Dear Dr. Jann,
When I was 20 years old I had a daughter. Her father had no interest in having a child and we lost contact soon after I told him I was pregnant. Two years later I met a wonderful man. We have been together ever since and we now have two more children. My daughter thinks my husband is her biological dad. Thinking I would never see her father again, I never told her that he wasn’t. I thought everything was fine, but two days ago I got a phone call. It was my daughter’s father. He had tracked me down through old friends and now wants to see his daughter. She’s seven years old! I don’t know what to do. What age is best to tell a child something like this?
Dear Concerned Co-Parent,
I don’t know if it will make you feel better, but I do run into this question quite a bit — the birth parent has lost contact or has passed and the child (perhaps others) believe that the stepparent is the biological parent. This often happens when a couple gets pregnant very young. The father (sorry, but this is what I see most) is too young to accept the responsibility for a child and moves on. The mother, usually with help from extended family, raises the child. She meets someone else who also learns to love the child and they get married. Mom thinks she’s never going to see the biological father again, so she and the stepfather raise the child as their own. Meanwhile, the biological father, now older and wiser, meets someone else and has another child. Having THAT child makes him realize his mistake and he tries to right the wrong by introducing himself to the child he left behind. Now you have to decide whether it’s truly in the child’s best interest to introduce him/her to their biological dad at this time in her life.
Unfortunately, this kind of information is very hard to keep secret. It is likely that someone other than you knows the truth and will tell your child when you are not around. To prevent the trauma this might bring, experts agree that it is best to tell your child when she is young so that she can grow up knowing. This helps the information to appear less of a shock. Try to avoid asking her to keep her biological father a secret. The need to keep it a secret may cause her to feel guilty and afraid that someone has done something wrong—and she’s at the center of the wrongdoing.
With something this serious, seek direction/advice from a therapist- a professional who gets to know your daughter, your family, and her biological father. This person can give you firsthand advice as to the best way to break the news. The biological dad will also need to participate in counseling in order to help prepare for the introduction and learn how to be a good co-parent. This will demonstrate the strength of his commitment.