What and how do I tell my child?
Do I have to tell my child about their father?
Many mothers who had a child after forced sexual contact no longer have any contact with the perpetrator. They ask themselves: What should I say when my child asks me about their father? Maybe you have the same questions. It is a difficult subject. What do you tell them and what don't you tell them? You're ashamed to talk about what happened. Maybe you're worried your child will look at you differently and disapprove of you. And you don't know what the right time is to tell your child where they come from. How old do they have to be for that? Because it is such a difficult subject, many mothers want to forbid the child from asking these questions, or they promise to talk about it 'later' over and over again. Another way is to distract the child. This often only helps for a while, or not at all. The child keeps asking these questions.
What happens to your child's thoughts and feelings?
Most children want to know where they are from. Especially when they come into contact with other fathers, they start asking the question: “Who is my father and where is he?” An unkind or angry response, or the promise to tell them later, will make your child more curious and they will continue to ask questions. “Why is my mother responding like this...?” Children can start fantasising when they don't have all the information, they will fill in the gaps of the story themselves. Often this doesn't fit reality. In their mind, the unknown father becomes the perfect father, or they make up a big story around it. If the mother's usual response to a question is to get angry, the child may start to think: “Mummy doesn't love me, she doesn't want to tell me things, she doesn't take me seriously.”
Older children tend to ask questions like: “Who am I, what makes me me, whom do I look like?” Because of this, they will also ask: who is my father? Even if they didn't get an answer when they were younger, or if they were given an answer they weren't sure of, they will ask the question again.
What can I tell my child and at what age?
Young children aged approximately 3 to 12 years
The information you give your child must be suitable for their age. You have to be able to adapt the story for a young child when it's a little older. Remember, it is a difficult message for a child to be told that the father is a bad, angry man or a criminal. Your child will internalise this idea and any doubts: “Am I like him?”
A young child, up to about six years old, can be told that you knew their father very briefly and that he has moved on with his life, you don't know where to. To an older child, you can say that the father is a man who wanted more from you than you wanted from him. He stole your love. He left, you don't know where to. Let your child know you understand them, that you understand that they would like their questions answered. To an even older child, you can explain that there was an unsafe situation and that the father hurt you. That this happened in that particular situation, and maybe he wasn't usually like that. There has been no contact with him after that.
Older children, from about 12 years of age
You can say more about the situation to an even older child, a teenager: that you were not safe in that situation. And perhaps briefly say what happened, without going into details. Start your story with a ‘general outline’. Such as that the environment was unsafe, that all women were at risk, and you were forced to be there due to the situation. Or that it happened to a lot of women, that they were given
drugs in their drink without their knowing. Or that there was a war, and that is when a lot of women are abused. After this, you can say something about your situation. An older child can usually understand a little more. You don't have to give details about the event itself.
How do I tell my child?
It is important that you practice the story you intend to tell your child in advance. Choose a moment when you feel strong enough to respond to your child's questions. Remember that it is not a nice experience for a child to be sat down to have a conversation. It is much easier to start a conversation in which you don't need to look at each other and are doing something together. For example, during a walk, or when your child is sat on your lap and you're looking out of the window together. Be honest about your feelings. It is okay to say that it is a difficult thing for you to talk about and that sometimes you have trouble finding the right words. Be honest if your child asks questions that you don't want to answer or cannot answer at that time. For example: “Sorry, I don't want to say anything about that right now, but I understand that you are asking this.” When your child walks away or starts talking about something else, it usually means they are tense. It doesn't mean they are not interested. If you notice this, stop for a moment and come back to it later.
It is possible to have a longer conversation with an older child. Even then, sitting down together to have a chat can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it's easier for you both to talk during a walk or while you're cooking.
A few tips
Remember, your child lives in the here and now. Your child wants to know who they are and wants to get to know you! Your child is looking for connection. The answer to the question “who am I and where do I come from?” starts with your history, too. If you can find a few positive stories from your childhood, about events and people who are (or have been) important to you, this will give your child answers and a foundation. Also mention some external features or character traits from yourself or from your family you recognise in your child.
Important: Always remember that your child sees you as a mum, not as a woman. Mum is the one who takes care of you, comforts you, and plays with you. The shame and disapproval of how your child was born is in your head, not your child's.
It's better to have a few short conversations rather than one long conversation. There is less tension in short conversations, even for you. It gives you the opportunity to add to your story later. And your child has the opportunity to ask questions that they have come up with later.
If you had your chat at home and weren't doing something together, finish it off by doing something together, like playing a game.
Choose a time when you are not too tired and are not angry or sensitive. Make yourself comfortable and take your time. Think back to when you were a girl. Were you a curious child? How did people respond to you when you asked questions? What was that like for you? Now think of your child.
Try to understand what your child is thinking or feeling. Now start playing a game with your child, for example blowing a ping pong ball or feather between you, driving a toy car back and forth between you. For slightly older children: playing a clapping game together, singing a song, playing with a balloon. And for even older children: dancing or playing football together.
What do I tell other people?
Others may ask questions about your child's father. You don't have to tell them anything you don't want to. You may want to tell people you trust a little more. Whether you can trust people is something you learn over time. Discuss things about yourself with people you know, or small everyday concerns or problems, and see if you feel understood and respected. You can say to others: “I am no longer in touch with my child's father…… That's a long story, which I'd rather not talk about.”
What do I tell healthcare professionals?
To people who help you, such as a doctor or therapist, it may be good to tell them a little more, especially if they are helping you deal with your child. You should only tell the healthcare professional if you trust them. You don't have to share any details if you don't want to. Healthcare providers are not allowed to say anything about things you tell them in confidence. You can ask them not to. When it comes to other types of care, such as when your child is ill or you’re having problems that have nothing to do with how your child was conceived, it is not useful to provide this information.
If you have to fill in the father's name on any form, you can leave that box blank. You are not obliged to provide an explanation.