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Talking to young children about a painfully estranged relative

Many of us have in-laws, step-parents or aunts and uncles with whom we never wish to speak again. A lot of this never needs to be discussed with our children until they are much older. But sometimes, the relationship is so close and seems that it should be such a normal part of your children's life story that it continues to surface -- even though your children are too young and the subject still too raw for you to address it evenly. What do you do? A. asks:

I have been estranged from my father for just over 10 years. He sexually abused me when I was a child, and needless to say I don't want to have him in my or my children's lives. What I really could use, is some advice on how to approach the subject of my father with my children. Tonight my daughter (who is 4 1/2) asked my who my daddy is.

That sent me into a panic. I stammered, he was a daddy, and promptly changed the subject. I don't want to say something like "he wasn't very nice to me so I don't talk to him anymore" because I worry that my daughter will make a connection that if she's ever not very nice to me than I may not talk to her anymore.

Any thoughts you wise mamas have would be very much appreciated, for both short term (what do I say now about my dad in my past/present, and why there's only grandma on Mommy's side and no grandpa) and long term ideas (like should I actually tell my kids the details one day? How old should they be? when they are young adults themselves??)


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Yikes - that's a toughy! While they are too young to understand the concept behind the abuse, it may be a good time to bring up such a topic. Lightly. As horrible as it is and as taboo as having to have that talk is.
You definitely don't want to lie to them saying something like he lives in another state, country, etc...or a simple white lie just to subside the conversation. It will only come back. Plus it instills in childrens minds that it is ok to lie. JMO.
Anyway...this is one of those tread lightly subjects because your daughter is still so young. Kids are smart though and they will understand what you say to them even if the whole scheme of everything...who,what,why,when,etc.
Turn this into a teaching opportunity about body parts, appropriate & inappropriate behaviors, etc.
Sorry if I haven't helped much.

I agree with the above advice. As difficult as it might be for both of you, it might be a great way to approach the idea of firm personal boundaries. Something like, "My dad touched my body in a way that was not ok, so I decided that to keep my body and heart safe, I wouldn't hang out with him anymore. And if anyone ever makes you feel unsafe, you can talk to me about it and you don't ever have to hang out with them either." Then it becomes you and your babe against 'unsafe' and not you against your babe.

My experience with this occurred later in life. My mother, who is now 69 years old, always seemed to hold a grudge against the male gender. This wreaked havoc on us kids' relationships as we entered adulthood and some of us got married. After a tumultuous episode in my mom's life (my dad and her mom died within the same year) she shed her secrets onto me, a history of sexual abuse in her teenage years by her brother with some hint of abuse by her dad though she hesitated to go there). Why she chose me, I don't know as she has a much better relationship with my two sisters.

Well, this explained a heck of a lot of her behavior toward my husband and my brother-in-law. Not an excuse but definitely shed some light.

I thought it would be a good idea to tell my sisters (we are all into our 30's, early 40's at this time). Well, one had the same thoughts as I, "that explains a lot." But one was outraged that I would 'gossip' and really has never forgiven me. She said she never wants to think about something like that. Was ignorance bliss in that situation?

So this is not really advice but just an example of how people react differently.

I do agree that it is an excellent opportunity to teach our kids about appropriate touch. And a reminder to myself as my little girl is almost 4.

Please make sure your Mom knows what to say/what you're saying too. Your daughter will ask or comment to her soon and it would be easier if you both said the same thing. As for full disclosure, it depends on the maturity of the child/teen. My father died when I was 11 and I didn't talk to my mom about it for a very long time. She's just now (20years+) making comments about their marriage (things that I knew )but didn't want to bring up. Seems silly, but wish she didn't wait for us to talk about these things. Good Luck.

I'm estranged from my father as well (different reasons, though).

I tell my kids that he wasn't ready to be a good father and that he didn't really know how to do it. I let them know that in a way it was good because it taught me to be sure that I was ready to be a mommy, and that because of the experience, I knew that I really wanted to try my best to be good at it. I say that it made me sad, and that if they are ever sad, I really want them to talk with me about it. They seem to get that, although I anticipate some harder conversations as they become teenagers....

I have always had to create family wherever I went. I wasn't truly abused by the folks I was born to.. but I was made to feel bad and shameful and "less" somehow. Provide your kids with good grandparent surrogates, tell the truth about things (even if you water it down a tad for your child) and don't look back.

the only thing I'd add to these wise words is that, in my experience, children are often far more empathetic than we expect, and the way you communicate this will be more important than your words. and due to the reaction you said you had -- panic -- I'd suggest finding a way to come to terms yourself with how you feel about motherhood in the context of having a father who treated you so awfully. it could be prayer or a talk with someone you trust or just sitting down and telling yourself, "I can be the sort of mother I want to be, and she is ___ and ____ and brave and kind." find that person inside yourself, and she'll tell you what to say.

I may be in the minority here, but I don't know if it's such a good idea to introduce the sexual abuse details to your 4.5 year old.

