him that it wasnt him but his dad that i didnt love anymore, he was accepting of that and im sure the conversation moved on to more light hearted banter but it still hurts me to think he thought that . Between me, my ex and my new partner and families we have co-parented my son over the years and my (our) son has turned out a very well balanced adult and one we are all very proud of and hope that no lasting ‘damage’ has been caused.

    My partners story, when we met he had a child of 3-4 years old of whom he was fighting his ex to gain contact with, eventually he sought legal advice and proceedings in court began for him to gain regular contact with his son, by now his son was 5-6 years old. My partner was granted supervised contact, my partner was reluctant for this at first but went with it as it was to be a start (or so we thought) in the right direction, at a contact centre. All was going well for about 6 months. During one of these visits his son said to him “you didnt love me once” ……….Of course my partner reassured him that he had always loved him and always will. A few weeks later, back to court, my partner was granted unsupervised contact and was to meet his ex at a mutally agreed place where “hand-over ” would take place. On the day, his son was brought by his ex’s new partner (step-dad,mother was nowhere to be seen) and his son proceeded to scream at my partner that ” he didnt want to see him and never wanted to see him”……that was the last time my partner saw his son ,10 years ago now. It went back to court and yes you guessed it…….he was advised by the judge & his solicitor to not pursue contact in the interest of his son’s welfare and walk away, one day your son will come looking for you….he hasn’t yet!

    The above is 2 different situations but an insight maybe, how our children felt regardless of how us parents behaved, amicably or not, children i think will always blame themselves but its how we go about reassuring them and proving ourselves to our children that really counts…..i have been fortunate to have a strong stable family to help & support us throughout my family break up and my son has benefitted well because of this, my partner however has not been so lucky and who knows if his son will ever come looking for him and if he will ever be able to prove his love? He has had to ‘take the high road’ for the sake of his sanity and well being!

    I would like to take this opportunity to thank you Karen, i came across your page by accident about a year ago and you have helped me understand and make sense of alot. i am a regular reader of your blogs and fully support you in all you say 🙂

    Kind Regards


    1. Hi Denise, I am so glad to hear that you find the blog helpful, I want to be helpful more than anything else and though I like to rant and discuss political issues, its the ideas and support that matters to me most of all so thank you for letting me know you are there and that it helps.

      Your comment is really interesting because you are pointing out different scenarios and the way in which the why is not really the issue, its the what it did to the children that was key. This is my point about child focused work, its what happens to children that is our core concern, not why things happened.

      But it sounds as though your son has come through and though his comment stays with you, your answer to it will have allowed him to say it, hear your answer and then move on. It is a great gift to your son to have ‘heard’ him and responded to him, my bet is that for him the whole thing is now well in the past and dealt with. As you say, its how we hear our children and reassure them that matters most.

      In my own life, in a period of change, in which my daughter felt left to cope alone and which I didn’t pay enough attention to..a schism opened up between she and I which was healed with the most banal conversation ever. We were discussing the time back then when I was distracted by adult concerns and she said to me that I stopped cooking for her and she had to make her own meals. I was offended. I started to tell her why I had stopped cooking and explain all of the adult concerns that had caused that…then I looked at her face and realised that back then she didn’t know about those concerns because I protected her from them..all she knew was that suddenly she had been abandoned to cook for herself. I put myself in her shoes and realised how abandoned she must have felt. It allowed me to focus only on her experience, the ‘what’ not the ‘why’…I said ‘you must have felt really abandoned back then, not having me there when you came in from school and missing those meals we used to eat together’….in a second I felt the schism heal..and watched the relief on her face..she had been heard and acknowledged and that was all that was needed..we went on to talk more about it but the unspoken struggle between us had gone and we were both in a place where we could give and take and empathise and understand each other’s perspective. I have never forgotten that in my life ever. Because it brought my daughter back into the close, warm relationship we had always shared. I simply stepped in her shoes and looked through her eyes, stopped my adult ‘why’ and concentrated on the ‘what’ it had done to her.

      I hope your partner’s son does come looking for him, many of them do. I understand the need to take the high road. When he does come looking for him, remember, acknowledge the loss that the child felt and feels first and let the why’s wait until the child is heard and acknowledged, that way the why becomes so much easier for a child to contemplate.

      Very best



  30. Dear SC

    I was sorry to hear that your Dad is ignoring you again. He certainly loves his motorbikes doesn’t he. I can’t imagine what it’s been like never having the chance to live with your Dad and get to know him properly. It’s quite natural to want some proper attention from your Dad. My daughter got very annoyed with me yesterday as I drove her to school. I had completely forgotten I had promised to take her to her boyfriends tonight.

    I remember a few years back when Social Services wrote a report about our family my daughter criticised me for not listening to her.

    Sometimes it’s just plain difficult to talk to people who mean so much to you. Perhaps you could talk to his mate, Larry at the garage where he works and find out what his favourite motorbike is. He might appreciate a poster or something like that, worth a try. Some Dad’s express their love through cars, bikes and stuff like that. You may have seen Top Gear on TV.

    You are right to think that Dads aswell as Mums are important. I was only thinking the other day how difficult it must be for your friend Sarah. Her Dad is away for another tour overseas at the end of April. Here is her phone number, I am sure she would love to keep in touch, you two have much in common.

    I don’t think the Courts would be able to force your Dad to become more involved because this is something personal that involves you and both your parents. Let me know how you get on and if I can help further I will.

    kind regards


    1. Dear someone,

      so your advice is that I should try and make my dad happy by giving him things, do you think that will make him like me more and not go to Germany?



  31. I would write another letter to the mother.

    I am sorry to hear that your daughter is having such a difficult time with her Dad. Her main complaint as you know is that he just doesn’t seem bothered. When I heard that she had never lived with her Dad I realised how difficult it must be for all of you as a family. It is difficult to see yourselves as a joined up family when you are separated especially as you are now living so far apart. I know you feel strongly that your daughter should have a much fuller relationship with her Dad and I am totally with you on that. I would be only to happy to talk with you over ways in which we can help them engage. A 14 year old girl has much to talk about with her Dad. This can be a challenging time for all parents.

