Sunday 25 June 2017

David Coleman: My son misses his father during the week so why is he angry when he comes back home?

We live in West Cork and my husband has to travel to Dublin for contract work for months at a time. We have three young children. My husband has a great relationship with them and it breaks his heart to be away from them.



We are finding that our eight-year-old is struggling with this. He is so close to his dad and is literally counting down the minutes on a Friday night until he is home for the weekend.

Despite his anticipation, lately, and increasingly, he is stroppy and rude to his dad when he is home. There are a lot of tears. My husband spends as much time with him as he can and talks to him twice a day on the phone during the week.

We have talked to him about how he's feeling and he's able to express that he thinks his behaviour is because his dad is away and he's angry and sad.

It's easy to be open with him but how do we help him handle these feelings? While he sees friends' families in similar situations, it's still very hard for all of us. We want to enjoy the time we are together.

My son needs his Dad to be around more but we have to take the work when it comes.

David replies:

Working away from home is difficult for everyone. I have no doubt that you (and his dad) probably mirror his feelings of being angry and sad. The sadness is easy to understand.

The angry feelings are not necessarily so easily connected to the experience of someone being away. However, if we look a bit closer at what happens when we are separated from people that we are very attached to we might be able to understand it better.

When his dad goes away he probably feels the aching loss. I think that you, and he, understand that. He is aware that you 'get' that he is missing his dad and so he doesn't need to show you too much.

If he does show you it is probably by moping around. He also seems to be able to express it in words.

While his dad is away he copes. He retreats into behaviours and activities that distract him.

Towards the end of the week these coping strategies seem to slip a bit as the anticipation builds.

Reunion

Thankfully, the positive thoughts of the reunion with his dad outweigh the negative feelings of missing him and so again, his behaviour remains largely positive.

When his dad returns, however, all of the strong feelings that your son has been containing for the week come to the surface.

Additionally, he may have feelings of resentment towards his dad for causing him, by his absence, to have the stress of missing him.

So when your son talks about feeling angry, it may be that the anger is actually towards his dad.

His dilemma, however, is that he does not feel it is ok to be angry at his dad. His dad is doing his best to support the family.

I can imagine that your son would feel it is churlish and ungrateful to actually express this anger towards his dad.

Internally, therefore, your son will then have to struggle with these negative feelings towards his dad (akin to a feeling of "why did you abandon me for the week when I needed you!") yet not really having the permission to express such hostility towards his dad, because everyone expects (and implicitly insists) that he and the whole family will "enjoy the time we are together" when his dad is home.

Important

Let there be no doubt that his dad is vitally important to him. Missing his dad for five days of every week is a huge loss.

He needs, however, to have permission and a forum to say that he hates his dad being away and that he might also, at times, hate his dad for going away.

Remember that he is only eight and so he may feel that it is totally unfair that his dad has to go. You can explain the rationality of why his dad must travel for work, but it doesn't reduce the injustice of it.

Even if he knows, at a rational level, that his dad must be away it doesn't necessarily mean it is any easier for him to accept it.

Because the pressure is on to keep things nice when his dad is home there are probably several of these kinds of negative feelings that your son has (and that you and his dad might have too!) that you are afraid or reluctant to express for fear of disrupting the short time you have together.

The difference for your son is that he can't help those negative feelings leaking out in his behaviour. This is why he acts "stroppy and really rude" towards his dad.

It is only when the bad feelings have a forum and an opportunity to be expressed that space to feel the good feelings can be created.

Resentment

Your son might need your help to voice his true feelings of resentment such as I have suggested above.

You and his dad might have to let him know that you can understand and accept that these kinds of feelings are there too.

His dad doesn't need to rationalise why he is away, because your son does know the good reasons. His feelings of loss and abandonment go beyond rationality, however; they are a primal force.

His dad might need to say something like: "You know son, I guess that there are times when you feel really cross with me for going away and leaving you behind. I think you know why I go, but even though it is a good reason, it still doesn't seem very fair. You get left behind and miss me, and I can understand that you might blame me for leaving you."

A statement like this gives your son permission to say more, if he feels like it, or at the very least it will give him a strong sense of being understood.

Given that the loss is re-experienced every week (when his dad goes and returns) you may have to have these kinds of chats on a recurring basis. However, I think you will find that his rudeness and stroppiness will reduce if you can help him understand why he feels so angry.

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