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Behavior Changes Since Beginning Visits
with Father (4 Years)

QUESTION: My question is about a four year old from a divorced family. His father has recently (in the past month) began exercising his visitation rights. Since that time, the child (a boy) has starting going to the bathroom in his pants at preschool. Has begun being mean to his sisters (one older and a half sister who is younger) and has begun screaming, biting, kicking, telling Mom that he hates her etc. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this.

It is too soon to jump to serious diagnoses to explain the four year old's recent behavior. In light of the sudden visitation with his father, he is no doubt upset by the change. There are many reasons why this transition would be difficult, but bottom line, children are vulnerable to feeling out of control when suddenly faced with a change in their lives that they may have no say about! Strong feelings of ambivalence arise in a four year old who is not capable of containing strong conflictual feelings for people they love. They need help integrating the wildness of this emotional experience more than adults would.

Try to imagine the world from this little boy's point of view. He may be feeling left out of the family, if he has not been used to visiting his father. Suddenly, he cannot play with his sister or be included in the usual Saturday routine, for example. A lot also depends on what his relationship to his father has been like and what other family members' opinions and statements about his father have been in the past. He needs support to integrate the possibility of a positive relationship with his father, particularly if the father has been seen in a "negative light" in the family.

Additional stress of a new relationship with Dad can be charged and it is natural for children of this age to express distress by regressing temporarily. Losing bladder control, "falling to pieces" emotionally and words of hate are signs that this little guy is experiencing alot of stress that he is unable to integrate at this time. It is not he who is emotionally unstable, but an instability in his home life that has no doubt caused him anguish. Why shouldn't he be angry and upset?

Understand that because his behavior is a natural response to a difficult situation does not mean he does not need help adjusting to his new circumstances. On the contrary! He sounds very much in need of a listening ear and heart and his parents' assessment of whether the current schedule is too much of a change for him at this point. He also needs someone to look closely at how he is spending his time during visitation, and whether activities he is experiencing are appropriate to him and his age. If Dad has not been in his life previously, he will need to learn about this little boy over time. And if Dad is not used to children, he could be stretching his abilities in some way that causes his son difficulty.

Or, it may simply be the case that emotional pressures for too much closeness too quickly can cause distress instead of happiness in family relationships. Feelings left latent in the divorce are no doubt rising to the surface for everyone all at once. But it is the child who is the lightening rod for unresolved emotions in the family. And his behavior is the thunder!

Children need their parents to serve as "shock absorbers" in times of stress. That means acting neutrally to a child who is saying they "hate" you. Setting limits on destructive behavior, but accepting the anger without rejecting the child. For example, "It is OK for you to hate me for now.. I love you.. but you cannot hit your sister." The parental love can act as a container for safely expressing rage. The child really wants more than anything to know they are loved and that all the ambivalent feelings they hold are acceptable. It is through this experience of acceptance of divergent feelings of strong love and strong hate that children learn to handle the great ambiguities inherent in adult life.

This little boy is no doubt experiencing strong feelings of love and hate which he is too young to integrate. And he needs to know there are people there to support him through this life challenge. He needs love, acceptance, and safe limits in the face of the emotional sea he is facing. Assessment of his situation by parents, or a professional child counselor, (if necessary) can help him become appropriately challenged rather than overwhelmed by the changes he is experiencing.

This little guy's behavior reflects his attempt to handle an external situation hoisted upon him. He is struggling valiantly but he does show signs that he is drowning in the magnitude of this new life change. He needs help aimed at integrating the feelings brought up by the situation. An assessment and treatment of his situation, (rather than a diagnostic label) is in order!


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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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