What your absence says to your child

Children have realised they are on their own since their parents are too busy

In Summary

• The absence of a parental figure at home causes children to go out and look for alternative support systems.

• Children are left in the care of house helps, who raise them when their parents are away.

A child is hugged by her mother
A child is hugged by her mother

John*, 39 (not his real name) currently resides in a small, one-roomed house in Githurai with his wife of about four years. 

"I have been through a lot, and sometimes, I almost think it's a miracle I am here today," he says. 

The third born in a family of four is a recovering heroin addict currently on methadone treatments at Mathare Mental Hospital. 


"We lost our mother when my eldest sibling was in class four. She and I are about six years apart, so I was very young," he says.

After the death of their mother, John tells the Star his family was separated and after a while, he found himself living alone in Mathare slum. 

"Our father was not in our lives at the time, and we never saw him. My sister and brothers were taken to different relatives to try and take care of us," he says. 

"I used to go to primary school and it had the boarding option, but I had a small shack at Kosovo and I would go and stay there."

Because of this, John would occasionally have friends over, and most of them would come to his home to use heroin.  

At first, he was simply the host and never touched the drugs. Eventually, John saw an opportunity and started to charge his friends to use his little shack. 


He says, "I would charge them Sh20 to use it and eventually I found myself caught up in the whole thing and started to use."

After that, his life took a turn for the worse. He dropped out of school and started engaging in crime. 

"I have been a victim of mob justice and that would explain some of the scars I have. I would steal from people to sustain my habit, and most times it did not end well for me," he says. 

John eventually found himself homeless, an addict and living in the streets. 

"My eldest sister came to my rescue, and she has really helped me clean up, and I've been sober for more than two years now," he says. 

"I never really had anyone I could call a parent or who could mentor me through life, and sometimes I think that is why I am here today."

I never really had anyone I could call a parent or who could mentor me through life, and sometimes I think that is why I am here today
Recovering heroin addict John*, 39


Jude, 49, a sales manager in Nairobi, says his parents got separated when he was 10 years old. 

"I practically raised myself because I can count on one hand the number of times I saw my father growing up, and my mum was always working to make sure I was comfortable," he says. 

"I don't remember much of my father because it got to a point and I stopped seeing him. He relocated and was not in good terms with my mum."  

The salesman says his mother would sometimes leave for several days, and he had to learn how to do a lot for himself at a young age. 

He says even though his mother was strict and would punish him heavily when he got out of line, he was always rebellious. 

"I started using drugs in my teenage years, and when I was enrolled in high school, it got worse because I have snuck out of school more times than I have been in school," he says. 

At one point, things got so bad with his behaviour that his mother had him arrested for two weeks. He was out of control and she was at a loss about what to do. 

"Over the years, my drinking worsened and I would get into a lot of bar fights because I have a very quick temper. It does not take much to make me angry," he says. 

After Jude got married, as soon as his wife had their first child, his drug use and violent tendencies got worse. 

"I have taken my children to my drinking dens and this was always without my wife's consent. I would respond by hitting her because I felt that she had no right to dictate what I could and could not do," he says. 

Jude says he is also not the best communicator because he is very used to being alone and not having to answer to anyone. 

"It has been a struggle because staying by yourself, you learn how to harbour things inside because who is there that you can tell? Anything that alters your reality becomes a welcome distraction, and it's not easy to change from that," he says.


Dr Grace Njagi, a counsellor based in Nairobi, says the absence of a parental figure at home causes children to go out and look for alternative support systems. 

"Children end up experiencing absenteeism of their parents so much, and as they go out looking for support systems elsewhere, they are introduced to behaviour such as drug abuse, and since they crave support and approval, they will not resist," Njagi says. 

Psychiatrist Catherine Syengo says apart from parents, other significant people in the child's life can take care of them. 

"Other guardians can help teach the children valuable life skills, such as how to relate to other people," she says. 

The psychiatrist warned that absenteeism of parents can lead to the children acquiring conduct disorders and self-esteem issues. 

Syengo recommended that each parent needs to find time to be with their child because other people may teach their children behaviour that they would not want them to have. 

Dr Riziki Ahmed, a clinical psychologist from Nairobi, says since most parents feel guilty for the absenteeism, they try to fill the gaps they have left at home using technology gadgets. 

"The child grows up more related to the gadget than to the parent, and they lose touch with each other," she says.

Ahmed says due to this guilt, parents are unable to make rules at home because they feel as though they risk alienating themselves further from their children. 

She says, "There are no ground rules in most houses, and so children can do anything they want because there are no consequences. Children who have no rules will generally get out of hand, and most of them are left in the care of house helps, as their parents are busy at work."

Njage says parents have failed to take charge of situations, leaving their children to do anything they want. 

"Parents are not guiding and appreciating their children because they are looking for money and other material things," she says.

Ahmed says children previously belonged to the community, who had a hand in disciplining the ones who got out of line.

Nowadays, she says children have been left to the care of hired house helps, who take care of them in the absence of parents.

Ahmed says the mood and attitudes reflected by house helps will affect the children they are raising, and a lot of parents do not conduct background checks on their helps. 

"If you leave a child around someone who is anxious, then your child is likely to also develop anxiety," she says. 


Ahmed says it is very important for parents to have relationships with their children because they absorb what they see from their parents.

 "Children who do not have a good relationship with their parents or have missed out growing up with their parents are most likely to end up as lousy parents,  choose the wrong life partners and will most likely not be happy," she says.

Ahmed also says children have realised they are on their own since their parents are too busy and the community is no longer involved in parenting other people's children.

She emphasised on the importance of family, saying it teaches children how to be mothers, fathers, partners and friends because these are the roles they see their parents play.