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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Father Figure

Q. I am a single mom of two boys, ages 11 and 13. Their father died when they were barely walking. I have not remarried. I'm concerned about my youngest who really dwells on the fact that there is no father figure in his life.

I have tried to get family members more involved in his life but it doesn't seem to be important to them. I have tried to get involved in the school programs that offer something like a big brother program. There were no volunteers. I have tried to get him more active in church. It still doesn't fill the void he feels.

I will not put him in the hands of complete strangers. It really depresses him when his friends and cousins talk about all the things their dad does with them. I try to do all I can to fill this void but I can't. He feels less than everyone else. He feels like we are not a real family without a man in the household and is very sad.

Please help! He is beginning to show a lot of hostility and I believe this is the root. What can I do?

A. It sounds like you have made some terrific efforts to help your son, under very challenging circumstances. I'm sure I don't have to tell you that there are no simple or easy answers to helping a child who has lost a parent. It is a very painful experience with long-lasting repercussions, and no single intervention will ever make up for the tremendous loss. And I'm leaving aside, for the moment, what it's been like for you. Still, there are some options you can consider.

OK--the big brother program didn't work out. But what about Boy Scouts, or Boy's Club of America? Or the YMCA? How about a sport at school, coached by a man who is widely respected as a good role model for boys? You say you don't want to put your son in the hands of complete strangers, but nothing would stop you from meeting your son's scoutmaster, mentor, or coach. (Talking to other parents who know the particular individual would also be prudent).

Helping your son boost his sense of mastery and self-esteem through such organizations are no replacement for a father, but they could help. I also wonder if your older son might be able to fill a little bit of the void as he gets older--you didn't really mention whether he is also having problems coping, but is there any way he could comfortably play more of a big brother role for your 11-year old? (This is tricky, though: it would be a disservice to your 13-year old if he felt an obligation to parent your 11-year old, when he himself is still vulnerable and searching for a male role model. So, it would be important that your older boy felt comfortable with the big brother role--e.g., taking your younger son to a movie now and then.)

Finally, if your 11-year old is becoming seriously depressed, hostile, or in other ways behaviorally disturbed, I would strongly recommend getting him into some counseling. Having a mature male therapist (ideally, one who comes highly recommended by your family doctor or a close friend) might help your son cope with some of his emotional difficulties, and also serve as a positive role model for him.

There are some reasons for considering counseling for yourself, too, as you struggle to deal with your son's problems, and perhaps your own as well. In this regard, you might be interested in some books related to single parenting or the loss of a parent; e.g., The Single Parent Resource by Brook Noel and colleagues; Children Who Grieve, a complete manual plus a student activity workbook for use with grieving children (grade levels: 3-12); and A Child's Grief Journey by Amy Jay Barry, about a child's loss of a parent (The last two books may be obtained from Marco Products, http://www.marcoproducts.com/).

I know these suggestions only scratch the surface of the problem--but I hope it's a start.

June 2003

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