    Kind regards


    1. Dear someone, thank you for caring about our family, we never lived together because S’s dad didn’t want to be tied down when I was pregnant and then when she was born he had met someone else and had moved in with her. I would love my daughter to have a dad who really cares about her, sadly, from what I have seen, he cares more about his motorbike than about any of his children (he has three more now). I have tried over the years to get him to do the right thing, asked him to give regular committment to her and so on but it comes and goes and now I have just exhausted my ability to keep going, the fights about his behaviour towards her are not what I want in my life and I am really worried because she has a quite serious eating disorder which seems to have started in line with my efforts to get him to be more involved. So I have given up and concentrated upon her, now I see her trying to understand and trying to get him to do what she wants and needs. He won’t, he will give her what he wants to give and when he doesn’t want to give it he won’t bother. Last Sunday she came home at 2pm in tears because he was still in bed asleep, she asked him to get up and help her to make Sunday lunch but he said he was too tired, so rather than watch tv she just came home. She was so sad. When I asked him what he thought he was doing he just told me to f off and mind my own business and if she didn’t like it that he was sleeping on his own time tough. Not sure what advice you would give in dealing with that? Should I go and beg him to talk to me, should I spend hours trying to persuade him nicely or should I just tell S that she is worth more than this? whose responsibility is it that he is behaving like this? Whose responsibility is it to help my daughter when he behaves like this?

      Best wishes

      SC’s mum.


  32. Dear SC

    Thanks for your reply.
    Sometimes Dads and Mums do things we don’t like. Dad is going to Germany for his work and as you know some Dads work away to earn a living. I know you don’t want him to go and I can understand how you would miss him. Six months is a long time to go without seeing someone you love. You are quite right that you shouldn’t have to give your Dad gifts to stop him going to Germany. Sometimes we give gifts to people hoping that something good will be returned, but it’s not always the case. At other times it is a simple demonstration of our love for each other with no conditions attached.

    Like you I feel a soft sensitive side to your Dad. You happily recall baking together. If only there could be more times like those.

    I feel frustrated on your behalf that Dad doesn’t give you more attention. Just imagine what it would be like to travel on one of those bikes.

    Kind regards


  33. Dear Someone,

    am I not worth loving? Am I not worth not going to Germany for? Thank you for being frustrated on my behalf but will that change what my dad is doing? I would love to travel on one of those bikes but my dad will never let me, he told me that last year when I asked him if I could go to one of his meetings with him.

    When we bake things together its lovely, when he gets up early and is in a good mood its great, but when he lies in bed all day, like he did last week, its horrible, it feels like he just doesn’t care. I just think that it must be something that I have done that makes him act like this, after all, he has got a job here in England, he doesn’t have to go to Germany, he is going because he wants to and he doesn’t see why having me should stop him, I know that because he told me.


    Dear SC,

    You are a wonderful young person who is sensitive and who loves both of your parents, your mum and your dad. You spend a lot of your time with mum and she makes you feel that you are important and central to her life. When you go to your dads house, he sometimes makes you feel like that but he also makes you feel as if he doesn’t care and as if you should not be upset about that.

    Parents are there to take care of their children, a good mum or dad will listen to how you feel and try to work things out with you. A dad who doesn’t listen to you or makes you feel that your feelings don’t matter, is not helping you, he is hurting you.

    You deserve to be loved for who you are and in a way that makes you feel special and cared for all of the time, not just some of the time. Your dad sounds as if he might not understand very well that what he is doing and saying to you can be hurtful. If you have tried to talk to him, have you tried telling him that you feel left out and hurt that he doesn’t take you to meetings on his bike. If you try to tell him how you feel without saying that he is bad person, he might be able to listen to you. If you have tried that and he still doesn’t listen to you, remember that it doesn’t make you a bad person, it is simply because as a dad, he does not seem able to give you what you need right now. Its not about you, its about him. You deserve to be loved consistently in ways that make you feel special and safe, if one of your parents is not doing that, its not your fault.

    Always remember that if someone loves properly they will make you feel respected and safe and they will listen to you. Sometimes important people are not able to do that but that is their problem, not yours. You will feel sad if your dad is not able to love you in that way but you should never ever blame yourself.

    Best wishes



  34. Dear SC’s Mum

    Thank you for taking the time to tell me your story. I am sorry that your relationship with your partner broke down even before your daughter was born. I feel there are many things both Mum and Dad should be contributing to a family as joint carers. Just because Mum and Dad split up it doesn’t mean to say they can’t share the care of their children and this is something you want. When you tell me communications break down very quickly when you speak to your ex this is something I can identify with through personal experience. You feel your daughter would benefit from a more stable relationship with her father.
    This cannot be easy for any of you when SC hasn’t ever lived with her father and you are taking on all the responsibility and care that should be shared. You find yourself in frustration trying to tell your former partner how to treat SC because all you hear is SC’s complaints about Dad. How do we get to a point where you parents share the parenting in such a way that you appreciate what each of you can do for your daughter? Clearly your former partner has a lot of catching up to do. He doesn’t know what he’s missing out on……all those school events, sorting out the laundry and empathising with SC’s predicaments. You don’t need me to tell you, you just want him to step up to the plate and show a bit of backbone as a Dad.
    My research tells me that the more a Dad becomes involved in a positive way the better the outcome for our children. I know when my children are with me, although I have negative feelings about my former partner it’s never a good idea to portray her as inadequate in any way because this only leads to war, and consequent anxiety for the children. In extreme cases children will side with one parent. When SC comes home in a state frustrated that Dad is lying asleep on the settee, like you I feel Dad has missed out on valuable parenting time and SC has missed out on valuable Dad time. My instinct is to say that Dad needs much more time to enable him to build a relationship with SC. However, I can understand you being fearful of the consequences him not having proven himself in the past.
    I have spoken to SC about Dad’s trip to Germany for work purposes and hope you see the value in explaining this to SC in the same light. It must be difficult for him to be leaving his daughter for six months without receiving any additional criticism from other sources.
    Moving forward I think it best we concentrate on the positives and appreciate the good things we do for each other, however small. Perhaps, as the one who has predominantly been the carer in your relationship you could start the ball rolling by thinking of three good things your former partner has done. (E.g. I can see the shared baking in the kitchen being one of them).
    No, I don’t think you should beg your Ex to take on more responsibility, begging just gives him the upper hand. I think you should massage his ego specifically emphasising what he does well as a parent.
    You ask whose responsibility his behaviour is, well it’s his of course, and you have identified it as something you want to change. If you want to change it (and who wouldn’t) it is you who has taken on the responsibility for change. I can see you respect this man and his potential value as a parent and I hear your frustrations and wish you well. Let me know how you get on.

    Kind regards


    1. It being his behaviour and his responsibility, is it not a little odd to tell SC’s mum that she should massage his ego?

      HIs ego is perhaps what is preventing him from doing what is right by his daughter.

      How much should someone bend over backwards in trying to change someone so that they are not hurting their child?

      And in advising in this way, are we not teaching a child that men require an ego massage to encourage them to change.

      Perhaps there comes a time when someone understands that all the effort that one puts in is not going to change this person. When that point is reached, its time to set boundaries.

      Boundaries are what children need most and one of the most powerful boundaries is to not allow others to act in ways that hurt you.

