Building Strong Boys: Avoiding Parental Abandonment

Building Strong Boys: Avoiding Parental Abandonment

As I read through many accounts of troubled boys, such as those in the book Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them(*affiliate link) by Dr. James Garbarino, there’s a heart-breaking, recurring theme.

Parental abandonment.  In all its forms.

For some, it’s about a divorce that leads to a disappearing dad or mom.  For others, there are fathers they never even knew and whose names were never spoken.  Some of the young men lost parents to addictions, and dealt with the torment of knowing their parents chose living with a bottle or a needle over living with their boys.  Still others bounced around to find a home as parents were incarcerated.

Regardless of what it looked like or how they got there, the child felt disappointment and loss.

Exploring the connection between a breakdown of the family unit and child wellness is nothing new.  The discussion is ongoing and new studies are constantly being done.  But one thing that seems clear is that children in single-parent homes face an uphill climb.  Statistics regarding children growing up in homes without fathers in particular are not encouraging.  From educational outcomes and obesity, to drug and alcohol use and sexual promiscuity, kids raised without a dad display an increased risk.  (See plenty of troubling stats at

After reading some of the data about boys and fatherlessness, I asked my own dad for his take.  Not only is he a great dad, and not only has he stepped up to fill the shoes of more than one dad who’s left a child with a void, but he’s also been a judge for over two decades and has sat on the bench before many troubled juveniles.

I asked my dad how often he saw kids who were in serious trouble and found they had both parents in their homes with a solid relationship.  He was certain he could count them on one hand.  Probably with a few fingers to spare.

It’s one of those troubling statistics.  According to a study by Cynthia C. Harper and Sara S. McLanahan, “Even after controlling for income, youths in father-absent households still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those in mother-father families. Youths who never had a father in the household experienced the highest odds.”(Reference)

But the questions that follow these statistics are also difficult.  Many ask whether adverse results of fatherlessness are due to the lack of the father as a family structure or the lack of the income that often comes with Father.  Others wonder whether the problems exhibited by children develop before or after families split, and likewise, whether strong family relationships contribute to healthy kids or whether healthy kids contribute to strong families.

And as usual, the answers are always more complicated than any either/or question will allow.

So laying chicken and egg questions aside, here’s what we know.  When children go through some form of parental abandonment, it affects them deeply.  Not always in the same way, but it leaves an impression nonetheless.  It goes back to the developmental need for healthy attachments, the effects of transition and conflict on children, the family’s role in identity development, and the role of parental involvement in self-esteem and development at large. 

At its core, it’s about relationships.

Before we go on, let me make something clear.  Sometimes kids are better off without one or both of the parents they were born to.  I don’t believe having two parents physically present in the home is enough.  As Garbarino notes, “In truth, the problem is not the breakdown of the family but the breakdown in the family.  Disruption in the basic relationships of the family figure prominently in the lives of violent boys.”

Again, it’s about relationships.

It’s a sad fact that some parents do more damage to their children by being present than by being absent.  But that doesn’t negate the fact that the child still feels loss, abandonment, and rejection because in those unfortunate scenarios, that relationship is damaged either way.

I’m not sharing this as an attempt to judge anyone or create guilt.  I’ve had a front row seat to a few painful divorces in the lives of people I love very much.  These divorces, sadly, needed to happen.  One person alone can not make a healthy marriage.  Infidelity, abuse (of people and substances), and habitual dishonesty are not things to be taken lightly or endured solely for the sake of laying claim to a physically intact family.  The purpose of this post is not to condemn those who have made the best choices they knew to make for themselves and for their families.  The purpose is to educate and increase awareness, and to call on adults to stand up and do their part.

We can’t address a problem we won’t recognize because we’re more concerned with offending the adults than with helping the children.  Kids can still thrive after parental loss or disruption, but it takes awareness and work.

