The Parent Trap
John is now a 20-year-old college sophomore, but when
his father left the home, John was trapped into becoming the 8-year-old "man
of the family." His siblings and his mom, Sarah, depended on
John to play his father's role. John enjoyed going off to college
but also felt guilty for not being at home to help his family. What
should he do? And what could Sarah have done to prevent this problem?
Many children from single-parent families find themselves in John's
situation. When a spouse leaves, the oldest child often fills in
the missing role. The family does not make a conscious choice in
the matter, but child/parents emerge nonetheless. Still, a child
needs to be treated as a child, especially in single-parent homes
where kids are often hurting and needy. As John learned, making a
child into a miniature adult can cause tremendous insecurity, anxiety
John needs to know that his feelings are normal; he should enjoy
his new freedom, not feel guilty for it. John also must realize that
he is responsible to his family as a son and brother but not responsible
for their well-being. That's Sarah's job.
How can single parents keep their children from assuming adult roles?
Parental breakups trigger certain emotions in children, and the effects
ripple through families for at least two years. (Most children's
emotions stabilize three to five years after the split.) Smart parents
guide their kids through these changes. Decide if your children have
expressed some of these common feelings, and consider how well you
have responded to them:
- Shock. After a breakup, children initially feel
anxious, fearful and abandoned because their future seems uncertain.
phase, parents need to show affection and discuss their plans with
children. Statements like, "We will get through this" are
more helpful than, "What are we going to do?" Moreover,
because adults often share their children's fears, parents must
draw their support from a person or group other than their kids.
- Depression. Children may cry or withdraw in
this stage. If kids feel that they have to comfort a parent, they
will stuff their true
and healing will not take place. As a result, parents should
encourage their kids to use any means—tears, speech or drawing—to
vent their depression.
- Anger. Like depression, anger demands expression.
If it's repressed, children can become anxious, rebellious and
When children's rage surfaces, parents should assure their kids
emotions are normal and accepted. Consequently, it's not
helpful to tell your children, "Don't be angry." They
are angry. Instead, encourage them to share their feelings openly,
but not aggressively
(no tantrums allowed).
- Fear of rejection. Recently, a friend tried
to comfort a dog that had been hit by a car; she received a dog
bite for her trouble.
The dog wasn't mean but was reacting to the pain and fear it felt.
children who fear rejection act that way. I advised one of
my clients to continue telling her 9-year-old son how much she
cared for him
even though he repeatedly hissed, "I hate you." The
mother's loving words eventually broke through her son's
pain, and he fell
into her arms. When you keep loving your kids, despite their
hurtful actions, your children will realize that you won't
reject them, a
key step in the healing process.
Besides helping your child deal with his emotions, the following
tips will help you avoid Sarah's mistake: Set aside time
for your child to express his feelings. Reassure him that his
normal. Recognize your child's hurt, even if he withdraws
or lashes out. Do not take his actions personally; he needs your
now more than ever. Try to maintain as stable a home environment
the less change, the better. Do not expect perfect parenting
from yourself; do the best you can with God's help.
These steps will help your child re-establish trust with you and
a sense of well-being for himself. It will take time, so be patient.
Eventually emotional healing will come.
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