THE TEACHER'S STORY
KYLE SHUT HIS EYES TO KEEP the tears from flowing. He pounded his fist on the floor, shouting, "But I want them, I need them," to several boys who were building with the blocks he planned to use. I tried to divert him with suggestions for alternative materials, but his frustration only seemed to grow. I thought about how very different this child is from the Kyle we had known earlier in the year. Rumors of his parents' recent separation may help to explain the transformation of the cheerful, cooperative 4-year-old into a child who seems unable to tolerate any frustration. His behavior has begun to bewilder the other children too. If he is not the first in line or the first one chosen as a play partner, he is crushed. The pity of it is that the more he behaves this way, the less inclined the others are to choose him. My efforts to help only seem to make matters worse. Kyle hears my every suggestion as a criticism, though in actuality it is Kyle who is being hard on himself. These days, when he starts a project or a drawing, he usually ends up destroying it in disgust. There were some hints of this unhappiness before the holidays, but now it is undeniable. What can I possibly do to help?
THE PARENT'S STORY
IT WAS THE DREARIEST Holiday season our family has ever known. On the last day before school vacation, my husband moved out. Kyle and I were either alone or with members of my extended family on the important days. Kyle is still devastated by the absence of his dad, but he won't talk about it. Instead, he just acts angry. He is so irritable that even a suggestion to clean up and get ready for supper is enough to cause an outburst. So far, any physically aggressive behavior has been restricted to objects, but it is still worrisome that my 4-year-old has gone back to having "terrible twos" tantrums, crying, kicking, or throwing things when he doesn't get his way. I am sad about his unhappiness, but my own feelings of failure about the marriage are so hard to deal with that I don't know how I can also comfort and set limits for my child. I can't give him the kind of attention I once could, since I work and then there are all these tasks relating to the divorce.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Fortunately, everyone understands the reason for Kyle's distress. But there is still more to learn. Does he feel angry at his parents for splitting and helpless to repair the rift? Or does he, like so many children of divorce, harbor the feeling that it is all his fault? Young children, in particular, relate everything that happens around them to themselves. If a parent leaves a child of Kyle's age, he is likely to conclude it must be because he was "bad."
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher should stick to the usual classroom routine and keep toys and materials in familiar places. A child who is distressed by drastic changes at home can often find some comfort in a predictable environment at school. Soothing stories and songs, an arm around his shoulder, even a spot on the teacher's lap at story time can help to dispel Kyle's sense of loss. Holding his hand when he seems about to "lose" it, listening to his complaints, or offering a "See you tomorrow" at the end of the day can mean a lot too. The teacher should invite Kyle's parents to come in and chat, hoping that they will be forthcoming about the changed family situation. Then they can put their heads together to help Kyle, who needs their reassurance and nurturance even though he seems to be keeping them all at bay. If the teacher establishes a supportive relationship with the parents, in time she may feel comfortable saying something like, "When my brother got divorced, he found counseling very helpful. You might want to think about consulting someone who could help you to weather this storm in your life. I'm sure it would help Kyle too."
What the Parent Can Do
Understandably, it is difficult for Kyle's mom to console him since she too feels abandoned. She needs the support of family and friends, and if possible, a compassionate counselor. Bolstered by that help, she will be more able to encourage Kyle to express his worries and she will be better prepared to address questions such as, "Why is my daddy not here?" or "Will you leave me too?" And Kyle should have easy access to his father, at least by phone, and to his mother when he is visiting his dad. Children of divorcing parents do best if their parents are civil to each other. It would be wise to have a child mental health expert work with Kyle and occasionally meet with the divorcing parents to reinforce the importance of their keeping things peaceful. While aggressive behavior like Kyle's is a common reaction of young children facing divorce, it will be shorter lived if his parents do not hold on to their own anger. Knowing that his parents can and do get together with a counselor and/or the teacher will help Kyle to see that he doesn't have to choose between Mommy and Daddy, both of whom will always care deeply about him.