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Basic Dad: How Do I Tell My Kid About That Relative I Don’t Talk to?

Advice from a family therapist, a mother of three and a child psychologist, among others

When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.

The Very Basic Concern

My sister and I don’t talk. Things have been this way for several years now, and every time the two of us try to work things out, it inevitably dissolves into anger and name-calling. I know a lot of people have situations like this, but it sucks for me because I really do love my sister; there was a time in my life where she was the closest person in the world to me, and not having her in my life is a huge void. This is especially hard around the holidays, when her absence is felt most of all.

Of course, the situation was made even more complicated three years ago when my daughter was born. I hoped my sister and I could mend things before her birth, but it didn’t happen. Needless to say, my daughter and sister have never met, and it’s entirely possible that they never will. The issue is unlikely to come up while my daughter is still a toddler, but despite our differences, my sister is important to me, and it’s not like I’m going to cut her out of family pictures or pretend she never existed.

I still hold out hope that things will get better and we may once again spend Christmas together, but it seems more likely that things will just stay the way they are. So what do I say to my kid when she asks, “Who’s that” when we go through old family albums?

Basically: What do I tell my kid about that relative I don’t talk to?

The Expert Advice

Katie Helpley, family therapist: The first thing you have to ask yourself is if it’s appropriate to share this with your child. Why do you feel that this is something they need to know? If it’s because you’re feeling guilty about something, that’s your burden. But if you’re looking through family photos or they overhear you talking to someone about the person and they ask a question, you can answer them in a truthful, but age-appropriate way. So you might say to a younger child, “Aunt Sally and I don’t get along, and sometimes it’s best if we don’t see each other. I love Aunt Sally and she loves me, but sometimes, even the people that we love, we don’t get along well with.”

I don’t think you need to pretend that person doesn’t exist, but you do need to provide age-appropriate information that’s honest enough where they’re not making up their own stories in their head. It’s also important to communicate that your main goal is to make sure that they’re safe, happy and healthy.

Stella, mother of three: My boys know that Great Uncle Harry (my uncle) and I don’t talk, and they know that Uncle Harry isn’t nice to their grandma (my mother) and that’s why I don’t talk to him. My kids have met him several times, like at weddings or whatever. My oldest, who’s 11, will sit there and B.S. with him. I don’t interrupt it; I let it happen, but he knows in the back of his head that he’s not nice to Grandma, and to be cautious.

But I tell my kids not to be disrespectful, either. They know that if he says “hi,” they can say “hi” back, and that they can have a general conversation without giving away personal information. Most importantly though, while I do want my boys to be informed, I think it’s important to teach them that they can make their own decisions. I don’t want to jade their opinions too much — they should learn to form their own opinion about somebody.

Ms. Harris, senior case manager at a residential facility for children: The children I work with are court-ordered to be separated from their parents due to some sort of malnutrition, neglect or physical or sexual abuse. When that removal happens, they may go to a relative or a foster home or a residential facility like the one I work at. My role, when I get a kid, is to make sure that the child understands why they’ve been placed and why they cannot have contact with their parents.

I find that some in my position aren’t truthful in these situations because it’s uncomfortable for them to inform the child what their reality is. So they may say something like, “You know, you’re going to be here for a little bit, Mommy and Daddy just needed a break and eventually you’ll get back to them.” I believe it’s in the best interest of the child to be honest and open in a loving and caring way to the best that you can. The kid will respect you for that, even when it hurts, because that’s life.

Bernadette Kovach, child psychologist and psychoanalyst: It’s going to depend on why you don’t talk to them. If it’s a situation where you know that a child’s emotional or physical safety can be damaged, I say you tell the child. Say you have a brother who snipes at you all the time: If you have a 3-year-old, you can tell them that we aren’t going to have their uncle over for Christmas — we love him, but your uncle tends to get angry too much and that’s not fun for you, so you’re not going to have him over.

It’s really important — especially until your child is about 14 — to try to shield them from those interactions. Because if they see you allowing someone to talk to them or to you in a nasty way, it gives them the okay to be talked to that way or to talk to you that way.

In a situation where they’ve never met the relative, I wouldn’t even address it with them unless they ask. Until they’re at an age where they can reason with you, like 12 or 13, it’s not important to address this with them at all. The older a child is, the better you will be able to explain this, because if a younger child hears that you eliminated someone from your life, it may scare them and they may think you could eliminate them from your life. So you can eventually introduce the idea, but wait until they can handle the complicated nature of it.

Veronica, mother of one: When I was 37 years old, I found out that I had an older brother and two older sisters that my father had from a previous marriage that, until then, he’d never told me about. My father didn’t raise me, but we have had sporadic contact throughout my life, usually about once a year. During those brief encounters, I’d often ask him the same question: “Is there any family of ours left in Guatemala?” To which he would always reply, “No.”

In 2013, one of my stepbrothers — who knew that I had no knowledge of my father’s history — intentionally asked me in front of my father, “Have you heard from your brother and sisters lately?” A flood of questions came to mind as my heart filled with joy and confusion. Along with this was the thought, You fucking liar, I knew there were others. My father sat calmly and answered all of my questions as I hastily took notes in the hopes I could find my siblings.

My sisters are in Guatemala and I still hope to meet them someday, but I found that my brother lived less than an hour from my father’s D.C. home. It would be almost two more years until we met, a combination of trepidation on my part and a suicide attempt on his part, which had health repercussions. When we finally met in April 2015, I felt the sensation of my heart feeling complete. I had finally found him: I knew he was out there this whole time; I could feel him.

Shortly after that wonderful encounter — and another where he, a gourmet chef, prepared an authentic Guatemalan barbecue for me and my family — I got a message from my niece that my brother had died. Tragically, he’d taken his own life. I knew him for only six months, but in that time, we were connected like we’d always known each other. I was angry at my father for keeping my brother from me. I still don’t completely understand why: The best I can guess is that he wanted to forget that family, much like he tried to do with me and his brief marriage to my mother.

I saw my father at my brother’s funeral and remembered that my brother had wanted me to forgive him. I did that day: I sat with him as he wept at the side of the coffin. I sat with him in the back seat of the car as we drove to the after-service, where he asked me to “thank your mother for giving me such a beautiful daughter.” It was the most meaningful gift he or my brother, in his demise, could’ve given me.