Help son deal with loss of father

I was married for a short while, and got divorced about a year ago. I have a 6-year-old son, and he was very close to his father when he was living with us. Now that we are divorced he does not see our son as often, and my son asks about him a lot. He is also wanting to fight with others at school and sometimes at home too. How important is a father’s presence to a child?

Every child forms strong bonds with their main caregivers, usually their mother and father.

However, a baby and growing child forms emotional and psychological ties with those in their immediate environment who engage and connect with them on a regular basis. We are all hard-wired for connection and bonding, this is one of our fundamental instincts or drives, equally as significant as our survival drive.

There is no question that fathers do play an important part in their children’s lives. The majority of studies affirm that an involved father can play a crucial role, particularly in the cognitive, behavioural and general health and well-being of a child’s life.

Having a positive male role model helps a boy develop positive gender-role characteristics; girls are more likely to form positive opinions of men as they get older and are better able to relate to them when parented by an involved father. It is generally accepted, under most circumstances, that a father’s presence and involvement can be as crucial to a child’s healthy development as a mother’s.

Experiencing validation of their importance in the general parenting literature has made fathers much more conscious of their value, which, in turn, leads to their greater desire to be involved.

Sadly, your son seems to have had an involved father, but this ended suddenly (and traumatically) for him. The absence of a significant caregiver is always traumatic for a baby and child. That he is showing signs of aggression is completely understandable.

Without the capacity to use language to understand how they feel, children can express the loss of a parent in various ways, such as anger, emotional withdrawal and anxious behaviour, including nightmares and phobias, with many often regressing to a previous developmental phase, which they might have seemingly outgrown.

You do not say why your ex-husband has stopped seeing his son. It is best for the child’s emotional development to continue and have ongoing contact with the parent that has left the home. Even if the parents are not together as a couple any longer, they do not stop being parents, and their children do not stop needing them.

On the contrary, our children need us even more to help them make sense of disruptions in their lives. Helping your child to make sense of what he feels in relation to his father and his absence, through talking to him at a level that is age-appropriate, will help him. Moreover, I would strongly recommend that he has contact with a play therapist or psychologist who specialises in dealing with children, so that he gets support and a space to play out and work through his feelings. I would also suggest that you contact FAMSA or The Parent Centre to assist you and your ex-husband in finding more supportive ways to co-parent your child.

Can adults also become addicted to cellphones and online usage? I think my husband and I are both addicted. We barely talk to each other anymore when we are at home. He is on his computer with all his social media and games, and I am on mine. We have become used to this, but I feel we are drifting apart.

Gadgets and screens can be addictive to all, not just children. The internet has made life a lot easier by making information more accessible to all and creating connections with different people around the world.

However, it has also led a lot of people to spend too much time in front of screens and gadgets, so much so that it becomes the centre of their lives.

The World Health Organisation recognises “Gaming Disorder” as a mental health problem as well as “Screen Dependency Disorder” which the American Psychiatric Association classified in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which is the global diagnostic bible of health professionals. Internet, gaming or computer addictions manifest in several ways that cover various degrees and areas of internet usage. They are the following:

Information overload. Too much online surfing leads to decreased productivity at work and fewer interactions with family and friends as well as less interest in the real world.

Compulsions. Excessive time spent on online activities such as gaming, trading of stocks, gambling and even auctions often leads to overspending and problems at managing life and work.

Cybersex addiction. Excessive surfing of porn sites often affects real-life relationships.

Cyber-relationship addiction. Excessive use of social networking sites to create cyber-relationships rather than spending time with family or friends may negatively impact on real-life relationships.

Emotional symptoms that are typical of online addictions include feelings of guilt, increased anxiety, depressed mood, dishonesty, euphoric feelings related to gadget use (Dopamine released in brain), inability to keep schedules and plans, no sense of time, isolation, defensiveness, avoiding doing work and agitation.

Online addictions can have a significant negative impact on our sense of self, work performance, school achievement, and/or interpersonal relationships. Many researchers state that online addictions are caused by underlying psychological and emotional problems.

To help yourself with this problem, it is recommended to find balance between technology use and other activities in your life.

Limit the amount of time you spend online by setting screen time limits and sticking to these.

Return to your old hobbies or find new things to do that encourage pleasurable interactions with real life, social interaction and spending time with loved ones again, including your partner.

If you think you are addicted and may struggle to help yourself, contact a mental health professional in your area to help you work through your addiction and its possible underlying causes.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.