Helping Kids When Asperger's Dad Leaves the Family

I was divorced about 5 years ago very acrimoniously from my husband who has Asperger's syndrome. There were a lot of court battles which were confusing because he seemed to be going to court to see our three children less rather than more. Our son also has Asperger's.

Eventually the court gave him visitation rights but gave me full parental control because of his mental health issues. He has not coped with the divorce at all well and is focussed on blaming me rather than thinking about the kids. His Asperger's seems to make him narcissistic.

He saw the children every second weekend for about 8 months but then about 2 ½ years ago abruptly cut off all contact with no explanation and he has barred me from contacting him. I saw him at the mall when I was with my son and younger daughter. He walked straight past us and didn't acknowledge his children – this was very distressing for my son, but thankfully the youngest didn't recognise him

My oldest daughter struggled a little last year with it all but I thought she was going ok. She has just started her 2nd year of high school and seemed to be coping much better. But last night she told me she had been trying to call him from her mobile phone and he has blocked her number. After he cut off visits he called her once and she was ecstatic and he said he would call her every Sunday but he never called back. She had written in her diary every Sunday hence “dad will call” and it was heart breaking. I have tried very hard to shield the children and haven't rubbished him as despite his problems I believe they must make up their own minds about him and have the chance to have a relationship with him.

I know that generally not saying anything about him is the right thing to do. But now his actions are having a large impact on my daughter's self esteem and I wondered if you could give me some advice on how to help her through this rejection from her dad and his family. I am seriously considering talking to her about his condition and explaining how that affects his behaviour – she will be able to relate to it as she deals with her AS brother all the time. But I am concerned about whether talking about her father in this way is a good idea. How can I minimise the impact of his behaviour on the children's self esteem?

Your letter brought me to tears. Every child deserves to have her parents adore her, coach her, advocate for her, nurture her. Your children's father has aggressively cut them out of his life. That's heart-breaking.

Many fathers, after a divorce, cut off relations with their children. Their anger at the mom and their guilt and grief over their own inability to make the marriage work are just too much for them; and the children trigger that pain at every visit. If they can't work through the pain in a healthy way, they simply bolt.

You know more about Asperger's than most people, so you know that it changes the Aspie's relationship to other humans. I know there are many wonderful Aspie parents. I also know that children of Aspies often describe difficulties, the most important of which is that Aspie parents frequently have difficulty seeing things from the child's perspective. This is what you were describing as your ex's "narcissism."

Your ex's self-centeredness, inability to empathize with his children's experience and process feelings in a healthy way may come from being an Aspie, but is probably complicated by his own emotional issues. We all have them, and a divorce brings them out in a big way and forces us to grow. Your ex has opted to exit instead, which is unfortunately all too common, even among neurotypical fathers.

Given all this, I don't think you can force your ex to relate to his children. If you want to try, you could write a heartfelt letter to him. The danger with this is that he may show up once, make promises, and then bolt again. I think that would almost be worse than the situation you're in now, although maybe not, since at least your kids would see clearly what's happening. But who wants to invite that unhappiness by rubbing all your kids' faces in their father's inability to love them?

If he would show up once to tell the kids he loves them but can't be part of their lives -- his fault, not theirs -- and he will see them when they grow up, that would be ideal. You could even ask him explicitly in your letter whether if he would be willing to do that. If you wrote the letter in such a way that he didn't felt blamed, and was able to understand that you aren't making him wrong, but the children just need to hear from him that he is choosing this NOT because there is something wrong with them, there is a tiny chance you could get through to him. You would need to be explicit that you understand that he can't be in contact on an ongoing basis, but that encounter in the mall was just too painful for the kids, and in case such a thing should happen again, you would be so grateful if he could talk to the kids just once. In person is best, but the phone would work too.

Probably, your letter will fall on deaf ears. And even if it doesn't and he comes by to see the kids once, to tell them he loves them but can't, because of his own issues, be a real dad right now, he still won't be part of their lives. And that's what you've written to me about -- this wound in the center of your children's lives. Your older daughter is suffering most right now, but each of your children will have to work through this pain in their own way and in their own time. Girls particularly may go looking for love in all the wrong places when they don't have a dad. But boys also have a hard time growing into men when their dad has given them the message that they aren't good enough.

How can you help them? I think that acknowledging the loss of their father is critical. This is akin to a death, except that in some ways it is worse. He has promised to show up and then not done so. He has chosen to leave them, and even blocked their calls. There is no way for a child to experience that except as a rejection.

I agree with you that criticizing your ex to his children would be a bad idea, for all the reasons you know. However, that is not the same as helping them to understand that his leaving has NOTHING to do with them. Parents always say that to children in a divorce, but children always assume that actually, if they were better, more perfect, the parent would have stayed. In this case, which includes blocking their calls, it is hard for your children to interpret your ex's rejection except as information about them.

And here's where you do need to step in as their mother. It is completely warranted for you to communicate in no uncertain terms to your children that their father's abandonment of them is information about HIM, not about them. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's your responsibility.

Specifically, what should you do? Begin by having a conversation with each child alone, beginning with your oldest, since she is having the hardest time. Why one at a time? To assess where each child is and let him or her express feelings, without worrying about what the others think.

1. In this conversation, open by saying that you want to tell your child something. Go on to say, "You know how much I love you and how wonderful I think you are, right?" Give your child a hug.

