You might believe your child is getting enough time with you, since you spend as much time as you can with them at home. In reality, your child might be feeling lonely and left behind, watching you preoccupy yourself with chores and work at home.
Absent parenting is a term to describe parents who are physically present, but whose presence their children cannot feel due to a lack of interaction and involvement. This can have debilitating consequences on children’s lives, which parents often fail to recognize due to the belief that their physical proximity makes them sufficiently present.
Recent research shows a historic increase in loneliness, with more than 1 in 10 children now experiencing loneliness every single day. As many as two-thirds of children who experience loneliness grow up to be lonely adults.
There are many possible causes for this increasing loneliness, from shrinking family size to soaring divorce rates and more single-parent families, but one common factor that links them is absent parenting.
Read further to learn about the signs of absent parenting, the dangers it can pose to children, and how to prevent it.
What does absent parenting look like?
1. Having only necessary conversations
Parents in general do not indulge in idle conversation with their children on a daily basis. Parents can often feel they spend enough time talking, with all of the advice, correction and coaxing they direct at their children every waking hour. By the end of the day, it can feel as though you have used too much of your voice.
But what about quality conversation? Did you find out what was the most exciting moment of your child’s day? How about the challenges or difficulties they faced? It is more than likely that your conversation with your child revolved around basic daily exchanges concerning meals, schedules, homework, and hygiene.
Children need to be heard and feel connected. This won’t happen through the mundane, perfunctory exchanges required to get through a day. Re-examine the subjects of your conversations with your children to see where you can incorporate more in-depth, personal conversation into your daily communication.
2. Not knowing your child’s best friend’s name and current interests
Children develop and change daily. One easily identifiable indicator of absent parenting is whether you are up-to-date on your child’s life.
Some of the most important things in your child’s life are their close friends and current interests—how well informed are you about them?
Don’t rely on whatever your child told you a few months ago and assume you know all you need to. Check in often, to find out whether your child is still interested in marine biology or whether the names of the friends they mention are still the ones you remember.
3. No one-on-one time
Parents with hectic lives forget that a conversation at the dinner table or talking over the TV is not the same as one-on-one time with their children.
Find a moment without the usual distractions of drop-off or pick-up times at school or bedtime routines. Initiate a more intimate conversation, or play simple games like I spy or hide-and-seek to lighten your child’s mood and share a fun moment each day.
4. Not seeing your child smile
Do you get to see your child smile about something you said or did with them? If you haven’t shared laughter with your child recently, you’re missing the opportunity to build positive memories with them. Although a parent’s primary role is to teach their children right from wrong and guide them safely through life, sharing warm, fun moments is also crucial to a child’s ability to build close relationships and develop a sense of trust and security.
5. Infrequent physical contact with your child
As children grow and become more independent, chances for parents to be physically close and attend to their needs naturally start to diminish. But that does not mean your children no longer appreciate or need the occasional warm cuddle or tap on the back.
Take a moment to sit close to your child for a movie night, or link arms for a stroll in the park. Give them a high five or a cuddle whenever you find an opportunity. Every human needs physical contact to feel loved and secure.
6. Your child stays outside the home longer and longer
If your child prefers to stay outside the home and finds every excuse to avoid family gatherings, it can be a sign your child doesn’t feel any sense of belonging or approval at home.
It is important for your children to feel your presence and sense that they matter to you. As busy as parents might feel providing all the physical necessities for their children, emotional and psychological needs are equally important matters that also need attention.
The damaging effects of absent parenting on children
1. Attention-seeking behaviour
Children who feel left out or deprived of adequate attention from their parents tend to exhibit attention-seeking behaviour. More often than not, children will take negative attention over no attention at all, which can result in frequent emotional outbursts and rule-breaking.
2. Lower self-esteem
Children with lower self-esteem do not typically display distinct signs, but it does affect their overall mood and daily performance. Lack of interaction with your child can make them feel unloved and uncared for, leading to low self-esteem and hindered development.
3. Seeking attention from outside the home
Children who can’t get the attention they need tend to seek it elsewhere, which can pose great danger. If your children conclude that home is not a source of affectionate attention, they will seek attention from their peers, other adults, and authoritative figures outside the home. If your children are willing to take risks in exchange for attention and affection, they become vulnerable to exploitation and harm.
4. Emotional disorder
The absence of a sense of belonging at home from lack of interaction and parental care can trigger emotional disorders like depression. Your children need to sense your presence in order to feel a secure sense of belonging and love at home.
5. Lower performance and grades
Absent parenting can obstruct your child’s ability to thrive outside the home. Your attention is an important ingredient for your children to develop the boundaries and sense of connection they need to perform well in many areas outside the home.
How to avoid absent parenting
1. Be ready to drop everything for 10 minutes
Never assume your presence around your children is sufficient to satisfy their needs, because the meaning of absent parenting is that your children cannot feel your presence, regardless of your physical proximity. Take even just 10 minutes away from whatever you are doing and give your kid your full attention. That 10 minutes of your time can give a meaningful memory to your children, which helps build stronger relationships with them.
2. Involve your child
As a parent, you have more than your share of work around the house each day. It is tempting to immerse yourself in your chores and multitask in an attempt to get more done. But if you can afford to slow down some of your work, consider involving your child in taking care of things like yard work, window cleaning, and decluttering. If your child is big enough, show them what to do and ask them to assist you, but if your child is too young, take the time to explain what you are doing and how things work. More often than not, your child will enjoy the time with you, discovering new things along the way.
3. Engage in conversation with your child as you work around the house
Strike up a conversation with your children as you work around the house. Whether you are folding laundry or organizing the mail, engaging with your children is a great way to make the most of an otherwise mundane routine.
4. Do not assume your children will approach you when they really need you
If your children don’t feel heard and aren’t accustomed to getting your attention, it is highly unlikely that they will seek your help or advice when they need it.
It is important to build trust and boundaries with your child concerning your presence and attentiveness. Let your child know they matter and your thoughts are on them, and you always love hearing them. It is better to give them a full ten minutes of your undivided attention than to be physically present all day with your focus elsewhere.
5. Keep track of your words of affirmation
What loving and encouraging words of support did you say to your child today? Never assume your children know how you feel about them. Children need affirmative words to feel loved and cared for. Use nurturing words and verbal expressions of love each day.
6. Make a mini date
Having a date day with your child is not the same as a family dinner out. Family outings won’t necessarily accommodate all of your child’s interests, but setting a playdate sets aside a part of the day just for them. Have some one-on-one time that meets your child’s interests and allows enough time for intimate conversation.
7. Write a memo or a letter
If you never seem to have enough time to communicate with your child each day, what better way to add your personal touch to their time away from you, than by putting a memo in their lunch box? Write them a loving message to surprise them when they least expect it.
Absent parenting is what children experience when they are unable to feel your presence in spite of physical proximity, due to a lack of interactions and parental attention. Absent parenting can pose great risks to your children in terms of their emotional stability, performance, and safety.
Examine your daily interactions with your children and consider whether you have given them enough one-on-one time and affirmative words. Make sure you are up-to-date about their close friends and interests. Encourage your child with supportive words, involve him or her in your daily activities, and set aside time just for them. Try to squeeze in more intimate conversation every day, giving them your full, undivided attention—if only for ten minutes at a time.
Children need to be heard and feel your presence to develop a sense of security and belonging. Maximize your presence in their lives by stepping beyond mundane, routine interactions.
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