Home About Dr Gayle Counseling Services Speaking Services Online Seminars Articles Press Room Books Contact

Ask Dr. Gayle

Impact on a Family When a Parent Leaves

QUESTION: I have a 4 year old and a 2 year old. We lost Grandpa 2 years ago and Daniel did pretty well with it. Missed him, talked about him and seemed to get better with time like the rest of us.

In October, my Sister-in-law left her children and husband for a lover. Since October, and divorce proceedings, she has not seen the children since Mothers day in May.

My Daniel and cousin Jessica who is 6 are very close and have gotten closer since Jessica's Mom has taken off. We have sort of tried to pick up the slack as far as her not having her Mommy anymore.

The problem is, My son is having trouble understanding that his Aunt has just left and is not "passed away." I have tried explaining this to him but that just makes it worse. He thinks that someday I may leave him. Jessica is a wreck because she just simply does not know if her Mom ever wants her again. She also left a 14 year old boy who is of course very hurt and angry. ITS ALL JUST A BIG MESS.

I'm just worried that all these kids will not trust anyone especially and adult that tells them "I will always be here."

I don't want tell my son that I will never leave him because God forbid something should happen to me and he have to think I lied to him.

What do we do to reassure these kids in ways that they can understand? I don't want to make things worse.

ANSWER: You are doing a great job. But be careful not to take on too much! You are providing your niece and nephew with loving support but you cannot solve their loss for them. It will be a lifelong process.

Your own children may be confused by the immersion of their cousins in their lives during this crisis, and your son may be responding to his cousins' loss of their mother by identifying with it. You are right to explain the difference between death and abandonment. And it is important that your children also have separate time with you to process what has happened.

Plan separate time with your son so that he experiences his relationship with you as intact. Talk about the fact that his cousin's Mommy went away if he wants to discuss it. Give him a reason that matches the reality of the situation in someway. Perhaps you can truthfully promise him that you would never leave him because of a lover. That will not happen! Let him experience your love as different from the mother that abandoned her children. And in general, try to keep some boundaries around your own children and their relationship with you to protect them from the chaotic feelings their cousins must be experiencing right now.

Do not try to be your niece or nephew's "mother". You cannot make this up to them and you will end up compromising your own sanity and family relationships if you do. Instead, accept your role as their Aunt who loves them and feels for their pain. If possible, work with their father to normalize their life in the midst of this upheaval. Family counseling around the divorce is a much needed service at this time. Many issues will continue to emerge as the divorce proceeds, including the likelihood of their mother's re-emergence in their lives.

This is a long journey. With support, your niece and nephew will embrace people who will help them heal, and no doubt you will be high on this list. Your love will matter as well as your efforts to be there for them as their "Aunt". But do not confuse your commitment to "being there" for your children with promising some unrealistic ultimate control in the world. Certainly you are not in control of everything and you cannot promise them ultimate protection in the world. You can however, promise your commitment to them and offer them the feeling of protection they very much need at this age through the fact that you would never leave them. In this context, "never leaving" means your commitment to them could not be pre-empted by any lover!

Reassure your own children by making clear the difference between your commitment to motherhood and their Aunt's. Accept that to your son, his Aunt has "died" at this time. His experience of her disappearance and the death of his grandfather do have similarities. This may be his way of making sense of her absence in his life. Reflect to him that indeed it must feel this way to him, but that in fact she still lives somewhere else. Leave it at that, unless he asks for further explanations. In time, she may return to the scene and he will have more questions. When he does ask questions, answer truthfully and reflect his feelings, but clarify reality. For example, "Yes, I can see how you would be afraid that I would go away too, but that is not going to happen. I am committed to my children. You come first in my life."

Your niece and nephew will learn to separate the abandonment behavior of their mother from others in the world who are committed to them. You are doing the best thing possible by being there for them in your role as their Aunt. Through your behavior as a devoted mother and compassionate Aunt, you are already providing them with models of committed behavior to draw on now, and when they become adults. You do this by just being yourself! Heroics are not required.

Return to Article Archive

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

Return to Dr. Gayle Peterson's Home Page

Copyright 1996-2003.  Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.

Send Comments and Inquiries to Dr. Gayle Peterson at gp@askdrgayle.com