The Sense of Loss of the Father
Marianne, a 4th grader with big brown eyes and a love of volleyball, drew her dad disappearing off the page. Her
mother brought her into therapy because Marianne’s behavior at her private school had deteriorated. She was
withdrawing and getting into fights with other children. This was unusual because she was naturally boisterous and
friendly. She frequently complained about stomachaches and headaches, but her hardy physique and doctor exams
revealed no answers about why she had physical complaints.
Marianne loved board games, and in no time we had established a good relationship by playing some. I never
mentioned her school problems because I did not think she knew why she was getting into trouble. I was content to
establish a positive alliance in our first meeting and asked her to draw me a picture of divorce while I spoke with her
Marianne’s mother described a divorce in which the father had left and was now with another women. He had
minimal contact with the family. Then, after several months of minimal contact, he showed up at the family house
wanting to take the children out. Marianne’s mother was furious with her ex for his lack of support and his
abandonment. Predictably, an argument erupted between the parents right there on the street.
Marianne and her younger brother didn’t care about the rights and wrongs; they just wanted to see their dad. By
the time they got their clothes for an overnight, Dad was driving off down the street. The next day at school during the
usual pushing and shoving in line, Marianne exploded. No surprise.
Parents are children’s first and most important teachers. The lessons that Marianne had learned at home—
withdrawing like the dad and fighting—were being reenacted by her at school. How do parents handle frustration?
They lash out. How do I handle frustration in line—lash out, get into a fight.
Marianne’s drawing was masterful. It contained clouds blocking the sun much like her natural sunshine personality
was being eclipsed by the strife of the divorce. Her dad disappeared and she was left with tears streaming down her
face, wondering why this had happened to her. She had been good in school and at home and now this! Little wonder
that she now was trying out different behaviors. Unfortunately, her new behaviors of fighting and withdrawing were only
increasing her problems.
Later sessions with her revealed that she reasoned that if bad things were happening to her, then she must be bad.
By getting into trouble at school, she confirmed her belief that she must be bad. Bad behavior begets more bad
Boys at this age especially miss their father. Children during the ages of 4 to 6 pass through an identification stage.
During this period, they move from strong attachment for the opposite-sex parent to an identification with the same sex
Sigmund Freud noticed this phenomenon. In boys, he called this the Oedipus complex after the Greek tragedy from
mythology, Oedipus Rex. In the myth of Oedipus, his father, the king, receives an oracle from Delphi after Oedipus’s
birth that his son will overthrow his reign. Not wishing to take any chances, the king orders his servant to take the
infant, Oedipus, out and kill him. The servant feels pity for the infant and decides to give him to an old childless couple
who live far away in the distant countryside.
After Oedipus, who is unaware of his true identity, reaches manhood, he decides to travel. As fate would have it, he
meets his real father on a one-lane bridge. Apparently his father had a habit of dressing as a commoner and visiting
the countryside. Perhaps the king disguised himself to do things that he couldn’t do dressed as a king or maybe he
was employing the management technique of managing by walking around.
A dispute occurred and a fight ensued. Oedipus won and killed his father, whom Oedipus believed was just an
obnoxious highwayman. When Oedipus arrived in the city, the city was mourning the loss of its king. Oedipus
comforted the queen, not realizing that she was his mother and that he had killed his father. One thing led to another
and Oedipus became involved with his mother; thus, becoming the first m-f in history. When the truth of his situation
was revealed, his mother committed suicide and Oedipus scratched out his eyes.
In girls, Freud termed this process the Electra complex also after a Greek character. Some women psychologists do
not put much stock in Freudian psychology. In teaching Developmental Psychology for the University of Hawaii at
Windward, I used a textbook, The Developing Person through the Life Span by Kathleen Berger, a psychologist from
City University of New York. On page 275 of the third edition, she has a wonderful photograph of a drawing done by
one of her four daughters that said, “To Pop—Dump Mom and have me.” She recounts developing a new appreciation
for Freud after she went through several daughters wanting to marry Dad during this period.
What happens to a child who has this process disrupted by divorce or by death? Many children turn out fine. Boys
may identify with the memory of the parent or with a grandfather, an uncle or big brother. However, too often I see a
mother with her son of 6 to 8 who is starting to experience oppositional and defiant behavior. The mother is puzzled
and hurt. She has developed a very close relationship to the son. She often confides in the son and they have been
the closest of companions. She has let the son sleep in her bed for several years. What started as a scary night for
the child or as a night that the son was having difficulty sleeping has turned into a steady habit of parent sleeping with
Suddenly between ages 6–8, the son behaves in ways that are oppositional and defiant at home. The child argues
and refuses to obey. The child always has an excuse or blames someone else. The tension between mother and son
escalates with the mother frequently giving in.
The defiant and oppositional behavior then starts to appear at school. Counselors bring the child’s behavior to the
mother’s attention. Initially, the mother may defend the child and blame the teacher and the school. Eventually, she is
forced to seek counseling.
The child is rebelling against being forced into the role of the “little man”. The child is separating the Oedipal bonds
at a later stage of development and his masculine role model might be a misfit superhero that boys admire at that age.
This situation should not have occurred if the mother had developed more of a life of her own and if the father had
stayed involved with his child.
What can a parent do if the former spouse is an unfit parent and role model? Most children are fortunate to have
one good parent. If you are that parent, you are more than enough.
You must not forget your role as a parent by using the child to become your confidant. A parent needs to have a life of
his/her own. Children pass through our lives to establish a life of their own.
I often give parents a copy of Kahlil Gibran’s poem on children and their separate identity:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which
you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.1
1 The Prophet, pp. 17-18.