Growing Up Without a Father

Q: My husband passed away three years ago, leaving me to raise our nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. I find the job of parenting overwhelming, as the children are very resentful and angry over the loss of their father.

My son is having a particularly difficult time. He tries to hide the fact that he doesn’t have a father. He tells his classmates about going places with his uncle and cousins (I don’t know if he actually lies about his father not being present; I don’t think so). He is mistrustful of his rebbi and English teacher, and thinks practical jokes are very amusing. He makes up stories and then laughs when his peers — or even adults — believe him. He takes pride in proving a teacher wrong, continually finds negative things about the boys in his class, and is convinced that he is better and smarter than all of them.

Last year, my son did not participate in class and was non-compliant with the school’s rules. I think his teacher felt sorry for him and did not know how to balance leniency and strictness. The resulting inconsistency led my son to conclude that the teachers and school administrators did not know what they were doing and he began exploiting his situation.

I transferred my son to a special school this year. His current rebbi has a great deal of patience with him, and my son is seeing a school social worker, who speaks to him and the rebbi together.

What else can I do to help?

A: All people have challenges; to expect to go through life without them is unrealistic. That being said, your son’s resentments are very understandable. However, his present life challenge is to avoid feelings of self-pity.

Trauma studies show that the way a person internalizes a traumatic event impacts on how it affects him or her. Obviously, certain life circumstances are more horrific than others. However, two siblings can internalize the same event using two different perspectives, one of which is often more life-adaptive while the other puts the person in more of a victim’s role.

It is your challenge as his mother to be as positively oriented as possible. By teaching your son (and daughter) appropriate coping mechanisms, and teaching appropriate trust towards others, their development will be a healthy one. Instead of focusing on what they lack (which is a very painful thing), they will focus on their abilities and what they can achieve even at a young age.

This is no easy task for you, as you are focusing on putting your own life back in order after this great tragedy. However, our children absorb our reactions to life, as we are their major role-models (whether we desire this reality or not).

Your son is young enough for the use of charts to motivate positive behavior. Being respectful to teachers and the school administration can be charted. Seeing and verbalizing positive attributes in classmates can also be part of the behavior modification program. If he sees himself (as modeled and verbalized by you) as coping well in difficult situations, it will help him feel less self-pity. He will have less of a need to be condescending toward others or to constantly “one-up” them.

Much hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!