Fathers are going to have to work really hard and be psychologically prepared. This isn't going to be a slam dunk. —Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist
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.
Above all, the children fear their father may leave again.
Girls tend to act on these emotions more directly, Sadler said. They may become depressed and withdrawn, or anxious. Boys are more likely to become angry, and to take it out on uninvolved individuals. But that anger is a secondary emotion, used to express something more complex.
The father's role, Coleman said, what you've started to build. "should be to reassure the children and begin to prove he will make good on his promises. Gifts and trips only go so far — consistency and communication are far more important.
If a child is angry, the father will have to learn to react without anger in turn, and should avoid blaming problems that may arise on the child.
"He's going to have to hear their anger with him, and there won't be a lot of room to defend himself," Coleman said.
Outside influences can also impact the success of a reconciliation attempt. The child's mother can easily block reconciliation attempts, either directly or indirectly, by causing the child to resent his father.
"Mom can do a lot of damage in terms of whether the children want to see their father again if they lie, distort or emphasize the negative," Coleman said. "Those kinds of things are toxic to the child."
For the sake of the children, mothers need to protect their children from their own opinion of their ex, Coleman said. While parental guidance is necessary for minors, and while some circumstances, such as those involving abuse, should be approached with caution, mothers should not deliberately keep their children from reconciling with their father.
"The child has a right to a relationship with his father," Coleman said. "It's not for you to say, it's for your children to say."
Remarriage and a stepfamily can also complicate the situation but do not have to be barriers to a successful reconciliation. In fact, a child often transitions into a stepfamily situation more easily when both biological parents have a role in the child's life, said Brian Higginbotham, an extension specialist who oversees the University of Utah's stepfamily education program.
"Having another parent in the mix isn't necessarily a problem when the split is amicable," Higginbotham said. "But when you use the children as pawns or spies, it's incredibly hard for the kids to develop a relationship with someone they were told was the enemy."
Though difficult at first, Sadler said rebuilding a broken father-child relationship is possible over time. It may not come until adulthood, when the child comes to a better understanding of his father's emotions when he left, but it can come.
Even in cases where the relationship cannot be repaired, seeking forgiveness and understanding can be a healing exercise for individuals, Sadler said.
"Bitterness is a bad thing to carry around," he said. "Forgiveness is something you do for yourself."