Child Psychology: From Separation Anxiety to Absent Parents – Q & A

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Dr Martha Deiros Collado, a paediatric psychologist answers questions from the Frolo Community on everything from separation anxiety to helping your child cope with an absent parent.

child psychology expert Dr Martha

Child Psycgology Q&A For Single Parents

How can I help my three-year-old play independently? She always wants adult interaction in pretend play and struggles to play by herself.

The first thing I’d suggest you try is taking more of an observer role in play, rather than directing the play. The idea is that you sit with your child while they play and comment on what you see them doing with their toys, but you don’t make suggestions or direct the play. You just watch. By watching, you’re validating their play and this encourages them to keep playing and develop their play without you.

As your child gets more comfortable with that, you can step back, move away, and comment less on the play. Independent play means you’re in the same room but your child is playing on their own – it doesn’t mean you can leave the room and do something else. Small children often need to be able to look up and make eye contact with you for reassurance before returning to play on their own.

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How should I talk to my eight and ten-year-old boys about divorce? They don’t seem to want to discuss it much, but maybe I should encourage them to open up more?

At eight and ten, they’re probably old enough to understand that divorce is permanent, but they might not really understand what it means. Divorce is an adult term and for children it can be confusing. If you think it’s important to discuss this with them, try to find a space and time that works for all of you. Sitting children down on the sofa to have a serious conversation doesn’t really work, instead, find a quiet, calm activity that they enjoy – I always suggest things like drawing or building Lego – and then start the conversation.

Start slow and succinct. You could say “You know mummy and daddy are having a divorce, right?” And they might answer yes or no – make sure you  are taking your cues from them – and then you might follow up with:

“What do you think about that?”

“What does that mean to you?”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“Is it ok that we’re talking about this?”

You’re not telling them about the situation, you’re asking them questions about it. This will give you a window into how your children are thinking and talking about it.

I would also recommend talking to siblings about divorce together. Parents often opt to discuss things with the eldest first and then talk to the youngest, but I always encourage parents to talk to siblings together and tell the same story to both of them, in language that the youngest child can understand. Telling them at the same time helps them feel like they’re not missing out on information and they might feel more secure together.

If they’re not ready to talk, that’s fine. Children will find their own time and, as long as you’re giving them the opportunity to talk by asking lots of questions and bringing it up regularly, then your children will know that they’ve got permission to talk about it when they’re ready.

My child, aged four, keeps drawing fire – should I be concerned?

If you’re worried, talk to your child about it. That’s always the best policy. And stay curious with it – rather than reacting or telling them not to draw fire, ask questions like “Where did you get this idea from?” or “Where did you see fire?” Keep an open mind and explore it with them – it might just be from a cartoon!

Would changing a contact schedule after three years of solid routine be detrimental to the child?

I think this is more about the reason why the contact arrangements are changing, rather than contact time either increasing or decreasing. Children are very adaptable. They love routine because routine is safe, but children’s routines change all the time and they adapt.

It’s more about how you prepare them for this change and why the change is happening. Will the change be beneficial in the long-run? The most important factors affecting their wellbeing will be how you manage the situation and the support you give them as a parent. If their routine is changing and you’re setting up a new routine, you need to help them through that transition.

My three-year-old daughter has started drawing pictures of me and her dad, with her as a baby in the middle. We separated in September and she was quite upset for a few months and even now asks when Daddy is coming home. Do you have any advice on how I can help her understand?

She’s only three so, when you separated, she didn’t understand what that meant – and she’s not going to understand what separation means until she’s about seven. This is to do with her brain development. Separation is quite an abstract concept for children – especially when they’re still seeing both parents – so she is going to keep asking those questions for a while. It might feel sad for you as a parent to see those drawings, but the meaning your child is attributing to them is completely different. She’s saying: “I love my mummy and I love my daddy and I’m a baby.”

Keep filtering small bits of information as and when the topic of separation comes up. When she draws these pictures, ask her questions and answer any questions that she asks you clearly and honestly. I would say: “Daddy will come and see you, but he’s not coming back to live with us.” Use concrete language when answering her questions – the clearer the better – and expect that she might ask you the same question again tomorrow.

I have been self-isolating with my four-year-old for 80 days. I’m a solo parent and we haven’t seen anyone else during this time. We’ve been home schooling and she has seemed very happy throughout. Any advice on how to ease her back into school? Will isolation have done any psychological damage?

I get this question a lot. Lockdown won’t have done your child any damage – especially if you’ve been present and engaging with her. If you’re worried about the unfamiliarity of the safety measures that will have to be in place when she returns to school, prepare her by talking about what will be different and ask her questions to see if she’s worried about anything.

Young children don’t need socialisation with other children, believe it or not. They just need connection with somebody and, if your child has had connection with you as an adult, that is absolutely fine.

Any advice on helping children cope with an increasingly absent father? My son’s dad doesn’t make telephone contact and has supervised visits about three or four times per year. My son gets anxious and feels down after a visit due to the lack of predictability. Have you got any guidance on how to handle the impact on my son and the best way to deal with this as a parent?

