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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

When you Ex-Spouse Becomes a Deadbeat Parent

“A daughter should not have to beg her father to have a relationship.”

So now you’re divorced and your children’s other parent has sauntered off into the sunset nary a word…You are left watching your children basking in the residue of their other parent’s disengagement and detachment. You see them learning to detach themselves and not care about him or her. You watch them stop caring about any attachment figures, including yourself and each other. Everyone learns to live in the land of “who cares anyway?”

Or, your kids may be younger and they haven’t reached the “who cares anyway” stage. They may be waiting for hours for a parent who promised to show up and never does; or, they may be constantly asking you, “When’s Mom coming to see us?” Or some other similar queries. You are heartbroken, not knowing how to respond.

“The hardest thing you’ll ever do is comfort a crying child when the other parent doesn’t come to see him.”

What can you do as you are left holding the bag? Not only were you abandoned and forced to cope with healing yourself, but you are now left with the responsibility of your children’s hurts as well.  How do you navigate this terrain?  Do you contact your ex and express your outrage and concern?  Do you ignore it and “move on?”  What is the best approach for you to take?

“My biggest heartbreak wasn’t you leaving…No.  It was that I could never give our children a whole family. I hate that you stole that from them.”

Sometimes you may feel hopeless yourself and incapable of helping anyone else, wondering, “Who’s going to rescue me?”  As you realize, no one is going to rescue you. You are the rescuer. You wonder, “How do I muster up the strength to carry on? What can I do with this devastation?” You hear no answers.  Only silence.

I am not claiming to have all the answers for this conundrum, but I do have some concrete suggestions. Because life itself involves continual problems, learning to live well in spite of them is an essential life skill. As the parent holding the bag, it is helpful to realize that your job is to teach your children what to do when life hurts. And nothing really hurts as much as abandonment from a parent.

Life lessons for helping kids heal from a deadbeat parent:

  • Help them process their feelings. Listen to them. Encourage them to talk.  Many people are not comfortable addressing feelings.  They don’t like to express them or experience them – particularly the negative ones. When children are experiencing the emptiness of a dead-beat parent, they are experiencing negative emotions that tap in to their sense of value as a human being. These emotions are difficult. But rather than allowing them to push them down and stuff these emotions, encourage them to talk.
  • Teach your children how to grieve. This involves teaching them to express their feelings and talk about what’s bothering them. You can show them that it’s okay to talk about difficult feelings by talking yourself and by asking them questions about their feelings of loss.
  • Tell them that it’s not their fault. Tell them you love them and they are lovable. Many children blame themselves for the absence of a parent. They think they are not worth enough to love. Constantly remind them of their value and the fact that the behaviors of another person are 100% the responsibility of that other person and no one else.
  • Educate them on self-care. Teach them to eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and develop healthy relationships for themselves – ones with people who ARE there for them.
  • Provide structure. One of the problems with divorce is that the family structure has been altered. There are no longer two adults at the helm.  This causes a feeling of unbalance in the household. In order to create a new equilibrium, remain stable yourself and create routines for your children to adhere to. This will provide a framework of security for your children.
  • Connect. Always ask yourself, “How have I connected to my child today?” In fact, when faced with a challenge (and there will be plenty of opportunities for this) look your child in the eye and ask the question (in your own mind) – “How can I connect to my child right now?” This will make each challenge easier to resolve and will keep you from having any power struggles.

One thing that I think is hard for parents to accept is that they cannot fix this for their children. They may want to overcompensate somehow, trying to be both Mom and Dad. This can prove to be exhausting as well as disappointing.  It is better for you to learn acceptance yourself and to give yourself permission to not fix this for your kids. After all, you can’t.

Remind yourself that children develop inner strength and resilience when they go through hard times and figure out what to do in each given situation. If you believe that it’s your job to fix everything for your children, they will come to believe that as well. In fact, in some respects, trying to fix things for your children will most likely be counter-productive, leaving them with the wrong solution.

Oftentimes when you try to fix things for your children,  you are really trying to resolve your own anxiety about the situation. You may be projecting your feelings on to your children. To eliminate this projection problem, resolve the conflict within your own mind.

You can do this by identifying what is happening inside your own psyche regarding the other parent’s lack of involvement. Perhaps you are over-identifying with your children. Perhaps you have unresolved abandonment issues yourself and you are projecting these into the mix. Seeking help for yourself would be a great way to counteract tendencies of this nature.

Rather than trying to fix things for your children, it would be best for you to teach your children how to take care of themselves during times of difficulty.  You can do this by role modeling and by discussion.  Look at yourself and realize you are the leader. Be a leader of influence. Demonstrate resilience and hope. Set goals for yourself and for your family. Keep a positive attitude and live your life well in front of your kids.


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When you Ex-Spouse Becomes a Deadbeat Parent

Sharie Stines, Psy.D

Sharie Stines, Psy.D. is a recovery expert specializing in personality disorders, complex trauma and helping people overcome damage caused to their lives by addictions, abuse, trauma and dysfunctional relationships. Sharie is a counselor at LIfeline Counseling & Education Inc., in Southern California ( Lifeline Counseling is a non-profit organization 501(c)(3) corporation. Sharie is also an abusive relationship recovery coach -


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APA Reference
Stines, S. (2019). When you Ex-Spouse Becomes a Deadbeat Parent. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from