Ask the Expert: Helping my child build ties with her dad
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 fsa.ie 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.