Dear Mr. Dad: I am a single mother—my husband and I split before our daughter was born. She’s now 4-years-old and keeps asking where her father is. I try to keep in touch with him and encourage him to spend time with his daughter, but he has no interest. I’ve also been trying to meet other men so she can have a good male role model around, but haven’t found a good match yet. The problem is that every time she sees a man she thinks he is her daddy, and this happens just walking round in the city. She doesn’t want to sleep, eat, or behave in a normal way. How should I handle this situation?

A: Let me start with the most pressing issue: The fact that your little girl doesn’t eat, sleep, or behave “normally,” could be a symptom of a deeper problem, one that may or may not be related to the absence of her father. Please take those signs seriously. Talk with your pediatrician. He or she will want to rule out any physical problems and may refer your daughter to a mental health professional who specializes in children.

At age four, your daughter is old enough to have noticed that other children have mommies AND daddies, so it’s perfectly normal for her to want to know why she doesn’t have a father. Keep your answers age-appropriate but honest. In response to questions like “where’s my daddy?” or “when is he coming back,” it’s fine to tell her that dad lives somewhere else and that you don’t know when he’ll be back, but that you hope it’s soon. Make sure to remind your daughter—whether she asks or not—that the separation is in no way her fault. That leaves the door open for a father-daughter reunion should he ever decide to be a responsible father and establish a relationship his child.

At the same time, don’t your frustrations get the best of you, and resist any urge you might have to tell her that her dad is a deadbeat and has no interest in her. That may be true, but putting those thoughts into words will do far more harm than good, possibly negatively impacting her self-esteem and her future relationships with men. Your goal as a parent is to help your little girl grow into a healthy, confident, and well-balanced young person, NOT to create more problems than she already has. If you’re having trouble coming up with answers to her questions, consider a few sessions of counseling with the kind of therapist I mentioned earlier.

You say that you have been trying to meet men so that your daughter will have a good male role model. Be careful. Bringing too many men into your (and subsequently her) life is not in your daughter’s best interest, so don’t introduce her to every man you go out with. Each one she meets will raise her hopes, and each one who doesn’t come back will dash them. Does that mean that you should remain a single parent forever? Absolutely not. You have every right to rebuild your life and establish a loving relationship with a man. Just be cautious, selective, and above all, patient.

Whether you ever find the right man or not (and I hope you do), you’re right to try to find your daughter some male role models. Do you have a brother, father, uncle, cousin, or good male friend who would be willing to occasionally spend some quality time with your daughter? They’re not a substitute for her real father, but at least she’ll be interacting with strong, involved men.

You’ve got a real challenge ahead of you, but there are solutions. To get the ball rolling, start by making that call to your daughter’s pediatrician. Once you take that first step, the next one and the one after that will be a lot easier.