2. Then continue, "Your father would think you are wonderful too, if he could know you. He's had a very hard time in his life, and it has kept him from being much of a father to you. He just isn't capable of being a father, and so he's had to cut himself off from us. I hope someday that will change, but it hurts, I know. But I want you to know that his not being able to be a father to you is about HIM, not about YOU. Any father would feel lucky to have you as a daughter (son.)"

3. Stop talking and let your child respond.
She (he) might begin crying. More likely, there will be anger, which is a defense against the hurt that they don't want to feel. They might well "attack" you because you have brought up such a hurtful topic and they don't want to feel these feelings.

4. Breathe your way through your own emotions. If your child attacks, stay with your love and stay with the hurt that's under their anger, even while acknowledging their anger. They have a right to be angry.

"You're mad at me for bringing this up. We don't have to talk more right now. But it's a big deal, and when things are a big deal they need to be talked about sometimes, even when it hurts."

"You are so angry at him. I feel very angry myself sometimes, that he doesn't act like a father to you. You deserve a father. It doesn't seem fair."


5. If your child cries, just hold him or her and acknowledge the feelings. "So much sadness.....it is really hard...."

6. Notice we haven't blamed Dad, and we also haven't excused him. We have said he is not "able" to act like a father to his children. That is true -- he isn't doing it.

7. Now, ask your child:"WHY? Why do you think your dad is not able to act like a dad?"
Listen to what he or she says. Maybe they will say something angry about him. Or maybe they will say that it is your fault. Or maybe that it is the kids' fault. Just listen, let them vent.

8. Then share your own perceptions. You might want to practice first so that you can do it without venting your own rage, but instead in a more compassionate way.

"You know your father has Aspergers. That makes it harder for him to have relationships. He feels overwhelmed and he just has to run away. It doesn't make sense to us, but to him it seems like the only way to handle all of his upsetting feelings."

Especially because your son also has AS, you may want to add, to all your kids, that this doesn't happen to all people with AS. Some manage to do well in relationships. For whatever reason, not their dad. You have good instincts about talking about this, I am sure. As long as you are not attacking their dad, they will see your compassion.

9. Repeat what you said in #2, above, that their dad would adore them too if he could get to know them. The purpose of this conversation is for them to really get that their dad's behavior is information about him, not about them. This is the critical point.

10. End with, "I just want you to know that I am here to talk about this anytime. Anyone would be upset to have their father go off and leave and not act like a dad to them. You have a right to be upset, and you do not have to keep it all bottled up inside." Give them a hug and find something to do together that is more fun, to change the mood.

Ok, so you did the ice-breaking conversation with each child. Is that it? No, unfortunately. Your kids will need to grieve for a long time. At every big event (Christmas, birthdays, graduations, ball games, whatever) your kids will be keenly aware that they have no father. Or, worse, that they have a father who doesn't think they're worth loving. So be prepared for some acting out, and try to address their need to be convinced of your love, and their need to vent their feelings, rather than squelching their upsets with discipline.

Finally, I would seriously consider a ritual. Families who actually lose a parent have funerals, which you obviously can't do. But you still have a loss.

Maybe on your ex's birthday this year, you want to put some candles on a cake -- maybe one for each child -- and have each child say something to him. You can start with "You would not believe how amazing your children are. You are missing some wonderful kids. In fact, we're about to have some delicious cake, and you're going to miss that too! Your loss. We're sorry that you can't let yourself act like a dad and be part of our lives, but we know you're out there somewhere in the world, and we hope you have a happy birthday, even when we miss you and sometimes we're mad at you."

Go around the table and say "Anything you want to add?" It does not have to be nice, and it does not have to be reverent. The kids can say whatever they want and you can simply nod in understanding. Humor is good, since laughter vents the same pen-up emotions as tears.

Then everyone blows the lights out together and eats the cake, and while you eat, ask each child to share what they are looking forward to in the near future. That way, this little ceremony is sort of a demarcation line. Before, dad was not there and not talked about. Now, his absence is acknowledged and the kids get a little sweetness, and they get to look forward to the future, without focusing on him at all.

Does that make sense? Feel free to adapt this ceremony in any way that works for you. Other options would be sitting together while they each dictate anything they want to say to dad, and you write it in a letter. Then you mail it. The problem with this is that they will expect a response. The good thing is that it gets the feelings out in the open. You might consider doing this once, and then if he doesn't respond, which he almost certainly won't, having each child write a letter, crumple it, and throw it in the fire (presuming you have one) or a campfire. Or you can just write a group letter and burn it without even trying to mail it, acknowledging to each other that he really can't be reached, but the kids are all allowed to have their feelings about that and express them. (it helps them if you write it, if you're going to burn it, because it isn't quite as hopeless as burning their own letter).

Why write the letter? Because it helps them process their feelings. They do need a chance to vent.

Maybe the most important thing for you to keep in mind is that they do need to grieve, to rage, to talk. Any chance you can give them to do that is helpful to them. If they won't talk openly -- which kids often won't -- then remember that giggling is as good a release as crying, and start a pillow fight on a regular basis.

Finally, children don't need perfect lives. They need one parent who adores them and puts their welfare at the center of her life, who accepts them completely, even with all their messy upsetting emotions. If you can do that for your children, as it sounds like you do, your children can weather even this major challenge, and come out ok.

I hope that's helpful. Please let me know how things work out.

warmly,
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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