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How does a physically or emotionally absent father affect the lives of his children? How to talk to your child about an absent father? If you are an absent father yourself, how can you help your child grow up happy and confident? An interview with an expert on father absence.
Have you ever read an article or heard someone about the effects of an absent father?
Me neither. Yet, every third child in the US lives in a home without a biological father.
90% of homeless children, 85% of children with behavioral disorders and 85% of all youth in prison come from the fatherless homes.
63% of youth suicides are committed by young people who grew up without a father. And even if you survive to be a grown-up, you are facing higher chances of depression and divorce, as well as lower level of educational performance and life expectancy, so the research.
Why should you care?
Because chances are these numbers are about you.
Meet Jack Thurston, an expert on the cycle of fatherlessness.
Full Name: Jack Thurston
Occupation: Expert on father absence
Hobbies: Surfing, windsurfing, traveling
Favorite Quote: “You can close your eyes to the things that you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you don’t want to feel.” ~ Johnny Depp
Web Site: MyAsentFather.com
Follow Jack on: LinkedIn
Jack has been studying and researching this topic for over 30 years. In this role, he mentors private clients and consults different organizations.
Before our interview, I’ve read Jack’s eBook “Bridging the Void” where he talks about the effects a physically or emotionally absent father has on his children and discusses the ways to become free of these crippling consequences.
It made me realize one important thing: I’m a child of an absent father.
I grew up living together with my father, eating dinner with him every night. And yet, he was “absent”, emotionally unavailable, which I now think was even worse.
So here I am now, a grown-up person who doesn’t know how it feels to actually have a father. And let me tell you, it shows.
It makes me feel deeply sad.
For myself. For all the children who are “missing” a father right now.
For all the grown-ups who are struggling with depression and anger issues driving their loved ones away, not realizing the cause of it all.
For the absent fathers who love their kids. For the single moms who want their children to be happy.
How does having an absent father affect his children? How to talk to your child about an absent father? How can an absent father help his child to grow up happy and confident?
This (and more) is what Jack and I talked about.
An absent father is incapable or unavailable to provide his child with the fundamentals to develop a healthy character esteem and identity.
Gill: You’ve been studying and researching the effects of absent fathers on children and adults for over 30 years. This looks like a lot of determination. Is it a personal issue for you?
Jack: It is. In many ways the research and work I do on father absence chose me.
I experienced the absence of both of my parents (through various forms), and it gave me a unique perspective. But it was the story behind the statistics, the pain and the suffering – happening almost anonymously – that really shocked me.
I felt that I had to do something. I had to stand up for the kids and the adults alike, as “only through silence can fear and shame prosper”.
Gill: What does it mean, an absent father? I read on your web site that there are two kinds of absent fathers: physically more absent than present and emotionally unavailable. Could you please explain?
Jack: This is not as straight forward question as you might think. In the case of the father who is never there it’s pretty black and white. But if the father is away consistently, like a FIFO worker or military personnel, it is difficult to say when he “becomes absent”.
For me, the definition comes back to the child. Some kids need a lot of time with their parents, while others are more independent. That is also different for different stages of development.
So you can say an absent father is one who is incapable or unavailable to provide his child with the fundamentals to develop a healthy character esteem and identity.
Gill: Is an emotionally absent father “as bad” as the one who is physically absent? Or is one worse than another?
Jack: It’s a bit of a blanket statement. However, the evidence shows that an emotionally absent father causes just as much damage to their children as a physically absent one.
The society is full of mixed messages and contradictory expectations. Can you tell what constitutes a man today?
Gill: What’s so special about fathers? Won’t it all be the same if a mother was absent?
Jack: The healthy presence of both parents is vital in child’s development. I focus on fathers mainly because of the overwhelming void absent fathers leave in the lives of their children nowadays as well as the disintegration of the concept of a ‘father’ within the Western societies.
In my work, I do not only deal with fathers in the biological sense, but also in terms of the archetypal and psychological father.
Gill: Archetypal father?
Jack: I mean the symbolic nature or sub-conscious image. ‘Father’ is in many ways linked to our identity. A father represents safety, security, prosperity, authority, justice, power, etc.
Psychoanalyst Guy Corneau proposes that, as a result of our most basic archetypal coding “we are preconditioned to meet our father… to learn and develop from our father”. He then goes on to say that it is our relationship with our father that determines whether or not our natural program that lets us reach our full potential gets ‘turned on’.
The societies up until about 300 years ago were full of male role models. If the father was absent, there were limitless numbers of uncles and extended family members or community leaders to fill the void.
Today in our fast paced world of the nuclear family, the archetypal father is more likely to be Obi Wan Kenobi or some similar mono-dimensional or (even worse) somewhat schizophrenic character.
