Q: How do you prepare a 9-year-old for the inevitable disappointment of a "deadbeat" parent? My stepson's biological father is 20 months behind on child support. At 25 months, the amount will be enough that he'll lose his driver's license; with that, his job. Eventually it will continue to avalanche and become a felony issue. How do we prepare ourselves to have the conversation with my stepson that his father can't make his weekly video chat because he's in jail?
A: Firstly, let me tell you that I have tremendous empathy for you and your stepson, as well as a great deal of pity for this "deadbeat" father. It is a shame when one turns eon's back on parental financial responsibilities. As we know, money means power, and when a parent loses his power to care for his children, it's a tragedy for everyone involved. You ask some interesting questions, and I want to address how to work with children and disappointment while also taking a peek at this "inevitable" march to jail you are expecting.
Children — humans — are built to be disappointed. Children's minds, bodies and hearts are meant to experience all sorts of letdowns, failures and defeats and come out stronger and wiser. Yes, every child is different; some are more sensitive and struggle more with challenges. Some children seem to be heartier and able to bounce back faster and with greater resilience. And lest you think children can only adapt to not getting cookies they wanted, children can also live through extraordinary trauma. I don't need to trot out evidence for this, just look around and talk to anyone on the street. When you learn of their trauma and see their peaceful and loving lives, you will see their resilience. In any case, children can adapt. How do children adapt to pain that stems from a father shirking his responsibilities?
Our job, as loving adults in children's lives, is never to try to erase pain and disappointment. We see the disastrous results of the "lawn mower" parents trying to remove every obstacle for their children. Those children are often unable to handle any level of critique or loss. You, too, could clear your stepson's path. You could start a whole narrative to try to avoid pain in your scenario. You could make up stories, lie for the father, change the truth, etc. People do it all the time.
So, to begin, you must stick to the truth. Your stepson is 9, and though he is still a boy, a 9-year-old doesn't want or need to be lied to. A 9-year-old can handle any age-appropriate truth, and we owe it to him to give him the facts without dressing them up with our judgments and projections.
Secondly, don't project into the future. Oh, I know, we see the writing on the wall; the father hasn't paid any support in 20 months, and there is no reason to think he will begin to pay it now. But we don't actually know that this father will go from missing payments to losing his license to losing his job, so don't create stories before they happen. That means you don't need to say anything to your stepson until you need to. This is not lying, this is a gift. It is the adult's job to shoulder this worry and watch the horizon. Your stepson loves his father, and that isn't going to change, so why add anxiety to his life in advance? If you take your panic and place it on his young shoulders, then your stepson has to churn through the terrifying notion of jail when he may not have to. If his father goes to jail, then you will deal with that, but not before.
As for helping your stepson handle disappointment, focus on asking open-ended questions and listening. You are not your stepson, so you don't know how he feels. Your role is to allow all of his anger, sadness and messy emotions out in a safe place. Don't police your stepson's thoughts and feelings about his dad, and don't steer him in a direction with your panic and anger. Highlight what remains stable in his life — his whole attachment village. I am talking coaches, teachers, school counselors, anyone your stepson sees regularly. Create a web of love and support underneath him that will serve as a soft place for him to fall when he feels overwhelmed. Again, children can cope with loss and disappointment when there are loving adults to serve as beacons of hope, encouragement and healthy boundaries.
Don't project into the future and give your stepson worries. Don't lie to him if he asks you questions or if something awful happens, and at every turn, practice listening. Good luck.