Life Parenting

Wednesday 17 September 2014

'Has our separation
 affected our older son?'

Published 26/08/2014 | 02:30

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Child psychologist David Coleman says being truthful is always the best policy.

David Coleman addresses your parenting woes.

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Question: My 19-month-old daughter and my son who will be four in December have been through a lot in the last few months. Myself and their father have split up.

I have moved out of our family home and obviously brought them with me. They do, however, stay in their old home with their dad two nights one week and three nights another week. This breaks my heart.

I think it is really affecting my son. He is very close with both myself and his father and since the split he has changed. One change is with his bowel movements. He seems to be constipated a lot despite a good diet. In the last few months it is a battle to get him to go to the toilet especially for a poo.

Is this linked to his father and I breaking up and is it down to instability in his life? Please advise.

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David Coleman answers: There are, potentially, so many issues for children to deal with when their parents split up. On top of a child's own struggles with the split, their parents are often so preoccupied with the separation that they may not be emotionally or psychologically available to help and support their child.

You don't mention if your separation is amicable or acrimonious. Naturally, the more you can still communicate effectively, the easier it will be for your children.

Let's think about the possible impact of the split on your older son, particularly. Even though he may have witnessed some difficulties between you and your husband, he may not have understood why you have to now live apart.

From his perspective he has had to move from his home, where all his familiar 'things' are and into a new house or apartment with you and his sister.

He may experience your upset, anger or distress, but not know how to help you. He may also experience similar feelings of distress from his dad and feel powerless to help those either.

He may have a sense that you and his dad are very cross or angry with each other. This in itself may be upsetting for him as he loves you both and won't want either of you to be angry with the other.

He may also be afraid that he has done something to upset you both or that he has caused the separation by his behaviour.

He may worry that he won't see you or his dad and that when he stays in either house he may not ever be going back to the other house and parent.

Mostly though, he probably feels quite out of control and powerless to change his own circumstances.

It is this sense of powerlessness and feeling out of control that may have led him to subconsciously try to control his bowels. By holding on to his poo he exerts some small measure of control.

Naturally, once a child holds onto their poo they can become constipated and then the physical discomfort of the constipation can lead to its own negative cycle where a child feels pain while pooing and so tries to avoid pooing by holding on more.

As you can imagine, this cycle creates its own problems.

I do think you may be correct, however, that underlying his toileting problems is the instability and insecurity that may have arisen because of your separation from his dad.

Even though he is not yet four, it will help him for you (and his dad) to talk to him about the challenges of being separate and about the challenges for him and his sister of living in two houses.

He may not be able to verbalise his own feelings very well and so you may have to guess, for him, about the impact that all of this is having on him. You can use the ideas I have suggested as possible issues above as a prompt with him.

Then, when your son knows that you understand how he might feel, you can each reassure him that you love him and his sister, that it is not their fault and that you will each take responsibility for minding them both.

I'd imagine that things feel very turbulent since the separation is so, comparatively, recent. I'd hope that as things settle and find their new rhythm that your son will regain his sense of equilibrium and stability.

Time may also help you and their dad to heal some of the differences and disputes that led to the separation. The more you can continue to talk about, and negotiate, the needs of the children the easier it will be for them.

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