Gill: So it means that if our biological father is absent, we will choose one – the archetypal and psychological father – from the people in our lives?
Jack: Children are often embroiled in a mixture guilt, shame and uncertainty. At the time when they are confronted by father absence, their parents are often dealing with separation themselves and are rarely equipped to deal with the trauma from a child’s perspective.
So children start looking for role models. And because they often feel not worthy or in some way at fault they might become attracted to a “wrong” role model.
Worst of all is that the society is full of mixed messages and contradictory expectations for what constitutes a man. Can you tell what constitutes a man today?
Is he strong or is he caring and insightful?
A bread winner or an involved father who spends more time at home?
Or shall we model ourselves from Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and other high profile figures whose shadow is more notorious then them?
Effects of absent father isn’t an issue confined to children. It’s an issue of humanity.
Gill: Does having an absent father affect sons and daughters the same way?
Jack: Some effects of it are common to both sons and daughters, whilst others differ depending on the gender.
Yet, make no mistake. This is not a male issue. This is not a female issue. And this is certainly not an issue confined to children, as these effects do not disappear when we enter adult life. It’s rather an issue of humanity!
Gill: You say that the absence of a father can result in depression, anger, guilt, etc. How do we know the absent father is the reason, and not something else?
Jack: Good question. Although father absence is not an issue that is widely discussed, it has been incredibly well researched.
Just after the end of the World War II many governments around the world became concerned by the effects of absent fathers. Hence, we have everything from census data to thousands of independent, large-scale studies which have identified father absence to be a primary issue of depression, anger, guilt, etc. 
So while it is certainly not the only cause to many of the symptoms you mention, it is a major contributor.
Gill: In your book, you talk about the “cycle of fatherlessness”. What does it mean and why it is important to be aware of it?
Jack: If while you were growing up your father was absent, you are three times more likely to be involved in a failed relationship, and as a man, you are far more likely to be an absent father yourself.
The social landscape has dramatically changed during the last 8 generations. The effects of this change became visible only now: The rate of father absence rose 400% in the last 60 years.
Most of the work to date on father absence is focused on dealing with its effects: Depression, anger, guilt, etc. But we won’t be able to see a positive change in this trend unless we address the issue at its cause, which is the cyclical nature of father absence.
Gill: Were you able to break your own “cycle of fatherlessness”?
Jack: I was. Yet, I have to admit that there were many layers to the process. I didn’t have a road map, so I went down some paths that led me to a dead end. But with all the mistakes and the lessons learned I can now fast-track the same process for others.
Like the seed that grows into a mighty oak tree, we have everything we need to fully actualize.
Gill: Let’s say, my father was emotionally absent. And although it did have an effect on me, I managed to deal with it and am currently living a more or less balanced and happy life.
Yet, the “emotionally absent father” stuff is packed in a mental box that is sitting in the darkest corner of the mental basement.
Must I open this box or can it stay where it is?
Jack: What I have found to be universally true is that if you have an issue like this “hidden in your basement” it is affecting your life even if you think it is not.
While in the moment it might seem that you can deal with it, over the course of time its effects will surface.
As they say, “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins; not through strength, but through perseverance.”
Gill: How would you recommend somebody to “open this box”? What should be the first steps?
Jack: There is no “one size fits all” solution. For some people, psychotherapy is certainly required. But the vast majority does not experience the effects of an absent father on such a clinical level, so there is a great deal of simple, quick and effective things they can do.
The work that I do is centered on the premise that we enter this world wired to achieve our full potential.
Like the seed that grows into a mighty oak tree, we have everything we need to fully actualize. The problem is that our internal structures just don’t get turned on.
So what can be done?
We can access and activate our inherent structures through a variety of processes.
The key elements in this process include aspects of neuro-science, visualization, journaling, and exercises. That’s it. It’s quick and easy to do, doesn’t involve big money, and you will see results in days.
The ultimate anchor which holds us back is, in most instances, our own beliefs.
Gill: How do your workshops usually work?
Jack: The workshops are centered around a combination of understanding, discovery and process work.
To start, we look at who you are. Not who you think or would like others to think you are. This is an incredibly liberating experience in itself.
The next step is to identify what’s holding you back. This is both confronting and liberating, because in the most cases the ultimate anchor which holds us back happens to be our own beliefs.
The final stage is all about identifying the highest vision of yourself and what your real goals are.
Gill: Can you share one of the stories from your experience that touched you the most?
Jack: I have been touched by so many stories and feel honored to have witnessed the transcendence of so many that it’s difficult to choose one. The most recent transformation involved a women I will call Holly.
Holly’s mother (whilst married) had had an affair, and Holly was born into her family under a cloud of denial, guilt and shame.
She was raised in an environment where her mother and her husband rarely spoke. So as a young child Holly developed a bubbly personality, as if trying to make it impossible for anyone to ignore her.
