The main reasons the boys were referred to me, a psychotherapist, were: (a) a diagnosis of ADHD with a strapline that nurture had been strongly implicated in causation, (b) self-harm where the referrer had sensed a vaguely seen family issue as part of the causation, and (c) predatory sexual behaviour recognised as similarly reactive. I discovered that the absence of the father was implicated throughout each of these types of referral.
The father’s role in so-called conventional families is to support the mother by helping her calibrate her approach to the baby, and throughout infancy and childhood. It is also to be a different parent to the mother, so that the baby/child recognises difference. This recognition is the beginning of learning that carries on through all situations in life. My case notes revealed that the absence of the father had allowed for an overly close relationship between mother and son. Further, nearly all the children I saw could be said to be under-achieving at school because of a disinterest, through failure to recognise, an inability to learn. Experiencing difference in early infancy acts like a blueprint for apprehending new phenomena through life. By definition, new situations bring difference because they are new and different. Similarly, so too does new information like that constantly available at school. An early appreciation of difference is therefore a strength factor for learning in life and the classroom.
I want to spend a few moments outlining the absent father’s role in the three main referral types mentioned above.
McQuade and Hoza (2015) discuss the psycho-social and emotional problems of children diagnosed with ADHD. They and others (for example, Mikami, 2015) also discuss how such children find relationships with family, friends and peers very difficult because they appear to find self-regulation problematic. Barkley (2015) writes about the lack of regulatory control children have over their own minds, emphasising their difficulties with their executive functioning in the classroom. They cannot calibrate themselves in relation to the tasks they are required to perform.
Calibration and regulation is an essential part of the father’s role. Working individually with the mothers and the boys I was able to help them begin to recognise, and then change, their relationship. Speaking for nearly all such cases, one boy said “I can see now that being in class felt so claustrophobic. It was my only space away from Mum and I filled it up with the feeling of needing to be free of her. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t organise myself. I was disruptive to others.”
The need for escape implied in the previous quotation featured in all three referral types. Self-harm is usually seen by mental health professionals as a cry to release feelings that cannot be expressed verbally or through other means. This is as true of those who cut themselves as it is for those who poison themselves, often through overdoses.
When there is only the mother to confide in, and if and when this relationship is felt to be the cause of the feelings that become unbearable to the young person, then self-harm can provide an escape route for feelings. My work with one young boy ended with him recognising that I had provided a mental space away from his relationship with his mother. He memorably told me – “I realise now that I needed Dad to have been at home giving me a different person, like you have, to feel things with instead of Mum and all her issues.”
Predatory Sexual Behaviour
In no way am I reducing the seriousness of predatory behaviour for the perpetrator, and certainly not for the victim, when I say that the mother with issues played a very large part in the actions of the boys I saw. Whilst some fathers are violent and eventually leave (or are required by law to leave) the family home, it is also the case that some mothers push out non-violent partners because they do not fit with the historical script of these mothers.
Many mothers I saw had very serious issues with men. Some had been abused by their own fathers or grandfathers. Having sons presented them with a problem. How were they to live with a male in their house once they had expelled the boy’s father, but then lived with their memories of being abused by their own fathers? Some mothers pulled their sons close to them, saying that they were their pride and joy whilst, in the next breath, saying they were just like (whoever had abused them). The claustrophobia released by self-harm for other boys was, for these boys, only released by behaving in the intrusive way that these mothers had been at the receiving end of with their own fathers. So disturbing was the relationship with their mothers, so non-existent were the opportunities to find another escape route, that these boys repeated the offences already a feature of their families.
So, in brief, the absence of the father can have profound consequences on both mother and son. There are a great many young boys and, without doubt, young girls with absent fathers who would benefit from an approach to their mental health that takes into account his role and the consequences of his absence.
About the author
Andrew Briggs is an experienced psychotherapist, and former Trust Head of Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy; Organisational Consultant at NHS Hampshire, Kent, London and Sussex; and lecturer.
Andrew is an engaging speaker, and will be expanding on the above theme on Friday 22nd June at the Male Psychology Conference
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