1. What do I tell my child about seeing her father – who she doesn’t even know?
As with all these questions, it will depend on circumstances such as the age of your child and how much they understand. It might be helpful to discuss this with staff who’ve dealt with it before. Here are a few pointers:
Children will usually ask for the information they need. It’s not necessary to give long-winded explanations. If your child is old enough, they’ll already have some idea about families and relationships. Sometimes it helps a child to understand if you say things like, “We used to be together (like me and Brian are together now)”. You then need to explain why the child’s father is important. You might add that everyone has only one father (use the term father here, as some people have more than one daddy). You can describe this as being a very special relationship because all sorts of people love you (grandparents, siblings and friends) but you only have one father (and mother). Explain that the father is special because a person is made from their father and their mother “so your father is part of you – and so am I!” You can refer to him as ‘dad’ or ‘daddy’ or, if your child uses that title for someone else, ‘daddy Pete’. If either of you aren’t ready for this, stick with ‘father’.
Now, start to prepare your child for meeting his or her father. Say that their father has asked to see them because he misses them, loves them and wants to get to know them. If the child is aware of conflict between you, be clear that just because you don’t get on it doesn’t mean your child and their father shouldn’t.
If you’re using a contact centre, most people refer to a special place for children to see their daddies or mummies that they don’t live with. You can say that there’ll be other people there – mention staff or volunteers if the child has met them – and that these people will look after you. If you’re involved in court proceedings (especially with older children) you may want to describe the court and how a Judge (“a very clever and sensible person”) will decide all of this.
2. How do I tell my child his ‘daddy’ isn’t really his father?
Follow the first suggestions above, explaining that children come from a mother and a father. Go on to say that when your child was born both parents loved them very much, but they didn’t get on with each other afterwards. Go on to say that at some point you got together with ‘daddy’ and describe how you love each other and so daddy/Brian (perhaps call him by his first name when going over old history) decided to be your daddy. You can then describe how much he loves the child and all the things he does that make him a daddy and make him part of the family. Come back to the beginning again and say that before daddy was around there was another daddy/father. Suggest your child calls him ‘Daddy Brian’ or ‘Daddy One’ or ‘First Daddy’ or ‘Old [as in not-new] Daddy’
3. What do I say when my child asks why I won’t be in the same room as his daddy?
You’ll have explained how you and daddy don’t get on anymore. If you know other families in a similar situation, use them as examples. Say that you fell out, or you are cross, or not friends with each other – use terms that a child understands. Make sure you give your child ‘permission’ by telling them it’s okay for them to be with their father. If they are older or aware of the conflict between you, consider how you might describe this. You can say that daddy did some things that made you upset or angry. It won’t be helpful to your child to hear bad things about their father. Of course, if there is any way you can be in the same room, however briefly, your child will benefit.
4. What do I say to my child when they ask why they have to see me at this centre, or why they can’t see me more often?
Tell them this is what all the grown-ups have decided is best at the moment. Describe the process according to age and understanding. Give them reassurance by saying things such as, “…but even when I’m not with you I love you and think about you”. If the subject arises about how often you see them, reply confidently that this is the way it is at the moment. Don’t give your child any promises about things changing, but you can say, “I’d love to see you more” adding, “…but at the moment this is the way it is”. Whatever you do, don’t blame the other parent.
5. How can I discipline my child when I only see them once a week for an hour?
It’s very hard, because you don’t want to seem like a ‘baddy’ in the short time you have together. Try to remember that your job is to help your child feel safe and looked-after. They won’t feel like that if they’re allowed to do anything they want. Children don’t want to be in control – it makes them feel insecure.
Having said that, you don’t want to spoil your time together by falling out if you can avoid it, so ask the staff for advice about techniques you can use. Try to distract your child from bad behaviour. For some children it helps to have things explained to them – “Remember the room isn’t yours, so we must look after it and not break anything”. The most successful technique is praise for good behaviour.