Dear Prudence

Help! How Do I Tell My Child Their Parent Is a Criminal?

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A man puts his arm around a little girl hugging his waist in front of a graphic of prison bars
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Yurii Sliusar/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

The other biological parent of my child is a criminal, the kind who’s seriously harmed the most vulnerable in society (women and children, the mentally ill, etc.).

It won’t be long before my kid inevitably asks about their other parent, and I have no idea what I’ll say. How does one break to a child that their other parent is an absolute abomination? All the guidance on talking to kids about their other parent assumes that they’re a normal person and tells you to be nice about them. I don’t want to traumatize my kid, but I also don’t want to lie or be too nice about their other parent and risk them idolizing and potentially one day getting in contact with a person who would definitely abuse them.

—Stay Away

Dear Stay Away,

This is a very tough situation, made tougher by the fact that you clearly care deeply about your kid. A lot of people would simply tell the disturbing truth without worrying about the consequences, or be dishonest to avoid a hard conversation. The work of finding a middle ground can feel overwhelming. But some of the advice I got when I shared your question with readers might make it feel more manageable.

First, there’s the idea that you don’t have to tell the whole story all at once. Since you say your kid hasn’t yet asked about their other parent, I’m guessing they’re very young—maybe between 3 and 6 years old. As a few people pointed out, you can keep it very simple at first:

There is going to be a substantial period of time between 1) kid asking about other parent and 2) kid being able to reach out to other parent. One step at a time. Answer the question the kid is actually asking. Your dad had brown hair like you and liked baseball isn’t a lie. —@lowinchen

I’d talk about how some people do good things—firefighters, doctors, etc.—and some people do bad things—start fires, hurt others, etc. Create parallels your kid can grasp and use age-appropriate examples. I’d build over time, as there’s no reason to share everything at once. —@_pcarlisle

Starting when the kid is small: “[Other parent] is sick and it’s not safe for them to be around other people.” Slightly older: “They made some really bad choices, and it’s not safe for them to be around other people.” Slightly older: get into details about those choices. Etc. —@cynthiasaysboo

As they get older, I think you should always err on the side of being more honest—even if it’s tough—not just so your kid knows the truth about their other parent, but because this will help them trust you and feel safe with you.

Friend’s kid’s dad was a drug addict and dealer who flaked a lot. Friend says her biggest regret was lying for dad-that kid needed to have one parent kid could trust, and she had to be it because dad wasn’t able. Kid was much happier when friend started telling the truth kindly —@MTennermann

As you do this, keep the focus on your concern for them and their safety, and always remind them that you’re sharing this information because it’s your job as a parent:

As a person whose mother did everything she could to ensure I had a good relationship with my father despite his abuse, I wish she would have gone no contact and said the following instead:

“I felt it was unsafe for both of us to maintain a relationship with [other parent]. They have a history of mistreating [women/children/etc.] and I did not think it was healthy to subject either of us to that environment. If you are interested in learning specifics, here are some resources. If you are interested in getting to know them, I will support you. But I also want you to have a neutral third party to talk to throughout this process, like a therapist. I will answer any questions you have truthfully and to the best of my ability. Ultimately, I love and support you and want what is best for you.” —@kt_quarancat

I know at a young age it’s so easy to internalize that a parent didn’t want us for some reason, so I think start by talking about the kind of safe, loving people the kid deserves to have in their life, & how you see it as your job to protect them from mean/unsafe people. If you can, remind them of a time you stepped in when someone wasn’t treating them right. Go from there to talking about how TOP (the other parent) isn’t safe right now.

I also think it’s fine to say “If you decide you want to meet them as an adult, that’s ok.” —@gishmi1ish

There’s unfortunately no way that the truth about your child’s other parent is going to be easy or totally nontraumatizing to hear. But I think these using these tactics will make it easier to digest, and may even strengthen your relationship with your child in the process.

Classic Prudie

This is my wife’s second marriage. She had a daughter from that first marriage, and we have adult children of our own. That first marriage was abusive, and my wife’s sister helped her to escape. When she divorced and left her husband, she also left her child and has never tried to trace or contact her. She finds the whole subject very painful, so much so that she waited to tell me until just before our wedding when she could no longer keep the secret. I think she came close to leaving me rather than have to do that. I have respected her pain and kept the secret through over 30 years of marriage. In particular, our kids have no clue their mom was married before or that they have a sister.