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Children And SeparationLet's consider our children. After all, it's their well-being that should be first and foremost. But, frankly, putting children at the top of one's priorities list may be hard for some men to do, especially if one's life is filled with anger, hate, fear, guilt, confusion, grief, or loneliness from a broken relationship. And while these sensations are understandable, they're not excuses to lose control. It's important to create a safe, stable environment for the children as soon as possible, or adjustment for them will be even more difficult.

Stephen D. Finstein, LMSW-ACP, LMFT Mental Health Advisor and Director, National Fathers' Resource Center says, "Most children have some difficulties at the start of a new custody arrangement and a father should watch for any sudden changes in his child's behavior. Dad should also be aware that it's common for siblings of different ages or sex to have different reactions."

Here are some warning signs:

  • Substantial anxiety and an inability to relax
  • Frequent ailments
  • Ceaseless denial of their mother's absence
  • Lethargic behavior
  • Uncontrollable anger or fits
  • Unprovoked fighting
  • Persistent seclusion
  • Lingering guilt and self-blame
  • Losing interest in activities
  • Regressive behavior
  • Eating problems
  • Chronic depression
  • Sleeping problems and/or nightmares
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Drug and alcohol use

REACTIONS CHILDREN MAY EXHIBIT BY AGE

INFANT TO TWO YEARS OLD

At this age, children are normally unaware and unaffected as long as their nurturers and nurturing are constant.

TWO TO FOUR YEARS

During this time period, children may regress in development and behavior. Some examples of outgrown behavior may include their returning to diapers, wetting their pants or sucking their thumb. Eating problems, such as loss of appetite, may develop. They may also fantasize about reconciliation between the parents.

THREE TO SIX YEARS,

Children at this age may have feelings of fear, helplessness, and instability. This may lead to regressive behavior, sleeping problems, changed eating habits, and guilt. It is hard for some children at this age to accept divorce (or death) because of their idealistic views on two parent homes, and they may spend a lot of time wondering why Mom left.

SIX TO EIGHT YEARS

At this critical age, many children have feelings of helplessness, guilt, grief and fear that Dad will also leave. This may lead to regressive behavior or a noticeable change in eating and sleeping patterns. Some children may hang onto an unrealistic hope for reconciliation between their parents or suffer from denial that their mother is gone. Others, especially in the presence of outside influences, may side with one parent.

EIGHT TO TWELVE YEARS

Anger may drive children's behavior at this age. This anger may be directed toward one or both parents, especially if children blame themselves for the divorce. Anger may also surface toward siblings. And anger isn't the only emotion they feel. Many children feel helplessness, anxiety and guilt. These emotions can create chronic eating and sleeping disorders, or social and emotional problems.

TWELVE TO EIGHTEEN YEARS

The effects of living with dad at this age depend highly on the maturity of the child. Some children are almost unaffected by divorce. Yet others develop rebellious behaviors, become unsympathetic toward one or both parents, suffer poor self-esteem, and develop negative attitudes concerning relationships.

This adjustment period may vary. Expect the first year to be the hardest. If problems seem out of control, seek help. Professional counseling is available, often without cost, through a family service agency, mental health agency, doctor, minister, priest, or rabbi. The good news is that not all children suffer through emotional trauma and regressive behavior at the time of separation. Many improve their lives greatly.

A father can help his children adjust by sharing at least ten to fifteen minutes a day talking about how they feel. Listen, offer understanding, and focus on the positive. Be affectionate (nurture them), and tell them, "I love you, and I will always be here for you." Stay honest and answer their questions clearly and on their level. Telling untruths only creates problems that will appear later. Reassure children that the divorce or separation was not their fault and never give false hope of reconciliation. If the children's mother is involved, assure them that their mother loves them and that she will remain a part of their lives, too. Expect children to miss their mother and never belittle her in their eyes. Understand that their mother is a part of them. When a father says, "Your mother is no good," he is also saying a part of the child is no good. Let's face it, over half of today's marriages fail, which means there are a large number of children growing up with one parent. All children from a broken home, however, are not unhappy, nor do they all grow up to be delinquents. I believe children are stronger than we give them credit for, and at times are restricted (consciously or unconsciously) by the limits and goals set for them. Because children are easily influenced and believe what they are told, telling them good things is advantageous to keeping a children's outlook positive.

The above is from The Ultimate Survival Guide for the Single Father, by Thomas Hoerner. Copyright (c) 2001 Harbinger Press. Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved.

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