This is such a difficult situation. You cannot make his dad predictable – so don’t fight that battle. It’s not your job to make him a better parent, so give that up (as difficult as that is). Focus on your child. Don’t tell him that daddy is going to come and visit until the last minute because you don’t want to disappoint your child. Protect your child by arranging the meetups and remind the other parent that if they don’t come, they won’t be able to see their child. You know this person is likely to disappoint your child so you need to try to protect your child from that. With children, if you make a promise you have to follow it through, so make no promises and try to keep things as predictable as possible on your end.

My daughter is unsettled and acts out when she gets back from her dad’s house. He says she is well-behaved at his house and I feel like I am telling her off all the time when she’s with me.

Comparison is really difficult. Children are different in different contexts – some parents find their child comes home after school in complete chaos but teachers say they’re very well behaved when at school. Children act out and show their big feelings with the parent they feel safest with. It’s hard to deal with, but, if your child comes home and explodes with emotion, they’re saying “I feel safe here and I can show you how I’m feeling.” Your ex-partner is probably telling the truth, but your child isn’t exploding with you because you’re a bad parent – they’re doing it because they feel safe to do so with you.

Hold back from telling them off. When your children explode – especially if they’re below the age of seven – it’s really important that what you give them is connection, not punishment. This is hard because it’s a real behavioural shift for us as a society. Their brain only understands feelings when they’re worked up, so if you try to give them logic they won’t understand. Connect with them, give them the space, and hold your calm. If you can do that now, as they get older, they might start to talk and explain how they’re feeling instead of exploding.

How do I stay calm when my child is having a complete meltdown and I feel like I’m reaching the end of my tether?

Take a long, deep breath. Think of a word, mantra, or sentence that connects you with the behaviour you have to do. It might just be: “Calm”. And if you repeat this word or phrase to yourself, it helps remind you of the behaviour you want to model. You only want your child to see calm behaviour – you don’t want to join their chaos because that’s frightening for children. If you lose your cool, that will escalate their behaviour – so the one thing you need to do is stay calm and just sit with them. You can validate their feelings – “I know you feel angry. I’m here. I’m going to keep you safe. It’s ok that you feel angry.” Give them calm and be patient. Your calmness will get inside them and they will become adults who can self-regulate and soothe themselves. Most of us aren’t like this as adults because we weren’t taught how to do this!

Remember: your child is supposed to have big feelings – that’s what children are supposed to do. Our job as parents is to help them through it – we’re not supposed to fix it and make them happy. Just stay calm and the feeling will pass.

My ex remarried in secret and is now expecting another child. When our children found out they were very upset. My ex refuses to discuss the situation with me. How do I support my children through this difficult transition?

Focus on your children. You can’t do anything about your ex-partner. Explore the questions your children would like to ask their dad and what it is about the situation that is making them upset, because it might not be exactly what you think.

Also, be honest with them. Explain that you don’t know the answers to their questions and that their dad doesn’t talk to you about these things because you lead separate, private lives. Offer to pass on any questions that they have about the situation – I would do this in writing rather than face-to-face or over the phone. If he’s not ready to talk to them about it, he needs to explain that to his children and acknowledge their questions. You might need to comfort them afterwards, but you can only do what you can do.

My son, who has just turned four, is really worried about the fact that he’s going to die, or I’m going to die, or his dad is going to die. No one has died in our family recently so I don’t know where it’s come from.

Four-year-olds don’t understand death. They don’t understand the permanence of death. I’m curious about where he’s got this idea from – he must have come across it somewhere – so I would ask him about that. His idea of what death is not that same as an adult’s understanding. It’s too abstract as a concept for four-year-olds to grasp. I would ask lots of questions like “What does dying mean? What do you think will happen to you? What do you think will happen to me?”

My daughter is three and is experiencing separation anxiety. When I pick her up from her mum’s house, she gets upset and asks if mummy can come to my house. She also requests that we all hold hands and do a group hug at handover. Is this something I need to worry about?

Three is the peak age for separation anxiety and attachment in children. I wouldn’t worry, I would just be giving her a lot of comfort. She’s probably wishing, as children do, that she could have all of you together all the time. It’s not something to worry about – it’s just a reflection of how much she loves you both. Comfort her and give her permission to be sad about the fact that mummy isn’t here all the time. If a child is connected to both parents – which is what you want – it’s normal that they would miss you when they’re not with you. But don’t feel guilty because you don’t love or want to be with your ex-partner. Your child just needs to know that you are a family, which you are, because you will always be a family to your child.

Thanks for answering our questions Martha!

For more words of wisdom and bite-sized child psychology insights you can follow Martha’s Instagram @drmdc_paediatric_psychologist

Martha also offers 20-minute phone consultations for £35 if you’d like an initial consultation or have a specific problem you’d like to discuss in brief.

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