Q I have a wonderful granddaughter who is 91/2. She is very smart, with an amazing vocabulary and a mind that just absorbs everything. My son and his wife divorced about four years ago. My granddaughter had a really hard time at first asking when Mom was coming home. (She is the one who moved out.) My granddaughter lives with her dad and has always been very attached to him. She started acting out within the past year, and my son wisely took her to a therapist, who helped a great deal. Her mother has since remarried, and my granddaughter is with her every other weekend and for a month in the summer. However, she has moved just far enough away that she cannot watch her during the week if my son has to travel on business, which he has had to do a lot recently, usually for a whole week at a time. I stay at my son’s house while he’s away and take care of my granddaughter. My son’s travel has really upset her. She constantly says, “I miss my daddy,” and even started crying one day in school. (Her teacher made fun of her in front of the whole class.) When I stay over, she usually finds a reason to come into my bed in the middle of the night and snuggle up. If I take her back to her room, she always manages to come back. She says she’s afraid, or she doesn’t feel safe, or the wind is making a noise, or she can’t sleep. She also does this with her dad. My son thinks that my granddaughter is afraid that he’ll leave, too, and that she’ll get over it eventually, but she seems to be regressing emotionally. The slightest negative thing makes her revert to a 4-year-old pouting and crying for her dad. She really enjoys playing softball, but if the coach tries to correct her or if she doesn’t get the game ball, she pouts and cries. I don’t know what to say to make her feel better. I’m at a loss as to how to help her.
A My heart is aching for this little girl. She has experienced and is experiencing a great deal of loss in her young life. The first blow came when her parents separated, her mom moved out and she had to split time with her two main attachments. Then her mom remarried and moved away, creating more distance and separation for your granddaughter. More recently, her father (your son) has to travel for work, leaving her once again separated from those she loves. Add to all of this that her teacher was unkind!
But there is some really good news in all of this. (Yes, really.)
1. She is living with a parent who loves and wants her (her father), and she is still able to regularly see her mother (who I presume also wants to see her). As hard as this is to believe, there are many children who are not wanted wherever they may land.
2. Her parents sent her to a therapist. This means that either the father or the mother or both clearly saw that this child was suffering. Again, there are many children who do not get emotional support during these tough times.
3. Your granddaughter has you. You love her and your son enough to write to me for help. You love her enough to go there and sleep. You love her enough to want to do better. This is a wonderful gift to your granddaughter, and I, for one, would love to see more grandparents in the lives of their grandchildren. They can be crucial links of connection, emotional safety and mentoring for many generations.
So, as frustrating as this situation is, there is not much you can do about these separations. I would love to wave a wand and make marriages perfect, have it so that no parent would move away or would travel for work. Poof. Done. But life is never going to be like that, so let’s work in the reality we have in front of us. And I want to speak directly to you.
First, allow your granddaughter to sleep with you. (Oh, yes, I can hear everyone talking about the child’s regression and how you will create a monster, etc. Hogwash.) This little girl cannot face any more separation from people she loves, so you are going to step in and take her under your wing. Don’t even wait until she goes to bed and then comes to visit you multiple times with fears and worries. Go ahead and tell her, “I have decided that I want you to sleep with me tonight.” And make it so.
Why do I advise this? We need to bring her young mind and body some rest. She is literally telling you, “I don’t feel safe.” You can believe her when she says it. This is not manipulation. And bringing rest to a child (of any age) is not spoiling; it is what a caring adult is supposed to do.
Second, create a safe space for your granddaughter to let out her feelings. This is simple to say and hard to do. She needs a person to just hold all of the worry and hurt that comes out of her. It is not easy to watch a 9-year-old girl cry, to be in pain or to feel scared. To create a soft space for her is the greatest gift you can offer her right now.
Third, because you have a good relationship with your son, please advise him to continue sending this little girl to a good therapist. Your granddaughter has many feelings she needs to safely let out, and a good play therapist would help immensely with this. The therapist would also help your son navigate all of these tough emotions and help him help his daughter.
Finally, strongly advise your son to reach out to your granddaughter’s school. Presumably, there is a counselor you can turn to (and if not, a good administrator) to help support your daughter throughout her school day. This girl needs all of the loving adults available to her, and certainly, the anxiety she is facing can easily show up as attention problems as well as other “discipline” issues.
If you’re looking for some good resource material, try “The Essential Grandparent’s Guide to Divorce: Making a Difference in the Family,” by Lillian Carson.
I know the divorce occurred four years ago, but, as many children of divorce will tell you, the deep feelings of loss need to be expressed. These feelings don’t have an expiration date.
Your granddaughter is lucky to have you. Keep up the great work, and good luck to you all.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for April 13.