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How to Handle Kids' Questions about Divorce

As much as single parents look for support and rejoice that the stigma attached to their families is fading, it's their own children's questions and sentiments that may pose the toughest challenge. ("Do I have a daddy?" "I want a mommy!") No matter how well a solo parent does her job, there are going to be points in a child's life when he will sorely miss having that other parent.

Many single parents teach their children that families take many forms: "Whoever loves you -- that's your family." But the desire for the other parent is an important wish, says Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., a research psychologist and scholar at Stanford University's Institute for Research on Women & Gender in Palo Alto, CA. And children need to feel that they can express their fantasies or desires without being discounted.

Telling a child, "We're doing great. We don't need a daddy," or "But you have Grandma, Aunt Emily, Uncle Bob, and all your cousins," won't satisfy a child. "Adults who don't acknowledge the feelings behind these questions may think they're protecting their children -- when they're really protecting themselves," says Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., author of How to Turn Boys Into Men Without a Man Around the House: A Single Mother's Guide.

The best approach to the Daddy (or Mommy) Question, experts say, is to be honest and matter-of-fact and to reassure your child that his desires and feelings are normal. To a child who says, "I want a daddy," a parent might respond, "I know you do, honey. Having a daddy would be nice," or "I can understand that you would want to have a daddy." That way you're acknowledging and validating your child's feelings without undermining your current family structure. Another child may ask, "Can we get a mommy?" or "Let's get you a husband, Mommy." Even if you're not interested (or optimistic), you can allow your child to pursue the idea. You might respond, "That would make you happy, wouldn't it?"

As with many sensitive questions asked by small children, it's a good idea to answer only those asked and then see what follows. Give an age-appropriate answer (the younger the child, the less you need to go into detail), and ask your own question if you think there's something else worrying your child. ("What do you think it would be like to have a daddy?" or "What can a daddy add to our family?") If a parent has left the family, kids also need to know that it was not their fault.

Some children may not ask these kinds of questions at all, even if it's clearly on their mind. Try reading related books or watching certain TV shows together, experts suggest. It can be a good way to discuss the topic.

Originally published in Child magazine, copyright © 2002.