A move without father -- such as that recently made by hundreds of American children airlifted with their mothers from Baghdad and Kuwait to freedom in the United States -- is problematic far beyond the usual reentry of an American child.

"This is very stressful," says John Shaw, chief of adolescent and child psychiatry at the University of Miami (Fla.) Medical School who has had experience both with military families and child hostages.

"You're redefining the whole family in terms of who tells who what to do, the issue of authority," he said in a telephone interview. "A lot of these families will not have the social support of military families. And some of the children will know their father's life is at risk."

He suggests that the government should arrange not only support groups but regular briefings so that the families are well-informed.

Shaw says the kinds of problems encountered by these recently liberated children will be closely tied to their age and gender but, more important, to the kind of relationship they had with their father before he was separated from them, as well as to the way the mother handles the situation.

In the worst case, a child could become "more clinging, phobic, more immature, have difficulty eating and start bed-wetting," says Shaw, adding that in some cases professional help might be warranted.

"A lot depends on the psychological health of the mother," he says. "If she can be optimistic about the father's return and assumes some of his role, this would be less stressful. A lot depends on her capability to enlarge her role."

Shaw says that for a child under age 7, guilt feelings about the father can pose a serious problem.

For a young boy, the wish is to have a very strong relationship with the mother," says Shaw. "Then the father is removed from the scene. First, there would be a secret triumph. Then he would feel guilty."

"A child under 7 cannot evaluate causative factors," Shaw explains. "He sees himself as the referential cause of things."

Shaw says that older children and even adults, to some degree, are hampered by this childlike interpretation of cause and effect.

A teenage boy, for example, who had a conflictual relationship with his father, might feel an immediate sense of victory at the father's predicament but then suffer afterward from a sense of guilt.

A teenage girl, typically dependent on her father for her sense of femininity, could feel angry that the father has "abandoned" her to a hostile mother.

"A {teenage} girl often needs her father," says Shaw, "as a buffer against her mother when liberating herself from her mother's shadow."

If the relationship with the father is ambivalent or angry, there will be more guilt than if the relationship is personable and warm, Shaw says.

The key to a child's adjustment, he says, lies in the adjustment of the mother: "She may be crying, worried or she may turn to a child as a confidante instead of maintaining parental boundaries," says Shaw. "It's important to maintain the generational boundary and convey confidence."

A mother should realistically tell her child in as simple language as possible what has happened, Shaw says. "One should not withhold knowledge and should be optimistic. But kids are getting information through the TV set every day. So you have to make sure you don't end up being a Pollyanna."

Shaw says it's good to bring "surrogate males" -- either family or members of the community -- to fill in for the father.

The eventual reintegration of the father will pose new challenges, says Shaw, partly because of society's attitude toward hostages.

"There is a certain ambivalence," Shaw says. "We want them back but they are almost seen as a negative experience, holding us hostage."

In what could be a long waiting period, Shaw says the mothers should be encouraged to get together. He urges the government to provide the mothers regular access and information.

"Real information, in clarifying options, often allays anxiety. And it would be nice when they flew in if there was some kind of debriefing experience to give them an opportunity to vent their feelings."