      This man doesn’t care, he blows hot and cold, he hasn’t got the self sacrifice necessary to put his daughter’s needs before his own.

      Surely instead of advising someone to massage this man’s ego one should simply put a boundary around his ability to callously and thoughtlessly command his own way through other people’s lives?

      Who are you really trying to support here someone? The child or the father? I suspect you are making excuses for the father and trying to save him because you cannot bear the fact that he doesn’t care.

      It is not a child’s role to understand, excuse or help a parent to change. The role of a parent is to be a parent and to care more for your child than you do for yourself. And I would argue that that is a job for life, not just when you feel like it.


  35. Wonderful blog Karen. Love your evident new resolutions. Fascinating comments too. Here’s some thoughts of mine.

    It’s great to write here more about your broad open-minded whole family, child-focused practice. As you say, to be of use to all kinds of families, you need to not make assumptions … you need to expect all kinds of patterns. And that includes where some parents who switch off and don’t appear in their children’s lives, and they don’t seem to offer any explanation – even though loads of comments offer their explanations!

    I think you and others provide good answers to what you do for the children. There was a play on BBC R4 a few weeks ago – sorry can’t recall details – about a man who left wife and kids not knowing if he had killed himself or not. It explored the endless problem for those left of not knowing whether to keep hoping or close that chapter, whether to get furious or just resigned. Of course there would be an explanation, but they didn’t know it. They were left permanently wondering, permanently talking about this lack of closure.

    I guess that is why the comments here are so full. We want to give a general guess or explanation to add to the wondering of why s/he’s gone and not in touch. And that’s why it’s so difficult for a parent to know what to say to his/her child. Neither of them really can know because the absentee has not bothered to leave an explanation. It has to be (the awful): I guess s/he stopped loving me/us.

    So, as a couple and family therapist, I think of parallels of this in other situations. The wholly loved partner and parent who “out of the blue” has an affair, resulting in partner and children feeling that the pure love they had has been forever spoiled, especially if they then go off with that new love. Mostly the partner and kids can get over it, find some kind of continued relationship with their parent or ex-, and live to love another day. But there is a degree of that switching off a major part of what was once shared.

    Lastly, I wonder if it helps or not (in accepting that some parents just switch out) to remember that fathers and mothers do worse things than switching off. They abuse and do violence to their partner and/or their children. In a way, that’s easier to understand – at least the abuse is a kind of relating. Disinterest is the thing that puzzles us who want relationships, and want them to work.



    1. Thanks for your comment Nick, yes 2014 is the year of 360 degree thinking on the issue of family separation and I struck me a few days back, when I was speaking to a colleagure who is working with a young man with an eating disorder, about how father absence by choice is something that I don’t write about although I work with it a lot. I also work with mother absence by choice and I know how devastating that is for children over the years. As my work with alienated children is with children who have a parent shaped hole in their lives, I wanted to think about the impact of that and the differences and similarities of how that might impact over time on children. What I am always most interested in is how the next generation builds its own parenting templates, so that we can almost predict the issues which will face young parents and their children in ten or twenty years. I am glad you can see the benefit of mindfulness in my writing, I am trying to slow down, think, consider and listen as well as talk. Its helping me hugely, both personally and professionally so I will keep going and see what emerges!

      Disinterest seems to be such a hard thing for those of us who love and care and are invested in relationships…but sadly disinterest is still alive and well and affecting children right now. Its how to help those children that I am contemplating at the moment. I have been amazed at how this has generated such interest and such thinking and delighted with the many commentators who have come on this journey, especially those who have been so much prevented from a relationship with their own children.

      Very best for 2014. K


  36. I agree with most of what you say. I don’t agree with your interpretation that the man doesn ‘t care. He behaves badly and this is detrimental to himself and to his daughter.
    He is trying to care but he needs help, not criticism. He shares the activity of baking with his daughter, but this can end in disaster when anger gets the better of him. He loves his motorbikes, which could be substituting for the void which should be filled by his daughter. He is apparently asleep on the settee when he could be enjoying time with his daughter, possibly because he is depressed.

    Getting both parents involved in the parenting of their daughter is key to her mental and physical well being. The daughter has been already persuaded of what is perceived as father’s shortcomings.
    Statements like, ” Dad is leaving me and going to Germany” are not the first hand evaluations of the child. They are the constructs of a third party, probably those of the mother but possibly those of others like close friends or counsellors. If you join this merry band of “helpers” then you are only contributing to a malaise that prevents healing from taking place.
    As I pointed out to SC, lots of Dad’s work away, the armed forces, oil riggers, etc. In this situation everything is fine and dandy so long as mother remains supportive.

    This case may be particularly difficult because father hasn’t been around a lot especially in the formative years. I am amazed that a father/daughter relationship based on Sundays only still exists at all…sounds like 14yrs of purgatory to me.

    To find the parenting behaviour that we hope the father is capable of we have to give it a chance to blossom. This involves the mother since she is the dominant carer thoroughly enmeshed with her daughter. Mother has two choices. She either leaves it up to an expert third party to mend the relationship between SC and father or she behaves in such a way that is sensitive to father’s needs.

    Father is behaving in a selfish way. He has issues which need to be addressed. He seems to behave rather like a child than a responsible adult.

    You have created an image of a poor overworked mother struggling to build a relationship between father and daughter against the background of a seemingly disinterested father. The words of mother and daughter portray a very different story.

    Just supposing your interpretation that the father doesn’t care is correct and you turn your attention to telling SC it’s not her fault that some fathers just don’t care, when she’s older how will she tell which boyfriend is one of those useless ones you talk about and which one’s are not. Perhaps after 5 years of a turbulent relationship and two kids to boot she will decide that the guy she married was one of those useless one’s like her father… that acceptable too!!
    Maybe you can create a scale of bad mothers and bad fathers!
    You may get some support from the Fatherhood Institute for this, they seem to like the idea that you can improve fatherhood, and if you don’t get one you like you can always throw him out and get a better trained one.

    Even if you are right I can see no benefit to the family nor to humanity.

    It’s not that people/parents don’t care, it’s just that some people given particular circumstances find it difficult to behave in a way that’s appropriate to congenial family relations.

    Kind regards


    1. Someone, I think a scale of what makes a good enough mother and what makes a good enough father might be an interesting thing to create and if that puts me in the fatherhood institute camp then that would be an interesting first for me. I don’t think you are really looking at this from the perspective of how we teach children the kind of self esteem and self worth that enables them to make healthy choices about their relationships in the future and helps them to become the good enough parents that their children will one day need. I think you are simply focused upon looking at this from the perspective of the father. Perhaps because you cannot bear the thought that some parents just don’t care?

      This dad isn’t really interested in being this girls regular dad. He does nice things sometimes, when he can be bothered but he comes first in his world not she. The impact of that upon the girl is to make her feel that she and not he is somehow deficient. Is that what you feel a child should learn from a parent?

