Clinical Expertise

Lessons from my Father

Last year I took my 91 year old father who suffers from dementia to a restaurant.
I gently guided him with his walker to a table and left him there as I went to order the food in a long cafeteria style line. I made sure that he could see me in line and every few minutes I turned and waved at him through the crowd of people. When I was out of sight he drummed the table with his fingers, looked questioningly at his walker, and seemed nervous and lost. As soon as he saw me wave he was relieved but this only lasted a couple of minutes.
Since the line was long I occasionally went over to the table to tell him what I was ordering and that I would be back shortly. This eased his anxiety and enabled him to wait instead of searching for me. I was patient with him because I knew he had a disability that limited him. I’m sure observers in the restaurant thought that I was the one acting odd. When I finally joined him he was fine.
This reminded me so much of our foster or adoptive children with behavior problems due to a lack of object permanence or constancy. They misbehave as soon as parents are out of sight because, like my father, they cannot hold the emotional presence of the parent. They missed learning this due to a lack of consistent loving care early in development. Their resulting behaviors are often exasperating and we are tempted to say things to them like “can’t I leave you alone for a minute”. The answer to that question is “no”. They are like emotional toddlers that need a parent’s presence continually. If you have a child that misbehaves as soon as you are out of sight try treating them like I did my father. If that works you know that you have some further permanence work to do. The good news is that with guidance children that suffered early abuse and neglect can develop permanence and their behaviors will improve.


Posted in: Attachment

5 Responses to Lessons from my Father

    Oliver Gerber
    Commented:  February 8, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    I don’t know my dear friend how should I say thank you. The way you have expressed it, is really awesome. I could not control myself. I have adopted and now he is five year old. Often I scold him due to his misbehavior. Thank you very much for you kind teachings.

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