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
ANSWER: 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!
to Article Archive