Life Parenting

Saturday 1 October 2016

David Coleman: How do I talk to my seven-year-old about her absent father?

Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30

Photo posed by models
Photo posed by models

Advice from the parenting expert on how to deal concerns over teasing due to an absent father and helping a child who is ambidextrous.

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Q. I am a single mum with a seven-year-old daughter. Last year, in school, some girls were teasing her, saying that she didn't have a dad. My daughter has grown up calling my father her dad as we still live at home. She knows that he's her grandad, but has never asked me about who her real father is. Her father wants no contact with her, so we don't keep in touch. I'm afraid the girls will be back at her about her dad this year but I don't know how to talk to her about him without hurting her feelings, since he has basically rejected her. Have you any ideas?

David replies: Being teased about something over which you have no control can often be a horrible experience. I don't really get a sense from your query about how your daughter coped with the teasing last year?

From the tone of the query, it seems almost like she wasn't too bothered about it. Your bigger concern seems to be how she might react to the discovery that her father is not that interested in her.

Maybe, in her mind, she has a strong father-figure (in your dad) and so doesn't seem to particularly lack a father role in her life. She may not even miss, or care too much, about who her father is and how involved he is.

If this is the case, then, it is great that your dad has been able to step into this role for your daughter. It is good that she knows that he is her grandad, but can rely on him to act like a dad.

Making some differentiation between the concept of dad and father is often the best approach to take when explaining to young children about their fathers, when they are not around for whatever reason. So, for example, you might choose to talk with her about her father as the man who is her biological father. He provided the seed that connected up with your seed and created her.

Then you could explain to her that sometimes fathers are able to stick around and act like dads, helping to rear their children, and sometimes they are not able, or don't want to stick around to be a dad.

You can also explain that just because someone isn't a father, it doesn't mean that he can't act like a dad. That could mean, for example, that close male friends of yours, uncles and, naturally, her grandad, can all be like a dad to her.

This might help her to gain a sense that fatherhood is about the creation of children and "dadhood" is about rearing children, listening to them, playing with them, guiding them and loving them.

For some families fatherhood and dadhood is combined in the one person, but in other families, like hers, each of those roles is taken on by a different person.

Depending on the questions she asks, you may or may not choose to tell her more about who her father is.

Given that you and he have lost contact, and that he has no interest in being involved, it is probably fair to tell her that you are not sure where he lives or what he is now doing.

At different points in her life, she may be motivated to discover more about her father. It is hard to predict when that will be.

Your explanation, now, might give her enough information to satisfy her and she may come back at times in the future for more clarification, or more information.

As she gets older, then, you might need to tell more about her father.

It might be worth exploring with her about how she experienced the teasing, last year, by her school friends. If it upset her, you could revisit how she felt she handled the situation, with a view to problem solving different or better ways to deal with it.

With luck the teasing in school will not re-emerge. But, once you have talked with her a bit about fatherhood and dadhood, you might want to give her some phrases she can use to respond to any further teasing, should it occur, and should she be upset by it.

One such phrase might be "You can think what you like, I know I have a father and lots of people who are as good as a dad in my life".

This kind of statement shows the other girls that she has heard their taunt, but is not phased by it. This is the most effective way to deal with mocking and teasing.

My daughter seems to be ambidextrous and I  worry that this will hold her back in primary school

Q. My daughter has just started primary school. Throughout pre-school her teacher commented that her penmanship skills were not developing as fast as her peers - mainly as she seems ambidextrous. She will pick up a pencil, start to make marks with her left hand, then switch to the right, then switch back again. Her left/right dominance (such as it is) has switched through the year. I am concerned that she will fall behind at school and would appreciate any advice as to how I can support her before this impacts on her confidence.

David replies: What a shame that penmanship skills are considered important in pre-school! To my mind, it is a real pity that children are expected to be able to hold pens and pencils, know their numbers and letters, perhaps even be able to read, before they go to school.

I'd have thought that the 14 years of school would be plenty enough time to learn theses things, without have to pre-empt school by teaching such things in pre-school.

However, my personal bugbear with our haste in pushing children into formal education is not really the focus of your query.

Indeed, for your daughter, the early focus on penmanship has, at least, alerted you to her ambidextrous nature. I am not sure how much you understand about ambidexterity, but other readers may know little.

Our brains are split into two hemispheres, left and right. Each side of the brain is, consistently, geared up to do different things. For example, each side of the brain controls the muscles in the opposite side of the body.

So if you write with your right hand, then that hand movement is controlled by the left hemisphere of your brain.

The left side of our brain, apart from controlling the right side of our body, is also responsible for a lot of our language capabilities.

The left hemisphere of the brain is also in charge of carrying out logic and exact mathematical computations. When you need to retrieve a fact, your left-brain pulls it from your memory.

The right hemisphere is often associated with creativity, with spatial awareness, face recognition and music processing. We also judge tone of voice and other, non-verbal aspects of language with the right side of our brain.

Most people (about 90pc) are right-handed, and so the left side of their brain is dominant. It is also physically bigger than the right side of their brain. Those who are either left-handed, or ambidextrous (only about 1pc of the population) tend to have more symmetrically shaped brains.

It is generally accepted that it is useful for the brain to segregate its various functions into the separate hemispheres. Doing so means that the hemispheres tend to complement each other, rather than compete with each other.

Ambidexterity is not necessarily a problem. But it is certainly worth talking to her teacher about, sooner rather than later. Ideally, you want her teacher to give her the freedom and flexibility to work out for herself which hand she may, ultimately, choose to use to write with.

Most children do, in time, settle to using one hand or the other as their more dominant hand for writing. You will see if this is the case for your daughter too.

In the meantime, however, you need to talk with the teacher about avoiding negative comments about your daughter's handwriting and requesting that the teacher give her the time to continue to experiment with both hands.

In truth, your daughter is unlikely to have her confidence knocked if nobody seems too fussed about her writing and if she is given the space and freedom to develop her writing at her own pace.

You can also focus on other areas of strength that she might have (with, perhaps oral language, drawing, music and so on) such that she knows she has lots of skills and talents.

It can be hard, in school, for children not to compare themselves with their peers. All you can do is ensure that neither you nor her teacher make such comparisons.

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