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Helping Children Survive Divorce: The Myth of the Tough Boy

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As researchers (and virtually all parents) have long known, children show definite sex differences when it comes to behavior such as play and risk-taking. So-called tomboys are the exception that proves the rule: boys have a clear preference for rough-and-tumble play as well as for taking risks. My son Greg could fashion a gun out of a stick from as early an age as I can remember. Given the opportunity, his preferred place of rest is high up in the limbs of a tree (and he has the scratches and bruises to prove it). In contrast, his sister Becca has virtually no interest in climbing trees, and her interest in guns has always been limited to super-soakers.

Behavioral sex differences like the above appear to be the basis on which our society stereotypes boys' and girls' innate personalities and temperaments. As opposed to behavioral differences these latter stereotypes are generally inaccurate; worse, when it comes to divorce they can be downright dangerous. The specific stereotype I'm speaking of is the one that goes: girls are sensitive, boys are tough. In truth, if anything boys may actually be more emotionally vulnerable than girls. Thinking that boys are emotionally thick-skinned is one reason why boys may have an even harder time than girls adjusting to divorce.


Attachment is one of the key development tasks facing a young child--basically, children between the ages of birth to five. It happens to be one of those rare psychological terms that speaks for itself. Beginning at or soon after birth, children become "attached" to others and to things. The most common first attachment is to the mother, who is usually the first person to hold, cuddle, and nurture the newborn. However, attachment is not limited to the mother, but can include the infant's father, as well as others who provide comfort and nurturance and who interact with the infant.

Separation and divorce hold the potential to undermine or disrupt attachments that are either being formed or have been formed. If that is allowed to happen, the result can be long-term insecurity and a fear of exploring the world. On the other hand, if divorcing parents understand the process of attachment and act in ways to preserve a child's existing attachments while promoting new ones, there is no reason why that child need be irrevocably harmed by divorce.

If their initial attachments are successful, children will be able to form additional attachments to significant others later on, with peers as well as with other influential adults in their lives, such as babysitters and day-care workers and, even later, teachers and coaches. Many psychologists believe that healthy attachments in childhood set the stage for satisfying, committed adult relationships.

Children also become attached to things, such as stuffed animals and blankets. They use these things as supplemental attachment objects; they represent additional sources of comfort and companionship, particularly when human attachment figures are not readily available. Many parents can attest to the various collections of these objects that children will collect. My older daughter, Maggie, formed a strong attachment to a stuffed kangaroo when she was about five years old. That same kangaroo eventually accompanied her when she went off to college! I saw no problem with this; in fact, I thought it was touching.

What about boys?

Our thinking about attachment may not be quite the same when it comes to boys. One mother expressed concern because after she and her husband separated her three-year-old son, Tyler, became very attached to a female doll named "Sparkle," who had long dark brown curly hair that sparkled in the light. The mother had originally gotten the doll for her older daughter, who was more or less neutral about it and made no objections when Tyler appropriated it.

Tyler carried Sparkle with him everywhere and would not go to sleep at night unless Sparkle was at his side. His mother's concern was that her son might be ridiculed by other children for carrying a doll. Since this was a real possibility--especially if Tyler remained attached to Sparkle as he got a couple of years older--the mother was advised not to try to substitute another attachment object, but to simply see to it that Sparkle didn't accompany Tyler to the day-care center. Rather, Sparkle was tucked into bed each morning, where she would spend the day waiting for Tyler to return.

Indeed, Tyler maintained his attachment to Sparkle until he was six. Then, for some reason known only to Tyler, Sparkle was retired to a drawer beneath Tyler's bed, and he began sleeping instead with a stuffed snake and one or more toy dragons he'd taken to collecting.

Tyler's father maintained regular contact with him after the separation. Still, Tyler (more so than his sister) would cry on occasion, saying that he missed his father. He also had occasional nightmares, the only cure for which was to sleep in his mother's bed (with Sparkle at his side).

It is not unreasonable to assume that Tyler was experiencing some increased anxiety, or insecurity, as a result of his parents' separation and the decreased presence of his father in his life. Young children like Tyler, however, typically cannot put their insecurity into words. Instead, one has to "read" their behavior. They may become increasingly clingy, for example, or need extra time before being able to fall asleep at night. Some may conjure up imaginary "monsters," while still others will regress and start wetting the bed at night. There are two ways to respond to these behaviors--all of which reflect insecurity. The wrong way is to try to ignore them or talk children out of them. "Don't feel that way" will not be sufficient to make insecurity go away. Even worse are efforts to shame young children into dropping their insecurity. Unfortunately, because they buy into the myth of the tough boy, parents sometimes try to get boys to "tough it out." It would have been a mistake, for example, to try to persuade (or force) Tyler to give up Sparkle, or to insist that he stay in his bed after having a nightmare.

The right way for a separated parent to approach insecurity in a young child is, first, to read these behaviors for what they really are: insecurity. They are not attempts to manipulate you, or get special favors. Rather than trying to ignore a child's insecurity in the hope it will go away, or else resist the child's efforts to get additional comfort, divorcing parents need to accept it and provide the increased comfort and attention that the child is asking for through his or her behavior. In the above example, that would mean respecting and allowing Tyler to have his attachment to Sparkle.

No Time for Guilt

Some parents have confided that the idea that their divorce is creating insecurity makes them feel guilty and uncomfortable. My response is this: You have made a decision to divorce, and decisions have consequences. If one of those consequences is some evident insecurity the best way to deal with it is to accept it and take steps like the above to help compensate for it. The worst thing to do is to ignore it, or, for boys, to expect them to "Man-Up" and tough it out.

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