Mend a Broken Family

How to Make Informed Choices and Repair Family Wounds

Yummy Mummy Alana from Ontario asks:

I am a single mother of a 5 year old boy and a 14 month old girl. Their father has not been involved in their lives at all. He lived with us for most of our son's life and left when our daughter was only three weeks old - he has since dropped out of their lives completely and has started a new family.

My son cries for him every night and day. He misses his dad, which is normal, but is confused as to why he hasn't called or come to see him. I tell him Daddy loves him, and that Mommy has no way of reaching him. For I have been blocked to contact in all forms and possible ways. I comfort him as best as I can, yet my son has started taking his anger and confusion out on me as well as others who are in his daily life. He talks back, flat out ignores when being spoken to and hurts his sister as well our cat and dog. 

He has dealt with a lot for a five year old boy, witnessing the emotional, mental, verbal and physical abuse that his father put me through. All of this has left my son confused, angry, and I feel he has issues with abandonment. I am at a loss as to what I can do to help my son move forward. I feel he needs to know that daddy is not coming back and understand it as well. But how do I explain things to him in a way that a 5 year old can comprehend and how can I help him deal with the emotions he's having?

Signed: A mother wanting a normal childhood for her children.

Parent and Child Therapist, Jennifer Kolari answers:


I must begin by saying that my heart goes out to you. Staying strong while trying to cope with both an angry little boy and your own emotional wounds is a huge challenge. The good news is that it is a healthier challenge than having to live in fear and flux with an unstable “partner” who intimidates your son and abuses you in your home. Now, at least, you can clearly see the road ahead and make some informed choices for the good of your family.

As your son had to bear witness to such abuse, I recommend that you contact a social worker or therapist and get him some support around this issue. Being able to talk to someone who can help him understand and sort out his complicated feelings may be very helpful and comforting for him. You can go to a local agency, someone in private practice or see if it would be possible to have him seen by the school Social Worker. If you are comfortable with this it may be good idea for you to get support as well and perhaps for the two of you to see someone together for a few sessions.

It is normal for a five year-old boy to identify with and seek to model himself after his father. It is also common for children to blame the parent who is there for them every day. There is no one else for them to express their anger to. He is also too young to completely understand that his father’s behaviours were completely unacceptable.

Meanwhile there are a number of things you can do in order to help your son through this difficult time:

Listen whenever he wants to convey his feelings, angry or hurtful as they may be. Look him in the eye, get down physically to his level and repeat back to him what he is saying so that he sees and feels you mirroring his emotions; he needs to know that his mother hears his pain – even above and before you correct him or give your own opinion.

Your son feels as if his dad left because of him or you so it is extremely important that you remain neutral whenever your son brings up any issues relating to his dad. Your voice must stay level and you must check your facial expressions and body language. Keep telling your son that you love being his mommy but that his daddy just wasn’t ready or able to be a good daddy. It was too hard for him so he had to leave. You know exactly what to do to be a good mommy though and you will never leave. Remind him also that you, your daughter and he have a wonderful, close family and that not all families are the same. Some have only one parent. Try to instill an understanding that families come in all shapes and sizes by coming up with some new traditions that the three of you do together.

Use the power of connection to protect your bond and help him manage his feelings. Even though his behaviour is difficult and you may be exasperated and hurt by him sometimes, make sure to nurture and protect your bond. Create moments of deep connection by looking into his eyes, rubbing noses, touching his face, tickling him, using a baby voice. I’m not suggesting that this is the way to treat your child all the time; it’s a way to create a special moment that will help him to feel deeply loved and will help repair some of his issues around attachment. This alone will positively affect and help his behaviour.

Jennifer Kolari is a Child & Family Therapist and social worker with twenty years’ experience working with parents and children. She has an honours BA in Psychology from York University and a master’s in social work from the University of Toronto.

Kolari is a member of the Ontario Association of Social Workers and Social Service Workers and the Ontario Association of Social Workers. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three young children.