It's a common enough scene on television. The estranged father. The long-lost child. The joyous, long-awaited reunion.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always turn out that way when cameras aren't rolling.
More than a quarter of U.S. children live apart from their fathers, according to a Pew study. When fathers become separated from their children, whatever the reason, nearly a third of them lose all contact within the first few years. Some fathers feel pushed out by the legal system. Others ignore their kids or refuse to pay child support as a way to get back at their former spouse.
Still others simply withdraw because they fear the shame of a failed marriage. Some even pay child support but have little to no interaction with their children.
"The idea of hearing their child's anger — they just run away," said Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist who has published a number of books about parent-child relationships. "Instead of working really hard to stay in the children's lives, he withdraws."
Many fathers never return. When reunions do happen, they often fail to go as smoothly as the father may have initially imagined, which can drive some men further from their children. But father-child relationships can be rebuilt, though fathers should approach reconciliation with measured expectations and an understanding that the bulk of the work, worthwhile as it is, will fall on their shoulders.
"Fathers are going to have to work really hard and be psychologically prepared," Coleman said. "This isn't going to be a slam dunk."
Time and place
One of the first things to consider, said Dale Sadler, a school counselor and family psychologist in Tennessee, is the when, where and how of meeting the children for the first time after a period of separation. Important life events, when the child's thoughts are especially likely to turn to the father's absence, are generally not conducive to a fresh start.
"I would not show up at the child's graduation," Sadler said. "I would not show up at the child's wedding. If it's an important time in their life the child is not going to be happy."
Many children who grew up without their fathers feel a longing for their lost parent that is especially likely to surface during life-changing events.
"There's always this lingering hurt, that this particular parent walked out on Mom and didn't want me," Sadler said. “Typically, whenever a child goes through a major life change, they revisit that past hurt. They’ll revisit it when they get their license, when they hit other milestones.”
A neutral occasion — such as a weekend — is a far better choice, Sadler said, and the sooner the better. The longer a reunion is put off, the more difficult it will be for both parties.
Location is equally important. Don't show up unannounced at an adult child's place of work or at a school. Arrange to meet for lunch instead. Start with a letter or an email for adult children. Setting up a meeting with minor children may require working through the mother, Sadler said.
Once arranged, the first meeting can be rough.
"Go into it assuming it's not going to go well initially," Coleman said. "They may not want to talk to you and they may be very critical."
Children are generally very wary of an absent father's return, Sadler said. Depending on how long the father was gone, the children may know little about their dad. Others feel animosity toward their father and may not know what to believe if they have heard conflicting sides of the circumstances regarding his departure.
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