It would suffice to say that your father didn't know how to be a good dad (and maybe contrast him with what a good father your partner is, assuming that's true).

While it's good to teach small kids about the integrity of their own bodies, I think at that age it's more appropriate to keep it general. I worry that it could introduce the child to suspicion of specific people (her father, other male relatives).

Kids are smart, sensitive, and intuitive, but they are also capable of being anxious and worried.

I was also estranged from my father (for different reasons), but I benefit from the fact that he's been deceased for many years. I know the issue will come up some day, but for now the fact that he's dead provides a truthful and uncomplicated answer when my child (also age 4.5) asks about him.

Good luck dealing with this - it's not easy.

I think there is some great advice here already. To me, the question is are you ready to talk about it and deal with it? As a child I was sexually abused by a non-relative, and I wasn't ready to talk about for a long time. In fact, there are many people in my family who still don't know. I have talked to my 4yr old daughter very casually about appropriate touching, but I feel no need to discuss my abuse with her at this point.

If you're ready to talk about it, then perhaps it's a good time to address it with them. However, if your not, I think it's perfectly fine to just say that he wasn't, and isn't, ready to be a good father. You can talk about appropriate touching without having to bring this part of your past up. When they're older, perhaps you'll be ready to tell them.

Hi, I'm the original poster on this thread. I just wanted to say thank you for all your great insights. I have tears reading comments from such wise and loving mamas/papas out there. You've given really meaningful starting points for me (and my partner) to think about on how to talk to our children about this and grow. Thank you and blessings.

I'm adding my thoughts a bit late but just wanted to thank you for this post. We have a similar situation and it has been hard. Especially because our oldest (she is 6) has sooooo many questions. The other day she came to me and described the murder of MLK after learning about it at school. She simply said, "Mama, that man just didn't have any love of peace in his heart." I thought that was such a poetic way of explaining something painful and I've written it down in case I need to use such a phrase in a panic. I also find myself telling her that even though I'm a grown up that there are some things that are hard for me to understand and I'm still trying to make sense of it all. This is another explanation I got from her, when she was four she said, "Mama, this is something hard to understand when you are four." She coupled this comment with a question about babies and her body. She wanted to know how her body will know how to make a baby when she is a grown up. I've found that through these difficult times, I learn a lot from her lead and I trust that as long as we keep communication open, we'll be able to tackle the details of tough dynamics by taking baby steps. Ugh! Parenting is hard! Good luck.

I loved both Fujiyama Mama and Mama G's posts. I am estranged from my mother, who has some severe mental health issues that she isn't willing to address. Due to these behavioral disorders, it's unlikely that we will reconcile. The past ten years without her have been the hardest blessing, but so incredibly worth it.

Now that I have a son (who will be three soon) I wonder what I will tell him about his grandmother. He has a lot of honorary aunties and my father's wife is his "Mae Mae", but the question will arise at some point.

I've often found that children ask just for what they are ready to know. Keeping things safe for them by being general is a good rule of thumb. You can wait for your daughter to ask "Why don't we see your dad?" before answering the question.

I know I will be simply describing my mother as someone who "doesn't know how to be safe with other people" and will let my son ask more detailed questions when he's ready. Kids can understand things in their world: they know there are people who aren't safe with their bodies or who are mean with their words, and reducing the behaviors to terms which could describe a classmate can keep the conversation safer for kids.

The other thing to add is that I know these conversations can trigger a lot of hard feelings for us. It's important to remember that our children still need us to contain the emotional experience of the conversation in some capacity. We are better off explaining any tears or anger with simple "I feel 'X' when I think of him because he couldn't be safe" than quelling the conversation altogether. Our kids need to feel safe to approach us, even around hard questions.

I have a lot of empathy for you and hope that you are able to find some peace in this area...it's a tough one!

Hey all, thank you so much for bringing up this subject. My fiancee and I have a 9-month-old daughter and only speak to his father; my parents have severe problems with anxiety and prejudice, and are highly critical and toxic. I've decided to draw on my psych degree and explain them later on as, "My mommy and daddy have a disease that they can't help and don't understand [they refuse treatment, actually, but I'll save that detail for if she asks much later], and sometimes that disease makes them hurt people without knowing it. To be safe, mommy doesn't want them around to hurt us."

My mother-in-law is much harder to explain, and here we're stumped. She's been indicted (never convicted) and has a shady past with a long rap sheet. She's a master of manipulation and verbal abuse, and she's very nasty alcoholic. How on earth can we possibly explain her to our daughter (she's divorced from my father-in-law, so he doesn't bring her around, thank God)? The alcoholic/cruel manipulator we can deal with, but she's a career criminal (a formerly successful and connected one, if you get my drift) and we have no idea how to shield our daughter from such a dangerous person, much less explain her. We don't contact her, but we're very concerned nonetheless. She's not mentally ill, so that won't work.

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