      Look at it from her perspective not his.

      ‘I am going to Germany to work this summer.’

      ‘Why, I don’t want you to go to Germany, I won’t see you anymore.’

      ‘Well sorry, but you are 14, I’ve done my bit, I am going to Germany and you can’t stop me.’

      Now – my focus is upon what this makes the girl feel. No-one has whipped this up in her mind, no-one needs to. Her father has told her that she cannot stop him from going to Germany and given her the message that her feelings don’t matter a jot.

      So my interest is not in him but her, she is the one who is asking for help, not him. He’s quite happy in his parenting, what’s not to like he says when asked, he does his bit and anyway, the girl is 14 she should stop moaning.

      Now your point is that unless we focus on the dad and see the mother as being responsible for making him do what he should be doing, we are going to lead the girl to think that dads can be disposable. I simply do not understand your logic because what will teach the girl to believe that dads are disposable and not to be trusted, is the very behaviour this dad is displaying. Thats why we need to interrupt the messages this girl is getting about her feelings not mattering and tell her that its not her its him. When she understands what good enough love feels like, she will look for good enough love in her older life. If we just roll with this kind of behaviour in the father and don’t bother helping this girl to understand its not her its him, she will build a template that leaves her believing that men can come and go and do as they like and blow hot and cold and blame everything on her. Is that what we really want to teach our young women? I don’t.

      Men are capable of healthy relationships, its offensive to think they are not. Its also offensive to believe that they cannot change but the responsibility for changing lies with this man, not this girl and not the mother of this girl who, very far from being enmeshed (the definition of enmeshed being that one cannot see the difference between ones own feelings and a child’s) is unable to offer her child the help that she needs to deal with the father’s behaviour because she has tried and failed miserably in the past and no longer knows what to do in the present. If she was enmeshed she would be routinely preventing the girl from being part of the fathers life, would be interrrupting the relationship and would very definitely not be looking for a third party to help out.

      I have not created this image, this image is one which is created by the circumstances that I describe to you, a circumstance which is not the first and won’t be the last that I work with I am sure. The words of the mother and daughter are imaginary beyond that, its a real life case study and yes, this mother has cared for her daughter, she has provided for her, she has built up a warm safe home and she has given her daughter the consistent positive regard that she needs. The father on the other hand, decided he didn’t want a baby, then became ambivalently involved, then reluctantly had the girl on a regular day each week for over 12 years (barring when the TT races were on and when his mates were going over to Prague for drinking weekends, when his girlfriend said she didn’t want the girl there, when his other three children were born, when his mother came over from the states, when he was too busy with a barbeque for his friends, when he was too hung over from the night before… I could go on but you would only accuse me of making it up so I won’t…)

      As for helping this dads parenting to blossom…well, having watched this dad do as he pleases, against all of the exhortations, pleas, motivational chats, guilt tripping from his own family, arguments and endless exhausting excuses why he shouldn’t have to be bothered…maybe you think you have something that might help him to change? In my view, enough energy has been wasted, enough time has been given and boundaries are what are needed now as this young woman grows to her majority, so that when she picks a man to love, he is not in the image of the man who half attempted, when he could be bothered, to be her father.

      Sometimes Someone, it absolutely IS that some parents don’t care. Sitting with that reality allows us to do what we need to do to help children who suffer from that.

      And the only person who has persuaded this girl of the father’s shortcomings….is the father himself…because actions speak a thousand times louder than words and 14 years of ambivalent care, of putting himself first and of failing to listen…have left her in a place where the only thing she can do is ask someone like me to help her to make him a better dad. For shame.

      Where is your child focused understanding? Where is your concern for what this child may be feeling? Stop focusing upon this man, who has willingly given up the precious moments too many men have to fight tooth and nail for and wasted them on himself, on beer and on his motorbike, which contrary to your thought, is not compensation for his relationship with his daughter, it IS the only child he really has a relationship with.

      Come on someone, I dare you to let this lump go and start thinking about what this girl needs to help her to move into a strong and positive adulthood where her choices for who fathers her children are better than those that her mother made. Go on, I dare you.


  37. What if going to Germany is your only way of making enough to support your children? What if the mother’s family makes you feel like a waste of space because your income is low? What if you don’t want the shame of raising your child in poverty in Britain? What if that shame does not allow you to be the dad that you would like to be? What if your ability to be a good dad depends on your own self-worth?

    It’s all very fine to say that we should consider the child’s wishes first, but I don’t think it is possible to leave out the father’s perspective.


    1. I think you are missing the point D as is someone and all the other people who are commenting on this from the fathers perspective.

      This man went to Germany because he wanted to, because his mate was going and he wanted to take his motorbike, the work was a side issue. He never paid anything towards his child beyond the first three years, the mother didn’t ask and he didn’t give. This is nothing to do with the father’s shame, only to do with the him being a man who put himself first and everyone else next.

      Why is is so hard for you to believe that he exists? He isn’t the only one.

      When a mother stops contact, everyone is up in arms and jumping up and down about the impact of that on the child. No-one stops to ask why she stops contact and when someone says there has to be a reason everyone starts arguing that the father cannot have done anything wrong, how DARE anyone try to make it about the father.

      I think there’s more than a little bit of fixed thinking around the ldealised father going on here, something I regularly observe over at Gingerbread towers about mothers. One of the dangers of polarised thinking being that one is unable to recognise that good and bad exists in everyone – something that alienated children display on a regular basis – could it be that polarised and fixed views of self and others in the same camp, contribute to the very conditions that cause these children to be caught in polarised, split thinking?

      I am asking you to think about the reality that this dad doesn’t care, not find reasons why he doesn’t care or what lies behind that. I am asking you to focus upon the child first and see things from her perspective, not your own and not this father’s.

      I suspect if I tried this exercise over at Gingerbread I might find something similar going on.

      I am not doing anything here other than highlighting the reality of the world of family separation, which is not polarised naturally but by the false divisions which are created within it. Idealisation of mother/father being one of them.



  38. To me the issue is not dad going to Germany per se, rather it is the message he sends to his daughter, when she gets upset “you are being selfish and stop putting me under pressure”. Surely a dad who was doing this for reasons such as an unavoidable work posting or lack of job prospects here and had a genuine interest in his daughter would not be sending that message to his daughter. His answer to his daughter would be “I know this will upset you, and I am sorry. I will miss you too. I will come back and see you these weekends and maybe you can come over for a while in the summer holidays? We can also Skype and you see it will be October before you know it and then I will be back.”

