Understanding and Coping with Child Abandonment

Tips for Talking With Your Child About Abandonment

Boy sitting on porch crying, mother in background
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Abandonment typically refers to a parent's choice to willfully withhold physical, emotional, and financial support from a minor child. In other words, abandonment occurs when the parent fails to fulfill his or her parental responsibilities and chooses not to have contact with his or her child. Parental abandonment is not limited to non-custodial parents, either. Sometimes parents with sole custody —even those who have fought hard in court to win child custody —have also been accused of abandoning their children.

Why Do Parents Abandon?

The most common question is, "How could a parent do that?" Sadly, parents who abandon their children often do so because they believe they are ill-equipped to provide the emotional and financial stability the child needs. It's common to blame this on the previous generation's ability to parent (or lack thereof), and yet it's not true that all parents who abandon were mistreated, ignored, or neglected as children. Certainly, we see examples every day of parents who were neglected or abused, and yet later become loving, committed parents. So these types of generalizations don't hold up when examined more closely. 

Self-doubt can be a common denominator in cases where parents willfully abandon their children. While it is not a legitimate excuse, it may be an important factor to consider when trying to explain to your child why the other parent chooses to be uninvolved.

Explaining Abandonment to a Child

If you're raising your children on your own, and the other parent chooses not to be involved, you may anticipate that your kids will eventually start asking some tough questions that you'll need to answer. The following tips can help:

  • Respect timeliness. It's tempting to put the conversation off, but if your kids are bringing it up, then they're ready to talk about it. 
  • Trust yourself. You don't have to have the perfect words planned out. Acknowledge their questions and their hurt. Show empathy and let them know that you're always going to be there, no matter what. 
  • Find something positive to say about your ex. The can be hard, especially if you're still angry or the separation is fresh. But it's important to remember that your children carry a part of your ex inside them, so you don't want to give them the idea that he or she is "all bad." 
  • Continue the conversation. Chances are, you're going to have many conversations with your kids about this issue. For them, recognizing and naming the abandonment is just one part of the grieving process. They will likely experience many complex emotions, including sadness and anger, before coming to a point of acceptance, and they're going to need to know all along the way that you're willing to hear them out and be a shoulder to lean on.

Loss of Parental Rights Due to Abandonment

In most states, a parent is said to have 'abandoned' a child after a two-year period of withholding his or her contact and financial support. Abandonment can also lead to the loss of one's parental rights. However, a parent cannot simply choose or elect on his or her own to forfeit those rights.

In fact, even in cases of clear and willful abandonment, most states will not legally terminate a parent's rights unless there is another parent-figure, such as a step-parent, who is waiting to formally adopt the child.

Post-Abandonment Reunification

Some parents who have withdrawn from their children's lives later recognize their mistake and wish to seek forgiveness and restore the relationship. In situations where the previously uninvolved parent is able to participate more regularly in the children's lives and has expressed a commitment to do so, the experience can offer some much-needed healing and restoration. If the opportunity arises and you're not sure what to do, consider speaking with a therapist or counselor about your concerns before making a decision.