Q. I’m a single mum of a 13-year-old girl. I have always been very close to her until recently when she has become very moody and secretive. Myself and my mother, who has been very involved in bringing her up, put it down to “hormones” and being a teenager, but recently she has been asking a lot about her father, whom she has never met. To give you the background, I had a brief relationship with her father, who lives in the UK. He was married at the time I got pregnant and never wanted anything to do with me since. I always told my daughter that he left us when she was born, but never told her that he was married or any of the details. Recently, my daughter has been saying that she wants to meet her father. I have fobbed her off, saying that I did not know where he is. Though this is true, I could find out where he lives because I know some of his family. The last I heard, he is still married and he has a couple of teenage children. Should I contact him for my daughter’s sake? Up until recently, she has being doing fine, but because of the recent stresses, I am worried about introducing her to her father when she is at such a sensitive age as this might cause more problems.
A. The beginning of the teenage years can be a turbulent time for teens and parents alike. Teenagers are starting to separate from their parents and can become challenging and rejecting of their parents as they go through this process. As in your case, lots of parents experience moodiness and secretiveness and even rebellion during this period.
In addition, the teenage years are a time when a child starts to work out their own identity and who they are. As a result, it is no wonder that your daughter is asking questions about her father and wondering about what happened in the past, and whether to make contact in the future. It is in fact good that she is talking about these important questions with you, rather than bottling them up, as it gives you a chance to support her as she thinks through the issues.
I can very well understand your concerns about how best to respond to her questions and you are right that this needs to be handled sensitively.
Simply making contact in an unplanned way may not be helpful to her and could be unsettling, and even lead to her feeling rejected if her father does not respond appropriately.
This is especially the case at 13 years of age when she is already in a place of turmoil, so it might be best to wait until she is older and more settled before making contact.
To respond to her I would suggest that you approach things gradually. The first step is to tell her more about the facts regarding her father and your relationship with him. Pick a good time to have a chat with her and make the conversation important by explaining that you now think she is old enough to know more about what happened (including that he was married, and so on).
Try to answer all her questions in a factual but sensitive way and listen carefully to her feelings and thoughts. For example, she may feel upset that you did not tell her sooner, or annoyed that her father left without contact, or she may not have strong feelings and simply be curious about the details – what her father is like, how your relationship was with him, etc.
When a child has grown up without one parent, they often have a “fantasy” about the absent mother or father (sometimes positive and sometimes negative) and it is helpful for them to have a more real understanding, especially as they become teenagers. As a result it is important to give your daughter a factual, non-judgmental account about her father.
If you and he had very different views about the break-up, then it can be useful to give a frank account of both your different perspectives. Teenagers appreciate their parents being fair and balanced. This gives them freedom to make their own minds up and to establish a connection with both parents without offending either of them.
The second step is to think about what direct contact (if any) your daughter should have with her father at this stage. At 13 you should listen carefully to her wishes around this, but you need also to protect her and ensure such contact is in her best interest. Indeed, it could be best to wait until she is older and more settled.
A lot depends on whether her father is able or willing to have constructive contact. For this reason, it might be a good idea to make initial contact with him yourself so you can explore these issues with him. If you feel your daughter is mature enough, you can discuss these issues with her and plan with her how best to initiate contact. Indeed, she might prefer you to make the initial contact for her.
If you do proceed with making contact, it is generally best to do this gradually and at your daughter’s pace.
This might first involve finding out some current information from the extended family, and then perhaps an exchange of letters before considering any face-to-face meetings. When restarting contact after an extended period, I always suggest that ideally the parent should make the initiatives.
For example, after initial contact is established, it is best for her father to first write a letter to her and in the future visit her rather than the other way round.
Be careful to talk through the issues with your daughter and to prepare her for all the different possible outcomes, for example, her father not following through or contact not turning out the way she expects, and so on.
Remember, even if things don’t proceed as expected, finding out information about her father and even making contact with his extended family can all still be helpful to your daughter in understanding her identity.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, May 2011. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.