    The “stop putting me under pressure” is a clear signal that this parent does not expect to have to put his needs second to those of his daughter


  39. Families Need Fathers as a charity does not spend much time working with ‘want away dads.’ We are sometimes asked by mums if there is any help we can give them in persuading a ‘dud dad’ to become involved. Apart from sympathy and emotional support what else can we do. As we are totally swamped by loving fathers who are brutally booted out of their childrens lives by malevolent mums and a grotesque parody of a Family Court (sic) system we have more than enough on our plate. Deliberately absent dads never come to us for rather obvious reasons.

    Vincent McGovern

    Chair Central and North London Branches Families Need Fathers.


  40. Hello Karen.

    I would like to tell you about the impact my Daughter’s Fathers absence has had on her and how i have dealt with it.
    My ex husband left me and our Daughter when she was 16 months old. He left because he was having an affair. At the start of a horrid 3 year divorce, he told his solicitor that he wanted to be divorced not only from his wife but also from his Daughter!
    After my divorce came through, my Daughter and me moved into out own home. My ex husband knew where we were living and i always “kept the door open” should he want to see our Daughter.
    He has never sent her a birthday or Christmas card. When she started primary school, i sent him a school photo which he returned to me ripped up!! That was my turning point.
    I knew that there would be a time when my Daughter was going to start asking questions about her Father and where he was. After he left i started a journal for her which is something i continue to add to. I put Photos of her Father in there and all the things we did as a family before he left. I have written her letters for when she is older so she will have more a an understanding.
    When she was 11 years old, she started asking questions about him. So i decided that was the right time to give her the journal. She had an absolute right to know were she came from and who her Father was. I answered her questions as well as i could. I have reassured her, supported her and have always been here if she ever wanted to talk about it. I have never said anything negative to my Daughter about her Father. Its not right to do so.
    My Daughter is now almost 15 years old. And to this day her Father has still chosen to be absent in her life. He is more interested in other women than having a relationship with his Daughter.
    I am glad to say that my Daughter is well adjusted emotionally and psychologically. She is confident, has bags of self believe, is grounded and knows what she wants in life.
    My Daughter has told me that she does not miss what she has never had.
    After my ex husband left, i was determined to do everything i could as a parent to ensure that she didnt feel like a product of a broken relationship. I did not want her thinking that she was the reason he left. Regardless of the resentment i had towards my ex husband, have never shown that to my Daughter. There have been many times when i found things difficult – mainly not knowing how he could abandon our Daughter. I turned to my own strength to get through it because i had to be strong for her.
    If she chooses to contact him when she’s older then of course i will support her.


  41. Kat, I think you are right on the button about this: It’s not what the parent does and why they need to do it. It’s not even that they bother to give an explanation to their separated children. It’s that they bother and do something about what it will be like for their child, that they recognise and apologise and suggest ways to keep the connection going.

    And of course Karen’s constant question still stands – what does the other parent say to the child where the distant parent doesn’t do this little bit of quite straightforward personal parental or social skill? I guess with your model answer in mind, Kat, I might ask the child: What would you expect or like your [absent parent] to have said to you? And then I might help them construct the words you, Kat, put into the father’s mouth (to imagine what it is that is missing, NOT to try and fill in for the work he didn’t do). And then the parent / counsellor might have a more grounded useful reflection on what sort of person that might be who didn’t do that communication that sensitively. Such a reflection might end with a kind of warm sustaining but realistic: Well I guess that’s your dad for you, eh?! Along with some continuing tracking of what the child feels and feels like they want to do for the future of that relationship.

    Just to add another thought on ways to understand people’s patterns – Kat’s suggestion of sensitive other-oriented communication could be seen as well-functioning “attachment” behaviour. As in the framework of Attachment Theory. For those interested in that, here’s a two minute YouTube video that I use to show the whole range of attachment, attachment disturbance, as well as the reparation. Just remember that these patterns apply to all ages as well as babies!

    When attachment doesn’t go well, then well recognised more disturbed and powerful Attachment patterns and emotions get going. Basically that’s very serious fight or flight reactions, or a mixture (i.e. protest, demand, complaint; or turning away, shutting down, or leaving).

    So, in the example we’ve used in this blog, the parent who turns away and is disinterested may be understood as coping with their otherwise upset vulnerable attachment and feelings. They cannot bear the feelings in themselves or in their child, so they cut off from them. The outcome still looks like disinterest. And some may merely be disinterested I guess.

    Which still doesn’t solve Karen’s question does it? Plus, this explanation is of limited help – because for the parent (or child) to go beneath the surface behaviour – the switching off, turning away – to get down to the life and death hurt and vulnerable feelings beneath may require impossible degrees of mental bravery and commitment to a process that may require skilled therapy if it is to get there.



    1. I think you will find most of the children lost to a parent never do actually go there, let alone “get there” when they do try. The passage of time, another, ostensibly stable life, makes even reconnection an almost lost possibility.


  42. `Just as parental rights groups concerned with mothers (Gingerbread), will refuse to acknowledge that mothers DO prevent their children from seeing their fathers, parental rights groups concerned with fathers (F4J/FNF)’

    I have been a member of FNF for seven years now. I haven’t come across that view aside from the usual conspiracy theory types. `Who’ is FNF? The Chair? The National Committee? The rank-and-file members?

    Sorry…this is a `straw man’ argument Karen – as much as I would agree with much else in your article.


    1. I think if you read the comments Steven you will see I have admitted to being naughty so no need for panic, no-one is having a go at FNF.


      1. I wonder if I might have a helpful point to make in this debate…possibly connecting the issue of ‘absenting’ Dads – with the seemingly quite different phenomenon of being ‘driven out’?

        Might the common factor behind both of these be the overwhelming perception of children in the West – existing as the mothers’ PROPERTY??

        Over the Christmas period I sank into quite a deep depression, which I am now trying to climb out of…but at its deepest point this was the realization that came to me. Although there is a superficial layer of so called ‘child protection’ in place…underneath this, I feel – is a far deeper and more fundamental belief that is largely unspoken…which treats the children in this way. I suspect that essentially – this is the much more unsophisticated atavistic perception – which is in fact what the supposedly ‘sophisticated’ Court system – is actually supporting.

        As mentioned previously…if this IS the case…then starting to talk to both Judges and feminists – is absolutely the priority.

        However, for the purposes of the discussion here, I suspect that the men who do end up “not caring” about the children, as has been described, will be those who have also most deeply been influenced by this philosophy of ‘children as the property of the mother’.

        Does this help to make sense of things a bit more? To the extent that the children are seen to belong to the mother…are the ‘mother’s business’ – then to that extent they are not the business of the father…who would actually be “interfering”! Within this kind of frame of reference…it is surely a lot harder for the man to feel involved…and a LOT easier for him to walk away?