Back to some of those people I love so much, who felt it necessary to go down the difficult road of divorce.  They have been great parents, and they have raised great kids.  As I mentioned at the outset of this series, the risk factors and assets that comprise the experiences of our youth are not part of a precise formula or recipe.  They are more like building blocks or Jenga pieces.  There is no one magical piece that determines success or failure, but a series of loss and accumulation of pieces without counterbalances can create strain and collapse.  There are many, many amazing single parents.  I am sincerely in awe of them.  But they will tell you themselves that it is hard, and that they have to pay extra attention to other factors to provide counterbalance.

The fact that many are able to do a tremendous job in spite of less than ideal circumstances does not negate the importance of strong families in the development of strong children.

So if we know that parental abandonment is a big risk factor for children, and particularly pertinent to this discussion about boys, what can we do to turn that risk into a strength?  Build relationships.

Build Your Marriage Relationship

If you are married, please don’t skim through this post and say, “Glad that doesn’t apply to me!”  Be conscious of your marriage relationship and recognize the strength that it is not only to you, but to your entire family.  Here are some ideas and inspiration:

The True Story of a Seven-Year Marriage {Fly Softly My Love}

We All Married the Wrong Person {Marriage Gems}

11 Ways to Being a Better Parent By Making Your Marriage Thrive {Toddler Approved!}

Build Your Relationship with Your Kids

As I mention often in my ecourse, positive parenting is about healthy relationships.  Be conscious of your individual relationships with your kids.  Go on simple one-on-one dates, have bedtime chats, and be mindful and respectful.

Build Relationships as a Family

Families are a complicated dynamic.  So many parts to the whole.  But the whole unit needs to be strengthened as well to create a bond and an identity where kids thrive.  Consider laying claim to a family night, and trying some of these ideas from Simple Kids.  Be unified with a family mission statement.  Just be present together.

Build Relationships as a Mentor

Tens of millions of kids in the US live without one or more of their parents.  Odds are good that some of them are growing up near you.  Be willing to step up when the opportunity arises.  Be a mentor.  Be a coach.  Be a leader.  Be a friend.  Open your heart, your home, and your fridge to kids who could use more positive adults in their lives.

 What do you do to strengthen relationships to benefit kids?

building strong boys series

Follow the entire series:  Building Strong Boys

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Filed under Child Development & DAP, Uncategorized

9 Responses to Building Strong Boys: Avoiding Parental Abandonment

  1. I love this post! I think you write about sensitive topics so well. As you have said, it’s all about relationships, and I couldn’t agree more!

  2. You did a wonderful job broaching a sensitive subject. Divorce does not always have to lead to abandonment. Mine didn’t for the first seven years, but eventually he did leave the area. I went from co-parent to single parent and my children felt it. They were 13 and 16 and immediately filled their father role with boyfriends. They see the connection – the need for “relationship”. We talk about it often and I am here for them, but I see how the reality that their father moved far away effect them. I love the way that you end your article with ways to strengthen relationships. My relationship with my first husband was irreparable, but I have high hopes for my second one. Thanks for your advocacy.

    • notjustcute

      Thank you, Kimberly. I’m glad it was received in the spirit it was intended. Being as aware an open as you are is such an asset for your children. Good luck in your second marriage. May it bring you and your family all the happiness you deserve!

  3. beth

    Amanda, this series contains the best blog posts that I have ever read and this one is no exception. For me, it’s a reminder to be mindful and intentional with our family dynamic and how we spend our time together. Some days I feel scared and overwhelmed and wonder if I’m on the right path with my parenting, and it’s articles like this that give me a boost and provide me with tools to help me feel on track. Thank you!

  4. Great post Amanda. Thanks for including a link to my post as well. Pinning this to refer back to it often!

  5. Pingback: What a Conversation About Divorce Taught My Family About Marriage | Not Just CuteNot Just Cute

  6. Miranda

    I would like to add, make sure single parents are taking time for themselves. I work in crisis intervention for 10-18 year olds and a lot of the time the single parents I deal with are run so ragged trying to fill both roles that they simply don’t have the energy to be the best parent they could be. I see a lot of relief in a parents eyes when I tell them it not only ok but they really do need to take the time to take care of just themselves because they cant be the best parent they can be without making sure they are taken care of first.

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