Health

Sunday 31 August 2014

'My daughter is convinced her absent father is dead'

David Coleman answers your parenting questions

Picture posed

I am a single parent with a four-year-old little girl. Her dad was in and out of our lives for the first few years of her life. She hasn't had any contact with him in over 14 months, and briefly saw him over 12 months ago, when he ignored her and left her crying on the footpath.

She has convinced herself that her dad is dead, and tells everyone he is. I have told her he isn't but that I don't know where he is – that he lives far away. It is a terrible thing to say but we are far better off without him in our lives. It was a very difficult relationship with a lot of emotional abuse. He decided he wanted nothing more to do with us, and I have not made any attempts to contact him. He never bonded with his daughter and did not want to be part of the birth, or the raising of his daughter.

If I ask her why she thinks he is dead, she tells me it's because he doesn't come see her any more. She gets upset if I correct her – so do I let her believe he is dead?

I don't know whether to keep correcting her, but if I don't then what do I tell her when she is older?

 

David says: It is always very difficult for children to make sense of parents' extended absences from their lives. In many cases, they will blame themselves and believe that they must have done something to make their parent go away.

For example, what child would want to accept or believe that their father has no interest in them and wants nothing to do with them?

That could easily imply to a child that they weren't worth knowing or spending time with.

In other situations, as has happened for your daughter, children will accept that it was something outside of their control that led to the parent being away.

In such cases, though, a child will still need to have a reason, outside of them (and often outside of blaming the missing parent), for why the parent can't come to visit or make contact.

Working or living abroad is often an easy excuse for the remaining parent to use, and ideal for a young child to believe.

Creating some story to explain a missing parent is a natural coping strategy for any child.

I think this is what has happened for your daughter. You'd like her to believe that he just lives far away, but for whatever reason that doesn't fully explain or justify to her why he doesn't try to see her. Rather she has chosen to believe that he is dead.

I wonder has she had any recent experience with death – perhaps another relative close to her has died? If indeed she had learned about death, it may have been explained as a permanent loss, somebody gone forever.

In the concrete way that children think, she may then have associated the seemingly permanent absence of her dad as being a consequence of his dying, too. Indeed it may, subconsciously for her, have been a very reassuring (albeit morbid) explanation of why he isn't around.

The most important thing for you to continue to hold on to is that no matter how determined her father was to be uninvolved, he has on occasion had contact with his daughter.

That means that there is always the possibility he might seek contact again in the future.

So, in the long run, it won't be helpful for her to believe that he is dead. I think you are right to gently challenge this assertion each time.

It is also good to have an alternative explanation ready for why he doesn't see her.

If your daughter does get upset, as you describe, then you need to be warm and understanding, remembering that you are challenging her best coping strategy right now.

I think it might help to empathise with her. To do so, you might say something like: "You sound quite upset and cross with me when I say that your dad isn't dead. I'd say you miss your dad and feel cross sometimes that he doesn't visit you."

By linking the actual frustration or crossness that you see, with the likely source of the crossness (that her dad doesn't have time for her and isn't around) it may help her to begin to accept that he isn't part of her life.

By continuing with this firm but empathetic approach I think you will create the opportunity for further discussions about her dad with her as she gets older.

Also, by not letting her believe that he is dead you leave open the potential for future contact if he shows interest.

 

How can I help instil confidence in my bright seven-year-old son?

I was recently at my seven-year-old son's parent-teacher meeting.

He got an excellent report overall, which we were very happy about; but his teacher said he lacks confidence in himself.

Just to emphasise, we are not "tiger" parents and would never constantly push him.

However, it does bother me that he is excelling in every subject but remains a sensitive child who is anxious and worries about everything.

The teacher says he has a fantastic brain but he just does things by the book – ie yes or no questions and would never use his initiative.

We do praise him to try and build his confidence, but this does not seem to work.

Are there any tips you can give me to help instil confidence in him or will this come in time?

 

David says: The key to having great self-confidence is to have great self-esteem underpinning it. Self-esteem is the extent to which we see ourselves as valuable or worthy. From what you describe it sounds like your son is smart, but perhaps is worried about getting things wrong or getting into trouble.

Perhaps he is afraid to express his creativity in case he gets negative feedback? One aspect of self-esteem that is probably very relevant for your son is the extent to which he feels capable.

Capability is all about feeling useful and valuable to others as well as feeling able to do things in your own right.

You can build up your son's sense of capability by encouraging him to make decisions for himself. So, at age seven, those decisions are most likely to be choices between fixed options.

For example, "Do you want to do your homework before or after your snack?" or "which coat do you want to wear, your light raincoat or your heavy, warm one?" Then, whatever the outcome of the decision he makes, you treat it as a learning opportunity, rather than a reason to criticise or give out. This avoids giving him a message that he is "wrong".

So, using the examples you may end up saying something like "you seemed to find it hard to come back to do your homework after having your break, what might work better the next time?" or "Even though you stayed dry, you were frozen when you came home, we might think about this again the next time you are going out".

This will give your son the understanding that he isn't "wrong" per se, but that there are always other choices that he can make.

Similarly, do always try to correct him, rather than criticise him if he does make mistakes. We are all human and so mistakes are a natural part of life. So try to avoid punishment for errors and offer alternative, better, behaviours or approaches for him.

Practically this may sound like "You may not scribble on the walls just because you feel angry. If you feel cross then come and tell me, or go punch your pillow", rather than "That's it! No PlayStation for you for scribbling on the walls!".

Also, try to avoid immediately solving your son's problems, but encourage him to try to solve them for himself. An example might be if he complained that he wasn't included in the football at break time. You might want to solve this by talking to his teacher. However, your son learns nothing about his own capability if you do this. So, an alternative is to help your son to come up with different solutions like talking to the teacher, asking to be included, befriending these other boys outside school time too, asking a friend to make sure he gets invited to play and so on.

Again, depending on the outcome of the problem-solving attempts you can review with him, see if there are other solutions that might work out better. This kind of process helps children to develop a greater sense of competence and independence rather than being entirely reliant on what other people think.

Praise, like you use, is also very good for helping children to be aware of their own strengths. Do be careful to be very specific in what you are praising him for. So, name the behaviour you see him doing that you like, value or appreciate. For example, rather than simply saying "you're great" you might say "the way you do all your homework so quickly is great", or "I really appreciate your help in carrying all the dishes off the table to the sink, thanks". Being specific in this way helps children learn quickly what they are good at doing and adds to their sense of being useful, valuable contributors to the family, or even to society at large.

When children feel worthy and valuable in this way, they also tend to feel empowered to act more confidently in life.

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