When dads move out children can feel very unsafe. This is so even if dad lives around the corner. But younger boys , especially those between the ages 5 and 10 often shoulder an additional not totally self-imposed problem. I call it the "Uh-Oh. Am I the head of the household now?" syndrome. There may be three reasons for this.
One, messages gleaned from movies, videos, cartoons and fairytales speak to the need for a strong male on the home front who can do anything and keep everyone safe. Two, a young boy's belief/fear that it's his turn to "rule" (much like the king is dead--long live the king) might reflect his own need to feel secure. If he can stand in for dad, then he can protect himself and those he loves. Reason number three has to do with the subtle interactions between mother and son. Divorce creates an emotional imbalance at least at first within every family. Young boys and moms can drift into a confusing place:
•He starts climbing into bed with mom. He feels safer and she finds his sweet presence is reassuring. She's less lonely. But if it happens a lot he will become confused. He can sense she likes it...so in what room does he belong and what is his role? Mom used to enforce bedtime. As rules slip away so does his sense of security.
•Mom starts to share her feelings a little too often. A child can tolerate mom's expression of sadness now and then. But if it's unrelenting he may feel it's his job to make her happy. He won't succeed and will thus start to feel scared and inadequate.
•When he behaves in a grown up fashion she refers to him as her "little man " or praises him for being so grown up. Perhaps in some small way she wishes he was older as it is difficult to single parent. Perhaps he senses this and wants to please her. He tries to keep it up but it's just too hard. He becomes depressed or anxious.
•He said he's afraid of a burglar or monster and mom says, "You don't have to be afraid. You're a big boy. No one is going to get you!" She doesn't reassure him of her own power possibly because she hasn't gained her own emotional footing yet. She thinks she's empowering her son, unaware he's going into panic mode. He knows he's still little. Doesn't she notice? One little boy desperate to figure out how to be safe, suggested to his mom that they ask a policeman to sit outside.
When daddy leaves, children feel extremely vulnerable. The order of the universe has changed. What's going to happen now? Who is going to fill his shoes? What will we do? Who is going to protect us?
The most important thing a mom can do is reassure her son that she knows he is still a little boy and she likes it that way. If he insists on helping more with chores or climbing into bed with mom, she can allow it occasionally. Most time however statements such as , " You just keep your room neat like we said before and put your dishes in the sink. I can do the rest!" and "Okay you can watch this show in my bed and then I want to tuck you into your bed," is fine. And as far as bad guys and monsters go , "I'm your mom. We are safe at home and I can protect you from bad guys. Don't you worry." Then she can go on a "monster" hunt proving at least for that night there are no purple-eyed green hairy beasts lurking under the bed, in the closet or behind the doors.
The message should always be "I am the adult. I can take care of you. I am in control. " After all, he's not a little man at all. He's just a boy who needs his mother.