        I know all those of us HERE do not have this frame of reference at all – but my experience seems to be that this view is very widely held by both women AND men – but perhaps at a largely unconscious level…since it is not particularly politically correct to be seen to think of children as property in these terms at all.

        But I believe it to be very widely the reality we are struggling with.


      2. Thank you and my apologies.

        You make a valid point about fathers walking away however. I deal with fathers who DO walk away. Sometimes after an initial discussion. Sometimes after an intimidating legal letter. Sometimes during a court case.

        Their motivation for doing so is varied: Financial, emotionally or lack of engagement – although I suspect that I seldom see the last group on the grounds that the people I see are largely self-selecting.

        An important factor that is ever more relevant is depression however: Indecision, an overwhelming sense of guilt, failure and a sense of hopelessness coupled with a strong impression that the dice are so heavily loaded in the favour of a mother means that it is all too easy to feel that the battle is lost before the first shot is fired to speak.

        I have spoken to a large number of fathers who say `I walked away, I couldn’t cope. Now it’s too late – if I try now I’ll be crushed in the courts and the children are happy now with their settled life that includes their mum and her new partner’.

        A large part of my time is spent trying to convince fathers that a) it is not hopeless and there is something that can be done b) that their children’s best interests are served by having a dad in their life c) to never give up.

        Ask anyone who has been through the same situation as me though…and they’ll tell you that but by the grace of God they could have walked away. It’s the hardest struggle most people will ever go through. This is of course against a backdrop of being told that while children deserve a father they can expect to be emotionally and financially destroyed providing their children with their human right of a meaningful relationship with both their parents.


      3. But the topic is not why dads walk away Steven its how do we help children whose have parents who don’t care. K


  43. …and I spend a lot of my time telling people why they SHOULDN’T walk away from their children which I know a lot of other people in FNF also do.

    We are clear on what the benefits of having two involved parents in the life of a child are.


    1. I’m not a member, so cannot say definitively whether you do or not, but how about some general advice on your website to separated fathers “out there” to counter this phenomenon of the deadbeat dad? This advice would stress the importance and necessity of long term, continuing fatherly involvement with one’s children as an essential prerequisite of raising young children to healthy maturity.


      1. There IS research on the benefits of shared parenting on the site:

        Anyone attending a branch meeting is left with no impression that children have a right to both parents and that the best interests of the child are paramount.

        But as I say elsewhere…it’s self selecting. I have lost count of the number of fathers who bemoan the fact that the mother of their children is denying contact, etc. before they vanish without a trace. It would be interesting to see the outcomes of their situations but if they’re not communicating nor are they going through any formal process there is no information to collect.


      2. Steve, shared parenting research has little or nothing to do with the question I asked. Rights are irrelevant too.

        In case it wasn’t clear, I asked whether your site (and others like yours for that matter) – directed at fathers as they are – ought to be spelling out the basics as spelt out by Karen here – that neither walking away from your children is an option, nor turning up occasionally for the odd visit when it suits, i.e spelling out the basic responsibility that arises as a consequence of fatherhood, whether planned or, as likely these days, unplanned. Simply put, you’ve become a parent and that means you have a continuing hands-on job to do, irrespective of whether you want to do it or not. It’s really telling fathers, the wavering ones in particular, that they do have to wake up and take the job on. An admonition of a kind, perhaps. Facing up to what you’ve done. That message ought to be plastered all over your website before they even knock to look inside.

        Karen has posed some questions here which in the main are not really being answered directly in the replies posted. Yours is but one example.


      3. Does FNF do that? Does F4J? Who is getting behind these blokes that Blake calls oddballs and giving them the right messages? K


    2. “An important factor that is ever more relevant is depression however: Indecision, an overwhelming sense of guilt, failure and a sense of hopelessness coupled with a strong impression that the dice are so heavily loaded in the favour of a mother means that it is all too easy to feel that the battle is lost before the first shot is fired to speak.”

      in reply to your previous comment about why.

      lawyer will often tell their clients/father they are likely to lose to avoid for what ever reason the painful defeat. I was told by my lawyer who was a woman fighting a religous court on my behalf that i was unlikely to win because the courts(in the persian gulf) had already decided in a secret hearing and overturning that mean a loss of face for them. again its all about other people rights ( but never the involved party), all dressed up in the wrapping of “children rights”. Children don’t have rights. ask aimee nicholls when she tried to get a court let her live with dad and then when she finally got it, they denied her ( a child) contact with her sister.

      also if you face a situation in which your child has been “abducted” then an organisation like reunite will try to help you, but they tell every parent as they told me “parents usually have to walk away from all this, because they may never see their child again”


      1. I will ask Aimee’s dad to respond to this Rob as he has recently discussed publicly the ways in which he used the approach we use here a the Clinic on his road to reunification with his daughter. K


  44. What about the Children’s Commissioner? Ought not that noble office of state to be looking into the problem and devising state-sponsored strategies to counter the phenomenon, other than one of hammering the feckless father?


  45. I think the final word here is that so long as dads remain undervalued (if not ostracized), then you are going to get lots of them walking away, for all sorts of reasons, mostly to do with emotional survival, but also for self-centred reasons every now and again.

    Maybe if there was a single message out there communicating that dads are wanted, you could save thousands of heartaches.

    I am not apologizing for the weak dads, just observing what I see before me.


    1. Not quite sure how that is the final word D given that you are still talking about why and not what we can do about it. Its your final word maybe but in my view there’s a lot more to be said about how we help children in these circumstances. K


  46. The first step would be making dads feel valued, and I agree, there is a lot more to be said about how that can be done. I didn’t think that talking about oddballs and German bikers was all that positive.


    1. Blake, I work with more than just dads and more than just dads who are pushed out of their lives. Sorry you don’t like it, but there you go. You don’t have to read it you know.


      1. It’s not that I don’t like anything. On the contrary. It’s that I think it would be more helpful to look at the majority of dads, who make superhuman efforts, and then write about these efforts, rather than point the finger (as government and charity people do) at those few that walk away, as if they were representative of the male species. That’s kind of like pointing to a drug-addicted mother, and saying that Britain has a problem with motherhood. But of course, nobody would ever do that. We just continue to blame dads for everything because that is easiest, and they are disposable.

        If you had children and you knew that you were not valued by society or by the family, and would always be isolated or alienated or made to feel deficient in half a dozen ways, or die (financially, emotionally, physiologically) trying to stay a part of their life, perhaps you might take to the road too? It’s certainly the more sane choice.

        You’ll object again and say I’ve missed the point, and that you are talking about dads who just don’t care. But my point is that there may be valid reasons why they don’t care. Or why it seems that they don’t care.


