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Ask Dr. Jann – Should I tell my son I’m not his biological father?

A coParent asks for advice about telling his son he’s not his biological father.
(3 minutes 34 seconds read)

Dr. Jann Blackstone
Dr. Jann Blackstone specializes in divorce, child custody, co-parenting, and stepfamily mediation

Ask Dr. Jann – Should I tell my son I’m not his biological father?

Our son was conceived before his mother and I started dating. It didn’t matter to me. I love my wife and our son dearly and have always raised him as my own.

After he was born, we spoke with bio-dad about his role in our son’s life. He opted to step aside and let my wife and I raise him without being actively involved.  As our son approaches 5 years old, his bio-dad has recently expressed interest in being in his life.

My question: Is it a good time psychologically for our son to learn that the only father he’s ever known is not his bio-dad? Should we introduce him to his bio-dad? Above all, doing what is best for our son is all that is important to us. We are concerned that introducing bio-dad will be confusing and possibly damaging to a 5-year-old’s mental health, but not letting bio-dad into our son’s life doesn’t feel right either. What do you think?

Psychologically, the most important thing is that he is told. Don’t wait any longer, and when you do tell him, don’t try to introduce adult concepts that will confuse him. Answer his questions, because questions there will be, and use age-appropriate language to help him understand. Different questions will come up over time and you may feel as if you are repeating yourself. You’ll think he understands, but really doesn’t, and as he gets older he’ll ask questions you know you’ve answered. Be patient. This is a lot for a little guy to grasp.

A good way to approach the subject might be to take advantage of a situation that would naturally lend itself towards explaining the facts.

For example, your son might have a friend whose parents are no longer together and his biological father does not live with him. Or, he may have friends who are adopted. When your son asks questions about these situations or comments on them, liken them to his life. It will be easier to understand if he doesn’t feel that he’s the only one in the world who faces this. The key is that he feels safe. What he’s really concerned about is what all this means to him, personally, and how his life will change. Reassure him that this information changes nothing about how you feel about him and you will always be in his life and will love him no matter what happens.

To be honest, this is not that uncommon in this day and age, but I’ve seen disastrous results when this sort of thing has been put off. The child finds out accidentally by a relative or a friend who knows, or he or she overhears gossip at a family get together. He will feel betrayed, which will only complicate his adjustment–not to mention he has a right to know his biological parent. You may want to get the help of a professional who personally knows your situation so you can fine tune how you present the information when you tell him. 

As a side note, you didn’t mention it, but try not to be jealous if dad takes an active role. Jealousy clouds your reason and the child needs you to keep your wits about you. You have been his rock for his whole life. There has been enough time invested that if you stay attentive, your place in his life and heart will be solidified. 

Finally, if dad is going to start this relationship, he can’t flake. If he’s not in it for the long haul, then you are right, his introduction can be very damaging. He needs to know that this can’t be a frivolous gesture. He must be invested or it’s not in your son’s best interest to start. It is, however, still in your son’s best interest to know, so whether dad takes an active role or not, you must share the information.

You play a huge role. Don’t waiver, whatever happens, and never badmouth dad. Your son will personalize your comments and it will just complicate his adjustment. That baby needs as many people to love him as possible. Good for you for asking for direction. That’s great parenting and good ex-etiquette.