A problem shared: how can I help my grief-stricken little boy?

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Something troubling you? Share it with your new BFs, Jo Davison and Nik Brear

I have an adorable six-year-old son who has suddenly started to wet the bed and tells me he’s having nightmares.

He has never once wet the bed since he was toilet-trained at three years old. So much has happened in his young life and I am so worried that the bed-wetting and nightmares are signs of how unhappy he is, deep-down.

I am a single parent now - I split up from his dad when he was just two years old. He seemed to cope really well with the split up. His dad and I went to great lengths to put him first, ensure he knew he was loved by us both and we managed to stay on good terms and parent our child together.

My son went to stay with his father every weekend. Both he and I had a good relationship with my ex’s new wife. But then we were hit by tragedy; my ex died a few months ago in a traffic accident.

We were all devastated, and at first I tried to support his new wife, who was pregnant at the time. But in the days before the funeral it became very clear that what we had thought was a good relationship wasn’t from her point of view. We found that she hated us and resented the fact that my son had enjoyed time with his father, when her unborn child would never know him.

The day before the funeral she made it clear that my son and I were not welcome to attend and that she would not be giving my son any of the mementoes of his father that he had requested.

Since the funeral, my son has become very angry. He is getting into trouble at school; his teacher says he has fits of rage in the playground and has attacked other children. At home he just wants to play on the Xbox and has tantrums over the smallest things. It’s a month since he started to wet the bed every night and wake up in the night crying and shouting.

My GP assures me that there is no medical problem, and says he is too young to be referred to a specialist clinic for bed-wetting.

I feel helpless; I don’t know how to help him. I can’t think where to turn to next.

Jo advises:

What traumas your son has had to go through in his young life. And what an outgoing little chap he must be, to have coped so well through so much.

Thanks to the sensible and caring approach of his parents, he got through the break-up and adjusted to dividing his time between his father and you - no small feat, as many fragmented families will tell you. It sounds like he also kindled a happy relationship with the new significant adult in his life - his step-mum.

Then his father died and he has had to deal with his own pain and sorrow while witnessing everyone he loves trying to deal with the same feelings. To have his step-mother turn against him at a time when he really needs her - and to be able to visit the home where his dad lived - seems so horribly cruel. She is bitter about losing the man she loved and the fact that her child will have no father. It is understandable. But unacceptable that she should take it out on a six-year-old boy who, if she did but realise it, needs her desperately. She is a link to his father and to the only thing of joy on the horizon - a new baby. He needs to share that with her.

You need support to be able to help your son. He needs bereavement counselling. But I strongly feel it is his step-mum who holds the key. You must tell her, or a close member of her family, about the problems a grieving child is going through and that some are of her making.

I doubt she ever hated the two of you. Grief does unpleasant things to us. She is raging at the injustice of life and forgetting it has dealt the same pain to your son.

Nik advises:

What a terrible situation you’re in - I’m so sorry for your son’s loss, and for your own.

It’s unforgiveable that your son was banned from attending his own dad’s funeral, denying him an important opportunity for closure. The recent change in him is an obvious cry for help and, as his now sole parent, you are the only one who can give him what he needs. While it’s reassuring to hear from your GP that your son has no medical issues that require help, I think it’s clear he needs to speak with someone.

Netmums.com has lots of information on helping your child cope with bereavement and there are support groups and chatrooms for mums such as yourself, as well as contacts for experts who may be able to help your son start making sense of his tragic loss, which he is of course far too young to truly understand. Alternatively, speak with your GP again about your concerns and ask him or her for recommendations of people your son could speak with who specialise in child bereavement and behaviour.

As for your ex’s widow, her loss has also been staggering, which I’m sure is behind her recent actions towards you both. I can only hope that, given time, she will have a change of heart and will want her new son or daughter to get to know their big brother. However, that may or may not come down the line, so focus on the here and now. Don’t be afraid to talk to your son about his dad, avoiding the subject is not the answer. Talk about your memories of him together, the good and the sad. Encourage him to laugh and cry and perhaps you can help one another to find closure in your own way.

Jacqueline Lynch consultant clinical psychologist and director of Chrysalis Associates, a service for looked-after and adopted children, advises:

You and your son have been through a very difficult time. The fact that he was not allowed to say goodbye to his father, and has lost the relationship with his step-mother and his future brother or sister, has taken its toll. His anger is a natural response to bereavement and the bed-wetting and night terrors are all related to his unresolved feeling of loss. It is creeping into his dreams at night. You couldn’t go to the funeral, but you could have your own service at home. Maybe you could write on a big balloon lots of memories of his dad. Make it a positive experience, but don’t be afraid to cry. It’s OK to let him see your sadness. Release the balloon at a place of happy memories. And try www.childbereavementuk.org

What would you advise? You can offer your own words of wisdom. Send your 200-word answer to this week’s problem. We’ll publish the best next week. Write to jo.davison@thestar.co.uk (include A Problem Shared in the notes field and add your name, age, occupation and area of Sheffield you live in).