      2. You’re right Blake, missing the point is not the point of this discussion…what do we do when dads or mums just dont care…not the WHY but the what we do. Because we focused on children here, not just dads. This is not dads rights, its childrens needs. What would you do to help kids in those situations? k


    2. I would tell them that we live in a culture that doesn’t value dads, thinks of them only in terms of slave labor and monetary provision, and that as a result we get some every now and again that just say the hell with it (because that is their only means of survival). I would tell them that they are not alone, because a third of Britain’s dads have been barred from seeing their children after the marriage has broken down. I would tell them that it is not their fault, but the fault of people and things beyond their control, which can be discussed when they are a little older. I would tell them that there are people like you, Karen, who are trying to make things better for children in the future, but that it might be some time off before children get justice.


  47. This is the sort of thing I dread, being labelled as one who just doesn’t care.
    Things we can say to our children when the other parent just doesn’t turn up on Sundays like he/she should:

    The single parent scenario.
    Child says, “Hey Mum (Dad) I miss Mum (Dad) where did Mum (Dad) go.
    Why aren’t they here to read me a bedtime story?”
    Single parent says, “Oh I’m sorry son/daughter it must feel terrible not having your mother (father) read to you tonight, I miss him/her too. Some parents just don’t care, it’s one of those sad facts we must come to terms with.
    But Mum (Dad), didn’t I hear on the news today that Mum (Dad) was protesting?
    Well yes precious one, some Mums and Dads just want to be anti-social and upset us, you don’t need to take any notice of that poor behaviour.
    Parent with new partner.
    Child protests, “But Mum (Dad) Joey’s Dad watches him at football and afterwards takes him to Mc’Donalds”.
    “I know how you miss him/her but this is now your Mum/Dad, he/she can do all the things a child could possibly want. I’ve already told the school your new name. You have a new Dad/Mum that gives you everything you need.
    Parent thinks: “I’ve got specialist help to protect you whilst making this difficult transition”

    Enter Headmistress talks to parent:
    “I think you should live some distance away from your former partner it’s best for the children”
    Enter Doctor:
    “No you can’t see your children’s medical records, you have to get their permission first”
    Enter Solicitor:
    “I can’t promise you anything; in my experience alcoholic mothers are preferred resident parents to fathers”
    Enter Cafcass:
    “Never mind, if the children don’t want to see you any more you can wait till they’re older and then they will probably want to see you”
    Enter Social Services:
    “We just want you to keep your distance while we talk to Mum, the best thing you can do is keep out of the way and not interfere”
    Enter Child Support Agency:
    “The children are your responsibility, the other parent is the carer and you have to pay”



    1. Oh for goodness sake I am closing this discussion now, haven’t I devoted hours, nay days of my life to this very topic? Why on earth is it not possible for us to just discuss one small group and the impact on children. Some parents dont care FACT. Stop making this all about the why dads get pushed out and bend your mind just a little bit to see another perspective. I am out of patience on this one now, topic closed.


      1. I acknowledge that I am out of time, but I still won’t be the only person to read this thread to the end and be glad I did. I wonder if the key to the frustration you got to was hidden in your posting of 24/1 10:15

        “. . . it is about helping the child to recognise that the behaviour displayed by the parent is not what they should expect from a parent. . .”

        There is a core belief in here, a normative assumption about proper behaviour, and all the posts explaining the “whys” of disengagement are actually urging you to re-visit this assumption: the behaviour you expect is not what you’re going to get in the various scenarios that the “this-is-whys” lay out.

        So what do you say to the abandoned child?

        “Your father and I fell out, and this meant that it became too difficult and painful for him to remain in our lives.”

        Resident parents seem to presume that contact parents will continue to have the disrupted family as the focus of their lives without imagining what living this demands. It’s living six days just for contact on the seventh, it’s like waiting at the gate of the life you used to live just so you can be let in for one evening a week. The only men who do this are the ones who won’t face the work of leaving and starting life again. It isn’t healthy.

        As a man who has lost his children (home and money) to his former wife, and had to walk away from it and do the grieving, leaving them for dead, I feel I have looked into the face of what’s on offer to men in modern fatherhood, and discovered that the deal stinks. I have another little son now but always one foot must be out the door, I never take off my boots. If women only want us just as sperm donors then that is just what we’re gonna be. It’s not a choice to live like this, and treat your children just as notches on your belt: it’s all that there is that’s left.

        Although this clearly comes from anger it comes from a place of empathy too. Women don’t want to cede control of their children to those children’s fathers, OK let’s run with that. Women don’t want to be economically dependant on a man they no longer love, so let’s run with that too, and the government (and its courts and its police) will provide. All that’s not considered is what’s left in this for men. As a man, you commit yourself emotionally and you commit yourself economically. But for what? You’ll find that house of yours does not belong to you, and nor do those children either.

        And so women are free at last and they have got what they desired. But where have all the men gone, all the husbands?


  48. I know you have said topic closed but I am a mother who has direct experience of what is being discussed here.

    When he first left my children were toddlers, there is only 13 months between them. He was a very attentive dad to our son and they were inseparable, he was however less so with our second child, our daughter, and displayed jealousy and a lack of patience with her. He was a controlling man and also had a developing drug addiction. However had anyone told me he would willingly disappear from the children’s lives I would have argued strenuously against that ever happening.

    When we split, he moved into a flat close by and had regular overnight contact with them. After six months however he decided to move away, he left for London promising to keep in touch and return regularly. This didnt happen, contact was sporadic and the children missed him, especially my son, who’s behaviour deteriorated, he was naughty and angry and had become aggressive with the other children at school, and insolent with the teachers. This lasted about six months…I constantly reassured him that his daddy loved him and I would say he was very busy working away, but he was loved very much, again after about six months he stopped asking.

    During this time I took the children down to London for a visit, I spent money I didn’t have doing this but I wanted them to have contact with him. He promised again to keep intouch, and again this didnt happen. He the moved to North Wales and again I took the children there to see him again, same old empty promises. Each time the effect on my son was detrimental, he would become angry and surly. With this in mind I decided to stop trying to facilitate contact as it was doing more harm than good.

    He turned up at our house on about three occasions too, but these visits were more about himself, on one occasion he took some record albums that he had left, that kind of thing… The kids were six and seven by this time and on his last visit they showed little or no interest in him. That was around 1990.

    I never once bad mouthed him to the children, I didn’t want to hurt them any more than they had already been hurt by his indifference. As they got older he just wasn’t mentioned, and when he was i always told them he did love them but that he had his own problems…what else could i say?

    In ’91 I met someone who I am still with today. He has been a great surrogate father to the children, he loves them and treats them as his own. I’m pretty sure his involvement has helped them grow into the well rounded and caring adults that they are today.

