Questions & Answers about Childhood Grief
When a child acts out after his father dies, what can a mother do?
Helen Fitzgerald is a renowned educator and writer on death and dying. She will be writing a column for Beliefnet on the grief of children and teens.
Q1. Ever since my husband's death last summer my 7-year-old son has been acting out. He spends much of his time in his room sulking, has temper tantrums, fights with his sister, and is getting into trouble at school. Even though I assume this behavior was triggered by his father's death, I am at my wit's end trying to control him. Do you have any suggestions on what I can do?
In all likelihood, your son is feeling intense anger over the death of his father. Were they close? Did they go fishing together? Did they play ball? Whatever part your late husband played in your son's life, it appears to have been very important, and your son is having great difficulty visualizing his life without that support.
He could also be angry about something unrelated. Some unthinking person could have said something about his father that was false, or he could somehow imagine that his father's death was his fault. Lacking an adult sense of reality, children often see themselves as capable of causing important things to happen, such as the death of a parent.
I suggest that you sit down with your son--just the two of you--and talk about his anger. He may want to avoid the subject at first, but you can help move it along by commenting on how angry you feel, too. Try to find out what is at the base of his anger--his father's death or something else. If his anger stems from something other than his father's death, you may be able to do something about that--like correcting a false statement or making clear the true cause of death. If he is simply angry because of his father's death, tell him that feeling angry is OK; it's how he expresses it that may be not-OK. Ask him whether he feels angry all of the time, or only some of the time. How does he know when his anger is starting to get out of control? Do his knuckles turn white? Does he want to cry? Does his head hurt? Asking such questions will help him to see that it's all right to have such feelings. And then talk about some ways that he can express his anger in an acceptable way.
What is an acceptable way? How about a punching bag? There are some stand-alone bags that work pretty well, or you could buy him some boxing gloves and install a real punching bag in the basement. And then let him hit it to his heart's delight. You and he will be amazed at what a difference this release of tension can make in his outlook.