Helping my child build a relationship with her absent father

Q. Could you provide guidance as to how to help my daughter, who is three and a half years old, deal with her dad re-entering her life after an absence of one year or so? We split up shortly after she was born and he had some contact limited to odd visits after that, before he moved away for a year or so for work. Now he is back in the country and wants to start contact with her. She seems to be having some difficulty in comprehending it all and I would like to help her make the transition in the best way possible for her sake.

A. When parents separate, frequently the parent who leaves the family home (usually the father) can find it harder to keep contact with the children. This can be especially the case for infants or preschool children who may have a less established relationship with their parent prior to the separation.

Indeed, some international long-term studies have found that nearly half of fathers have minimal contact with their children after five years post-separation. Fortunately, this situation is changing as there is now an increased awareness of the importance of fathers in children’s lives. Helping children maintain a quality relationship with both parents post-separation is an important goal.

Restarting contact after a gap
Restarting contact between a parent and child after a gap can be a delicate matter and you are right to think carefully as to how to go about it. It is common for there to be a break in contact immediately after separation as it is a natural instinct when a relationship breaks up for ex-partners to want to move away from one another and start a new life elsewhere.

However, this is not compatible with co-parenting which requires both parents to continue to negotiate and work with one another for the sake of the children. Making this transition to co-parenting while living separately can be hard but over time it does become easier.

Negotiate with her father
Agree the arrangements with her father in advance. The more you can have an agreed plan with her father about how contact should develop, the better for your daughter. Generally, the single biggest factor in determining how children cope after their parents separate is the level of co-operation between said parents.

Try to agree a co-parenting plan in advance of the contact starting. If this is hard, seek the help of a family mediator who can help you start to communicate and work out this important agreement (see family support agency for a list of free services).

Explain it to your daughter
It is very understandable that your daughter might be unsettled about what is happening. As she has not had consistent contact with her father since she was an infant and given that there has been a gap of a year, she does not have an established relationship with him. She is likely to be confused about his role in her life and possibly nervous about restarting contact.

Try to explain the situation to her in a child-centred way that she can understand. For example, you might create a little photo album that has pictures of all the people in her family. This can include a picture of her father, one of when you were together as a couple and one of him more recently. Tell her a simple story (appropriate to her age) of how Mammy and Daddy met, how they decided to live apart, how Daddy went to live away and now he is back in the country.

Remember, how she feels about starting contact will be largely determined by the feelings you communicate about it. If you are upbeat and positive about this new start, this will help her feel this way also.

You should also try to manage her expectations, as she might have great hopes about what this contact could mean (sometimes children have a fantasy that their parents will get back together again). Be clear and matter of fact about the reality of your relationship with her father.

Start gradually and go at your daughter’s pace

The key to restarting contact is to start gradually and to go at your daughter’s pace. The first step might be her father sending her a card, a picture and some information followed by visits to the home where she sees him with you present.

The next step might be him having a visit in the home where you back off and give them space, and then a later step can be him taking his daughter out. Try to facilitate and support her relationship with her father by setting things up well for them both.

Be aware of your own feelings about the separation
In your email, you don’t talk about the circumstances of your break-up and your feelings about this. Be aware that restarting contact could bring up old hurts and resentments for both of you.

Indeed, many parents can be angry when the other parent makes contact after a gap, as they have been coping largely alone for many years and the change can be quite disruptive to their lives. Be aware of how you are feeling so you can put these feelings in context and focus on the needs of your daughter.

Further support
Do consider contacting support services to help you. I have uploaded a full list of services on I would also encourage her father to seek support, as it can be particularly challenging to be in the position of trying to restart contact with his daughter – so do pass on these support details to him also.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.