How Often do Non-Custodial Parents See their Children?

The impact of infrequent or no contact with a non-custodial parent after a divorce can be devastating for a child. Here are the most common reasons why non-custodial parents have little or no contact with their children, and the problems absent parents cause for their children.

By Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.) and Jack Arbuthnot (Ph.D.)
Updated: September 25, 2017
Divorce and Children

Only a third of children in sole residential homes see their other parent at least once a month. Another third have contact less than once a month. Half of these have contact less than once a year. A final third have no contact at all with their non-custodial parent. Fathers who never married the mother of their children often have little or no contact with their children. Divorced fathers are more likely to stay in touch. Today, more and more unmarried couples are having children. If they break up, it increases the number of children who don't see one parent. Things get worse during adolescence. There is a dramatic drop in the amount of contact with the absent parent. Over half of those fathers have no contact within a year. This is a sad fact for our nation's children.

A non-custodial parent with a low income has a greater chance of losing contact with the child. Part of the reason is the cost of access. Costs can include travel, clothes, food, and lodging. The damage caused to a child by loss of contact is huge. Many low-income parents cannot afford an attorney. Sometimes legal help is needed to fight obstacles. There are many risk factors that come with poverty. Loss of contact with the children makes problems worse. The child could have serious adjustment problems. During the last decade, many parents have been increasing contact with their children. They understand that their children are much better off with continued contact.

There are many reasons the non-custodial parent has little or no contact. The reasons are different for each situation, but they usually include one or more of the following:

  • The resident parent has discouraged or destroyed the child's bond with the absent parent. This is usually out of anger or bitterness.
  • The nonresident parent thinks it is emotionally too difficult. This could be because of deep feelings of loss. It could be because of the resident parent's new live-in partner. Or it could be to avoid conflict with the other parent. Maybe the parent feels rejected by the child.
  • The access arrangement is unnatural. It doesn't permit real parenting to take place. This creates discomfort and stress for both the children and parent.
  • The residential parent won't allow access (visitation).
  • The residential parent has moved far away. Regular access is not possible. This is especially true for low-income parents. It happens in almost 30% of families within the first two years after the break-up.
  • The child is psychologically or physically abandoned by the absent parent. This is often because of a mistaken belief that the children would be better off. Or it is because the children aren't the most important things in that parent's life.

All of these reasons cause many parents to abandon their child. Usually, parents don't withdraw from their children. They simply feel forced out of their child's life. Many things can drive them out of their children's lives. The judicial and governmental system may seem unfair. They may feel judged by society's attitudes. And, they may feel excluded by the other parent. Non-custodial mothers in the United States feel the same.

Problems Caused by Father's Absence

The impact of infrequent or no contact with a parent (usually the father) can devastate a child. There are many reasons; here are some of the most important.

First, most children deeply miss their fathers. A young child often mourns the loss of their father as if he was dead. (In fact, lack of contact because of a father's death causes fewer problems than for children of a break-up.) Many children engage in bizarre fantasies to explain his absence. Or they worry that he will replace them with a new family. They worry that he might forget about them. There is one request often made by a child of a break-up. They want to be able to spend more time with Dad. They are unsure about how long the separation is going to last. And this leads to continuing grief. This grief lasts well after the parents' own grief has been resolved. >

Second, boys need their fathers for sex role identity. They need to be with a parent who has grown up as a male. Fathers and sons need time together. (Just as do mothers and daughters.) This is how boys learn about male interests and activities. They learn male skills and social behaviors. Mothers may engage in male activities with their sons. But this is not a suitable substitute for the real thing. Boys need an older male authority figure. They need his approval and interest. They need his support in order to feel good about themselves.

Third, both boys and girls need exposure to a father. They need his love. They need his guidance and discipline.

Fourth, a child with an absent father will not do as well in school. They get more criticism from teachers for their behavior.

Finally, social behaviors are damaged. This could be because the father is absent. This applies to both boys and girls. Girls tend to be more flirtatious with boys and men. They become more sexually promiscuous. And they marry earlier. Boys and girls have high levels of worry and anxiety. They have poor concepts of self. Delinquency rates are higher. And boys also show impaired moral development.

A child needs to be involved with their father. There must be meaningful parent-child situations. This is more than just visiting. It needs to be more than weekends and summer vacations. Children need to know they will see their fathers on a regular basis. Time together should be predictable. And it should be under the most natural "parenting" conditions possible.

Contact should be expected. A child can accept an absent parent if they know when they will see them again. Contact works best when the mother is supportive. She should encourage more contact.

Sometimes parents live far apart. They need to work out a clear plan to share the costs of access. The court can formalize this if necessary. This may be something that parents should put in their divorce or separation plans. Judges usually encourage access. But some parents don't always access their child. A judge may require them to pay for childcare during those times. This way, the residential parent can get a break from full-time parenting.

There are many risks and costs when one parent drops out. It affects both the families and society. It is important to try and prevent this tragedy. Many separated parents want no contact with the other parent. When they avoid their child to accomplish this, there are risks to the child. Parents may not understand these risks. It is not unusual for a child to be reluctant to see their father. Many of them side with their mothers.

A father often feels shaken by the loss of his family. He is vulnerable. It is very hard for him if there is initial rejection by his child. This rejection will fade in time. It will disappear if Dad continues having regular contact. The child will trust the father's love. And that love will be returned.

Problems Caused by Mother's Absence

A mother's absence is much less frequent. However, it devastates a child just as much. Less is known about the effects of a mother's absence after a break-up since it is relatively rare. We can assume the effects on children are significant: they will likely have emotional and learning problems.

First, with the mother absent, girls lose their main role model. Their sex-role identity is damaged. Fathers are limited in their ability to understand their daughters. Boys also suffer from the absence of a mother. Mothers can relate to their feelings. And she can help identify those feelings.

Second, there is some recent research from Canada that suggests mothers play a major role in helping to prevent violent behavior in teenage boys. Young girls who start having children in their teens are most at risk for having problem boys. They tend to have less education and fewer opportunities. Many are single mothers; it is hard for them to maintain a stable environment to raise their children.

Third, a child's self-esteem is damaged when they are rejected by their mother. This is true whether the rejection is real or perceived in the child's mind. It can affect social relationships well into adulthood. The child will lose the opportunity to learn social skills. This happens when they are not able to observe their mother. They need to observe the way she relates to them and others.

Fourth, there is greater social stigma for an absent mother than for the father. Society tends to view mothers without "custody" of their children as being unfit. This is very hard on mothers who are responsible parents. Some moms willingly gave up residential status because they believed the father is the better parent. It is especially hard on those moms.

Fifth, most non-custodial mothers have low self-esteem. They lack clear role definition. They often feel like victims. However, about a third of them report few or no problems with adjusting to their role as a non-custodial parent.

Finally, more and more fathers are involved in shared parenting. Some are residential parents. The stigma on non-custodial mothers is decreasing. There are support groups for such mothers (Mothers Without Custody), which provide support for the initial period of loss and grief. They can generate ideas for parenting from a distance, and they also encourage mothers in career development and help them start new social relationships.


This article was adapted with permission from What About the Children? A Simple Guide For Divorced/Separated And Divorcing Parents (CDE, eighth edition, 2011) by Donald A. Gordon (Ph.D.) and Jack Arbuthnot (Ph.D.). Based in Athens, OH, the Center for Divorce Education (CDE) is a non-profit corporation founded in 1987 by a consortium of attorneys and psychologists. The CDE is dedicated to advocating for children and helping parents to minimize the harmful effects that divorce and separation has on children. www.divorce-education.com

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May 20, 2014

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