Now in her forties, Holly had tremendous anger, trust and entitlement issues, which had cost her many close friendships and job advancement threatening her relationship with her children and her husband.
Through the processes outlined above we identified and strengthened Holly’s core values. We exposed the pain of her childhood and how it was now unconsciously present in every aspect of her life.
In the cold light of day, she saw how her subconscious pain was driving her children and her husband away.
We dealt with Holly’s pain at its core, which was her abandonment and father absence issues. After that we identified the mother and wife she now chose to be.
I am proud to say that within a couple of weeks after she started to apply suggested exercises and strategies, Holly has experienced an almost total transformation.
Her true friends have noticed the change and are now once more close to her. But most of all her relationship with her sons and her husband is re-establishing.
Now, without her protective anger Holly has a connection to her family that she had not even dreamed possible a month earlier.
A true man has access to both power and compassion. Show your children that they matter and that you love them.
Gill: I’m happy that “the grown-up Holly” made it after all, but I feel so bad for the little girl that she was! I wish there was a way to make all parents aware of what a tremendous effect they have on their children, and how their words and deeds come hunting their children long after they grow up.
I’m sure sometimes there is no way to keep the family together, and a father becomes “absent” unwillingly. Is there anything he can do to make sure his children grow up as healthy as possible, psychologically speaking?
Jack: Children don’t need miracles. They need your presence. So when you are there, be there. Don’t worry about work, your phone or how your favorite football team is doing.
Children need your love. A true man has access to both power and compassion. So show your children that they matter and that you love them.
Make sure that they know that you not being there is your failing and not theirs.
Also, as kids tend to think that the world revolves around them, you must provide them with a healthy self-image and a proper level of self-esteem.
Overall though, the best thing that you as an absent father can do is to deal with your own issues first. Your children will notice this more than anything. This is exactly how you break the cycle of fatherlessness.
Talking to your child about an absent father: Accept their reaction, use simple language, do not blame, offer ways to deal with emotions.
Gill: Is there anything a mother can do to ensure the same? How to talk to your child about an absent father?
Jack: Our role as parents is not to raise perfect kids. It’s rather just to be the best we can around them, as it is who we really are our children witness and model.
Again, there are so many aspects to consider here, like the age of the child, the circumstances that led to the separation, etc. In the case of a very young child the following few brief points are helpful.
Accept that every child experiences loss in a unique way; the reactions can be intense as well as sporadic. As a child passes through life’s developmental stages, these feelings often resurface. Attempts to hurry the healing process can be detrimental.
It is vital that you provide an understanding of what is going on through simple language. We attempt to hide the truth from children as a form of protection. Unfortunately, this often only adds to any feeling of uncertainty and fear.
Ensure that in your explanation responsibility is owned by both parents and certainly not the child. This is not the environment for blame or guilt but rather compassion and empathy.
Keep in mind that separation, from the child’s perspective, can equate to trauma. The feelings of fear, shock, sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety and guilt are normal reactions.
Show understanding by being compassionate and offering your calm, silent presence. If the child shares an emotion, reflect and validate it by restating the feeling. For example, say, “That was very sad.” Saying “I know how you feel,” is not helpful because one can never truly know the pain of another.
Children deal with emotions often through activity. Provide opportunities for the child to participate in activities designed to help in the development process. For young children in particular, play is an incredibly healthy outlet. Other helpful activities include writing, reading, telling stories, creating crafts, participating in rituals.
Gill: Jack, I can’t thank you enough for your time and insights you shared with us. Personally for me, our conversation has been an eye-opener.
Yet, it feels like we’ve just scratched the surface. I’m sure many readers would like to know more about or would have personal questions.
Are there any (online) resources you could refer them to?
Jack: Currently, I’m developing a series of online resources that will focus on the unique needs of 4 sub-groups which (roughly) include:
- Mothers who are raising children in a fatherless environment
- Youth who are in an absent father environment
- Adults with a father void
- Fathers who have lost or have little contact with their children.
These resources will be available through my website.
Hence, I would encourage anyone who is interested to simply download the ebook by registering with the site (it’s free).This will automatically register them for the option to access any upcoming information.
Apart from that, I’m happy to converse with anyone who requires any specific or further information. Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 – Source: “Absent Fathers Lost Sons”↩ go back
 – For ex., Parsons, T. 1955. “The American Family: Its Relation to Personality and to the Social Structure.” in Family, Socialization, and Interaction Process edited by T. Parsons and R.F. Bales. New York: Free Press; or Murdock, G.P. 1949. Social Structure. New York: MacMillan.↩ go back
 – According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of children living in mother-only households has risen from 8 percent in 1960 to around 33% in 2013.↩ go back