Can you address absent sociopathic fathers and how to respond to a young child who has begun asking about him? My 4-year-old has started talking about her “daddy,” who she could not possibly remember. The last time she saw him was when she was 2 and the total time spent with him in her lifetime has probably been 12 hours total. I have cut things off with him entirely since his last visit. Anyways, lately she pretends to call him on her toy phone, or tells me that her daddy is going to pick her up from school. I think all this talk has stemmed from her best friend at school, whose dad comes to pick her up every day.
Not surprisingly, none of the advice I’ve read on the topic pertains to sociopathic fathers. I’d like to know how to address this at this stage in life, and as she gets older.
Claudia Paradise responds:
For a 4 year old, the parent wants to be as simple, short and concrete as possible. Perhaps even using dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, arts and crafts, to communicate some of the difficult information.
- Consult a child psychologist
I would first and foremost tell the parent to consult a child specialist in this area, who actually understands the devastation and possible genetic links of having an NPD parent. If the therapist wants to meet with the parent and child, the therapist would then become the middleman, the communicator, the mediator of the difficult information that needs to be shared with the child. This preserves the parent’s relationship with their child by not being the one to speak the harder truths regarding the MIA NPD parent.
The therapist may feel it best to provide the accurate information to the parent to communicate to their child, which is also an option done often for a variety of reasons. Let’s say a father of a child passes away, not necessarily NPD. Bringing the child into a male therapist at that time of loss may actually turn into a therapeutic failure, because the child might experience the male therapist as replacing the lost parent and will not engage.
- Discuss the concept of family
I would talk to the child about the concept of family in very elementary terms, and predicate their feelings first by laying a foundation of all the different types of nuclear families that exist in this day and age: One-mommy, one-daddy families. Two-mommy or two-daddy families. Some children live with their grandparents. Sometimes a mommy or daddy can have a child on their own because they want to. Divorce. Adoption. We are fortunate in this day an age to have many different books regarding all different make-ups of a family unit.
There are all different forms of families. Therefore, when their particular set-up is discussed, the child can receive it as another “type” of family. Their family is just different, not deficient. It’s not an example of loss, or so rare a family set up that the child feels humiliated or shamed at how different his/her family is.
- Ask what the child is feeling
After the psycho-education on family, if the child does come to the mother/father, I would ask the child what she was thinking or feeling about the idea of who their parent is. Get them talking and sharing. What made them think of that?
Even if thoughts are fantasy based, it’s important that the child gets out what she is thinking about, especially when we are discussing the opposite-gendered parents from the child. A missing daddy in a girl’s life can set off an evolution of narcissistic injuries. This can happen with boys, and the same-sex parent too, but for now, we are homing in on how missing or abusive fathers can create a foundation for a woman to find a narcissistic partner. (We see this with many homosexual and heterosexual women that end up with narcissists.)
I would not encourage the child to repeat the fantasy or wish over and over, because, like trauma victims, this expression can do harm if the child is allowed to repeat the wish or fantasy by actually re-traumatizing herself.
The theories on when to tell a child that they were adopted, or what happened if their sibling died, that their parents are getting divorced, or mommy or daddy is sick, are all very loaded examples in the same way that make us anxious to approach our kids.
We should not lie to our children. We should not denigrate the absent parent to a 4-year-old. We can say, “I don’t know about that. I’ll have to find that out about that if I can.” Whether the parent is present or not, we have to recognize that this child’s identity is wrapped up in the idea of who this parent is. The idea that is important to understand is that if we sit down quietly with a child and seem interested and engaged in knowing what they are thinking and feeling, they will feel heard and relief.
Chances are that once you start talking to a 4-year-old about all the different types of families that there are, they will become distracted and the conversation will get tabled. Ask them to engage in an activity like drawing a picture of their family. The young ones have a very short window for attention and for wanting to talk. If we validate them and get them engaged in understanding their family that is actually present, you will be laying the foundation of the talks that are yet to come.
I strongly suggest that people consult an experienced therapist that specializes in this area. Remaining parents can be sensitive, or take offense to a child idealizing or wishing for a parent that was abusive and cruel to the remaining parent. The parent can react insensitively, taking it personally and doing great damage to a child. We see this a good deal in adoption situations, where the covert message is sent to the adopted children is that speaking about their feelings or wanting to know about their birth parents is off limits, and would hurt the adoptive parents. The last thing we want is for the child to be afraid to speak with the parent, to feel that their feelings will cause hurt — something that happens all too often and can compound and create complicated trauma.
Developmentally the questions and answers will become more specific as the child gets older.
I strongly recommend a few consultations with a professional therapist that specializes in this specific area of concentration. Keeping the harder conversations out of the mother/child relationship is preservative, and one of the reasons to seek a child psychologist. I very often will meet with a parent a few times just on advising them about what to say — never meeting the child. I may not speak to them again until they need guidance for the next levels of communication.