I walked with my little three-year-old client and his mother to the exit of my office. As we were walking, the little boy reached up and wrapped his fingers around my finger. When I opened the door, the little boy held out both hands gesturing for me to pick him up. I smiled at him and said goodbye while his mother tried to distract him from continuing to reach out to me and left.
My heart melted at his attachment to me. How precious was his loving affection! It was a bittersweet moment though because I was not his dad, I was his therapist. His dad was not involved in his life at that time. I wondered if he was longing for his father. Did he imagine that his father would get down on the floor playing with him as I had done? Could he believe that his dad would also be saying, “No” to boundary areas that he needed to avoid?
Questions such as these persist and grow when a father is absent in a child’s life. The child longs to find that missing piece in his or her life that feels like a confusing mystery. Boys especially will act out with aggression and ODD symptoms. Young men will struggle with extremes in developing intimate relationships. They will become emotionally avoidant and/or emotionally needy, both being defenses against the lack of earlier paternal attachment.
Mothers can be exasperated by a hold-me-close-let-me-go phenomenon that becomes confusing to them. Should I be tougher she asks, or should I should I allow him to do as he pleases? How do I massage my guilt away? I can’t be his father! Rebelliousness in the teenage years can drive a wedge between the young person and the mother.
These young men grow into adults. When they find themselves attracted to women, they seek affection, but they yearn for intimacy that allows them to unfold their brokenness into a loving unconditional relationship. Unsuspecting partners anticipate strength and leadership not passivity and lostness. They recoil at the gap between their expectations and the damaged men they have coupled with.
How can the boy who desperately seeks a healthy attachment to his father be helped? What can mothers do?
Find other male figures who are capable strong men that you trust and ask them to mentor your son. Healthy man/boy interaction can happen in coaching, in camping, in silly carousing in gross boy humor, and simply time spent together.
Build up your son. Challenge him to believe in the parts of his life that you both can celebrate and use that to climb to a stronger place. Stress values and faith. Expect him to do all that he is capable of and stretch him to do even more.
Men, don’t focus on failures of the past, jump in and get involved. Your children don’t need an angry stern bellowing bull for a father but a gentle decisive dad who plays with them, spends time with them, and guides them. Fear of feelings is not a weakness; it is an open door to helping your children deal with their own feelings.
Broken men can be healed, and little boys can be helped. The cycle can be stopped. Try it and see!