Ideally, children grow up in a loving and caring environment surrounded by both their parents. For many different reasons, this, however, is not always the case. Some of us have grown up with one parent or even both parents being absent, temporarily or for an extended period of time, due to divorce, an accident in which a parent lost their life, migration, or a parent working long hours. 

We refer to parental absence also in scenarios in which the parent is physically present, however, emotionally unavailable and mentally elsewhere, for example, due to addiction and/or mental health issues.

Whether one parent or both are absent, it has an impact on the child and possibly their development. Based on observing the situation of friends, children understand that not having both their parents around is different – they might start feeling alone and abandoned or like a burden that nobody wants to take care of. 

What consequences does parental absence have in adult life? 

Self-doubts and a lack of self-confidence

Once a child realizes parental absence in their life, they might think the parent is gone because of them – they start questioning whether they did something wrong or whether the absent parent does not love them. This contributes to feeling unloved and often guilty. Having developed the idea that they are different from others, they might feel less worthy. 

Children growing up with (an) absent parent(s) later on remember often being alone, coming home from school not finding a meal prepared for them, and nobody having time to pick them up. – They develop a belief that they are not loveable or good enough.  

In adulthood, the self-doubts, lack of confidence, and distorted beliefs developed due to parental absence impact the relationships with oneself and others. 

Struggling with relationships

We speak about self-limiting beliefs a child develops when growing up in parental absence, such as 

  • Even my parents left; everybody else will leave me, too. 
  • I am not worthy of receiving attention and love. 
  • There is no space for me in someone else’s life. 
  • My needs are not important; nobody cares. 

Having grown up in parental absence, we might choose partners in adulthood that need us around. We try to fix them and make sure we are always around to ensure they don’t feel the same heartbreak and loneliness we have experienced. This can easily create an imbalance. 

Some of us might not allow anyone close due to the fear of being left behind again. Others express their anger about how unfair life is all the time, and thereby ensure that potential partners rather stay away which keeps them in the loop of feeling lonely. 

Trying to fill the void 

Absent parents often leave without any closure. Growing up, in adulthood we may have many unanswered questions, knowing we won’t ever get the answers we hoped for. This can feel heavy – alcohol and drugs can be seen as a way to forget for a while and numb the pain in desperate situations. 

While we may think that substances can fill the void, they only work short-term, and the pain will come back up. 

Struggling as a parent

Once an adult, a person who grew up with (an) absent parent(s) might become a parent themselves. It can feel overwhelming having to take care of someone when nobody was role-modelling that love and care. 

There might be a lot of self-doubt around whether it is possible to be a good parent and possibly overprotection, trying to make sure that the own child is not feeling any absence in their life, which might create issues in the parent-child relationship. 

Not all children who have grown up in parental absence experience the above-mentioned issues in their adulthood. Not having parents around all the time can contribute to becoming independent and strong from an early age. However, it is okay to notice the impact of parental absence and reach out for support to process the feelings surrounding it to find some kind of closure. Healing the wounds, the absent parent has left is possible. 

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health.