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Child Caring

7-year-old's Anger Boils Over

Hello,

I am looking for advice for a mom and children who have had many changes in their lives. “Sue” was addicted to drugs and was in jail. She then lived with her sister, and her two boys, ages 4 and 7, lived with her parents whom they know well. After awhile, she came to the shelter with her two boys for a few months. She was placed in jail suddenly (did not return to shelter, was taken right to jail, from an appt.) The boys were again placed with grandparents. She was in jail for three months and they did not see her during this time. She is now in shelter and the children are living with their grandparents. During visits with the children, the older one is having a hard time when she leaves. He hits and kicks and throws things and cries. I understand why he is doing this but I am hoping you have ideas to help him deal with these transition times.

Any help would be appreciated!

Thanks,
Beth

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Barbara's Mailbag

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Dear Beth,

Honesty is the best policy here. He's angry, hurt, feeling rejected, even, in his magical thinking, blaming himself that he is not loveable enough for his mom to be with him. And here's another thing: the more infrequent, unpredictable and unsatisfying contact with an absentee parent is, the more likely a child is to have fantasies about her that have nothing to do with reality, imagining, for instance, how different life would be if mom were around.

Two things will help him, slowly, over time. One is for the adults in his life to be honest with him, in age appropriate ways. The other is for mom to regain his trust. That's clearly more problematic and beyond anyone's control, so promising anything ("Mom is getting better.") or trying to take away his hurt ("I know she loves you very much.") is not helpful.

Instead:

Change the routine: Why is she the one to leave him? Wouldn't it be easier and give him a sense of control if he leaves first?

Grant him his wish in fantasy: "It would be wonderful if your mom could leave here today with you, wouldn't it? What do you imagine you could do together?" This gives him the opportunity to get his fantasies out in the open. That in itself can be healing. Listen respectfully, no matter how unrealistic they may be. At the end, gently go back to where you started: "That would be so nice, wouldn't it -- If that could be real?" Or: "You must wish so much that your mom could be that person..." Stop yourself short from saying: "Maybe soon she will be...."

Make statements that acknowledge reality: "It stinks that your mother needs to live in a shelter right now." "Sometimes your mom makes promises that she wishes she could keep." "Your mom has a sickness, it's called addiction [or whatever is appropriate]. Staying at the shelter is a way for her to be safe for now."

Help him channel his feelings in more appropriate ways: Sometime before the visit, talk with him about how hard it is when it's time to say goodbye. Validate his feelings -- "It's OK for you to be angry, that's your real feeling. It is hard to say goodbye." -- and brainstorm safe ways for him to get his feelings out. Could you bring pillows for him to throw? A punching bag for him to hit? Would he like to draw or read or just sit in a quiet, dark room afterwards? Dictate a letter to his mom? Dictate a story about what he wishes for?

Be explicit to him that none of this is his fault: "It's not that if you were smarter or better behaved or more athletic your mom would try harder to get better. This isn't about you. It's about what your mother is able to do."

Make sure the grandparents are on the same page. How do they talk about mom at home? If they have nothing good to say about her, that's hurtful: "If mom is a liar, maybe I am, too." If the gps are so angry that they can't think of anything good to say about her at home, help them to make neutral statements: "Your mom loved strawberries when she was a kid, just like you."

Lastly, I can't help but wonder: you don't mention a father in the picture. Was he never present or is he absent or missing? Is this part of the boy's anger -- wondering what's wrong with him that neither parent is there?