    In 2009 I needed to make contact with him as he was still named on the mortgage that I had paid every penny of. I hired a private detective and within a week he had been found an hour down the road in Crewe. I had discussed this fully with the kids and I could see they were curious! …so the three of us went to the address we had been given and very nervously knocked on the door. He didnt recognise. us, I had to repeat our names three times on the doorstep before the penny dropped. We went in, our son was stony faced, our daughter burst into tears. He didnt make eye contact with us, he kept saying how much they had grown and how beautiful our daughter was…he said he didn’t worry about us because he knew my parents would look after us! I had to point out that I had done that, with the support of my family. He appeared to be in denial about the impact of his absence. He agreed to sign over the mortgage to me and we left.

    I assured the kids that if they wanted to have a relationship with their father that it was ok with me and their stepdad, i meant it. He kept in contact with my daughter for a short while but she received a letter where he blamed me for not seeing her, she knew this to be completely untrue! My daughter became extremely angry at this and ceased contact. They haven’t had contact since….our son is still angry with his father, I could tell from his reaction when we went to see him. He says he hates him but to my mind this is his inner child crying out to be loved by him and never having gotten over being deserted all those years ago. If anything our daughters tears were cathartic, and she has dealt with it much better. Our son is damaged by it and even though he is intelligent and articulate he is silent about his feelings in this regard.

    Our son has residence of his son now and is fiercely protective of him….is this his answer to his own abandonment?

    Our daughter is a single parent, she never wanted children at first and was 27 when she became a mother. She is desperately trying to promote her sons relationship with their son…she drives miles there and back to facilitate their contact, she takes him to visit his paternal grandparents, auntie and cousin. All at her own expense. She receives no child support but has successfully separated the issue of contact and maintenance. Is this her answer to having a father absent though choice?

    I now work as a moderator on a dads forum, I give advice to separated parents (usually dads but some mums and grandmothers too) on issues of contact mostly. I also support some outside the forum as they go through the court process to try and have a relationship with their estranged children. I guess this is the way I have dealt with the pain of seeing my children suffer because their dad wasn’t there.

    There are so many complexities involved in the family dynamic, I applaud you Karen for trying to unravel this huge knot of confusion and denial that exists and is harming the most important aspect in all this, the children….it is they that continue to suffer.


  49. The paragraph where I talk about my daughter as a single parent I should have said…”she is desperately trying to promote her sons relationship with his father”….


    1. Thank you Jane for this clear story about a life time of abiding patience and compassion all round, and continuing effects being played out into the next generations.

      Thank you Karen for your blog that attracted and enabled Jane’s story to be told here to broaden and enrich the more usual ones (of caring fathers prevented from having a part in their children’s lives), thereby filling out the picture of your “whole family” approach to the widest range of patterns that happen for separated families.



  50. Thanks Nick….I think an important lesson to be learnt from my story is the reaction of my daughter when her father tried to blame me…I believe had he avoided trying to justify his absence in this way he may have been able to develop a relationship with his daughter and grandson, and eventually his son and his boy too…

    In my opinion children don’t want to rake over the pain of the past, their attachment and loyalty to the parent that has been with them throughout shouldn’t be denied…they don’t want to hear about how wicked that parent was, and will most often react strongly to any criticism of them, deserved or not.

    When I hear estranged fathers talk about how, when they are reunited with their children, they will tell them how bad their mother really is, and how wicked for keeping them apart, I cringe inwardly. I don’t believe it is in the child’s best interests to create a new cycle of pain and retribution.

    So my message to parents reuniting with their children after a long, bitter time apart is to look forward and don’t dredge up the pain and hate of the past, it will not serve you to do so and it will cause your children more pain…break the cycle, look forward not back, your children will thank you for it!


    1. “When I hear estranged fathers talk about how, when they are reunited with their children, they will tell them how bad their mother really is, and how wicked for keeping them apart, I cringe inwardly. I don’t believe it is in the child’s best interests to create a new cycle of pain and retribution.”

      when a parent has been violent and abusive to the other parent/child ( as was done to me ) and then dissappears with my child. I would expect that child when grown up to understand why it all happenned. it isn’t blame, or raking over with oh well never mind that I hit in the face with a bottle or that your mum threatened to kill you. these are issues for which the abusvie parent has never owned up/ taken reponsiblity and thus I would present the evidence and leave it for the adult child to decide for themselves. But they do need answers/truth and I would never lie about what happened( thats even worse than the abuse inflicted on them ).
      yours may be a case of abandonment, but it doesn’t mean its the case for all parents forced to flee/leave and be denied a relationship with their children.


  51. hello,
    I am looking for a non-profit organization whose goal is to encourage the maintenance of the relationship between children and their both parents after parental separation even if there is a Parental conflict.
    can you send me a link to a website or a facebook pages on this topic?
    I would like to find a non profit organization leaded by men and women with an objective focused on the child’s best interest.
    best regards


  52. Dear Karen, what a great blog! I absolutely understand the idea of a parent walking away as the Father of my two has done just that. He started by seeing them reasonably regularly when he left 5 years ago but it has over time become less and less. This Summer of 6 weeks (he is also a teacher), he only wants them for 3 days! I took him to court some years ago to try and get him more involved and a fair contact order was drawn up. However, he wouldn’t stick to it and threatened that if I persued it in anyway, he’d never see them again. I gave in and now he sees them when he feels like it. He has a new partner and she has a son and he spends all the time with them. He also rarely sees two older daughters from a previous marriage. What I learnt was that legally you cannot force someone to see their kids and it is in any case futile, if they don’t want to. The kids end up feeling more unloved. But, what to do? I certainly could do with support. My kids are still young, 10 and 8 and certainly feel rejected by him. I try and explain things honestly without being negative about him but that is very difficult, they are bright and know how I feel. I have recently read an article about a narcissistic ex and believe him to be one. It seems there is nothing I can do about him not wanting them, I cannot change him! I worry for my kids, they have others around who love them very much, such as my parents but I certainly worry about the long term affects on them. Sophie


  53. Thank you for allowing me to feel not helpless. I am a professional with a wealth of skills and experience working with children. Four years ago my daughters father left and since has had nothing to do with his daughter who is now ten and a very smart ten. As a mum and as a social work manager I was compelled to try and ensure she had a relationship only to find he just was not bothered. I was shocked as I believed he was attached to her and cared for her. She will have a void in her life that I am helping her slowly come to terms with and it has been a real eye opener for me to see first hand in front of me what ultimate rejection has the power to do. Her life is happy and she has some issues such as trust and a lower sense of self confidence at times but she also has got to a stage where she is expressing her emotions. She has decided that she does not want a father figure and although I have a new partner with children she feels I am mum and dad and her nan and grandad are her family.I feel some of the not wanting to name others as caring for her is about trust but in her time with love she will decide herself.

    Long road to go yet but she is definitely learning.


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