Sunday 17 December 2017

David Coleman: Is our separation affecting my son's behaviour?

David Coleman

David Coleman

Both my two children have been through a lot in the last few months. Their father and myself have split up. I have moved out of our family home and, obviously, brought them with me.

I have a 19-month-old daughter and my son will be four in December. They do, however, stay in their dad's two nights one week and three nights another week. This breaks my heart and I think it's really affecting my son.

He is very close with both his father and myself and since the split he has changed. One change is his bowel movements. He seems to be constipated a lot despite a good diet.

He is potty trained since he was two but in the last few months it is a battle to get him to go to the toilet, especially bowel motions. Is this linked to his father and I breaking up and is it down to instability in his life?

David replies:

I honestly don't know for sure but I would imagine that your separation has had a huge impact on your children and perhaps this impact is most visible in your son's toileting.

When parents separate it is a very big deal for children. It is a big deal for parents too, but at least parents can feel a little bit in charge of their own destiny.

For whatever reasons, you and their dad agreed to separate. This means that you had a sense in advance that things weren't going well. The separation is unlikely to have come as a complete surprise.

The really important thing is to remember that no matter how insecure or anxious you might feel about what is to come, your children's experience of uncertainty and anxiety is likely to be magnified several-fold.

Children rely on routine, habit and consistent responses from adults to learn that the world is, essentially, a stable enough and predictable enough place.

With stability around them they can feel more secure and more in control. The more stable their lives are the easier their lives are.

As soon as their routines vary significantly the world becomes more unpredictable for them and anxiety and insecurity can set in.

I do think this is likely to have happened for your son especially. If for no other reason he is now trying to get used to a different house and two sets of rules.

Even though he knows you and his dad, he now has to get used to you living apart and the disruption, perhaps, of not feeling very settled in either location.

Toileting is a very common area for children's emotional upset to be expressed. Bed-wetting, for example, is a common reaction to anxiety. We can often find too that when children feel out of control they try to exert control in a different area of their lives.

Pooing is one such area that children can control. Encopresis is the technical term for children who soil themselves. Primary encopresis refers to soiling that has always been present and is usually the case for children who have never really trained properly.

Secondary encopresis refers to soiling that starts after a child has toilet trained successfully.

Bowel problems that occur, in this secondary fashion, are most often due to the development of a physical problem or due to psychological stress or distress. For your son, therefore, it is important to firstly rule out any physical problems by having him examined by your GP.

Assuming there are no physical issues I think you can probably conclude that the bowel problem and constipation are indeed psychological and I think they are most likely associated with your separation.

You haven't mentioned soiling, so hopefully for now he is just restricting his bowel movements. It would be great to be able to sort out his constipation before it escalates to soiling as well.

Addressing his constipation, I think, requires you to focus on the separation rather than the constipation per se. If, for example, we assume that he does feel insecure and a bit at sea with the changes in his living arrangements then this is the area to tackle.

One approach might be to negotiate with his dad that he spends a greater time in one home, with visits to the other home occurring on a regular day or two days every week.

Consistency in the access arrangements will really help him to make his week more predictable. Once he understands the routine of where he lives it will help to reduce any anxiety.


Perhaps some form of mediation might help you to both focus on your children's needs as the priority, with your own needs coming after.

Then, most importantly, you need to talk to him about what has been happening. Clearly you need to take into account his age. Since he is only four you will need to spend a lot of time guessing at his feelings about the different events that have occurred, rather than expecting him to volunteer descriptions of how he feels.

But it is indeed his emotions that he needs to express. So perhaps you need to understand that he might have feelings of confusion about what has happened, feelings of sadness at missing you or his dad when he is in the other house, feelings of anger that his world is more complicated, feelings of anxiety that the family might destruct further.

There are many different emotions that we could anticipate children having and so we need to help them to understand the feelings and be able to express them.

Once he feels understood by you, and there is more stability in his life again, he won't have to keep showing you that he feels out of control by becoming constipated.

So, don't try to change his toileting behaviour with star charts, punishments or persuasion. Let him know that you understand that his world is a bit topsy-turvy right now, and that it can be distressing, but that it will settle down in time.

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