ACP member, Milly Jenkins gives advice to worried parent in Annalisa Barbieri's Guardian Problem Solved Column. The writer and her husband have two daughters, aged three and one who live in Glasgow, but all of the husband's extended family (siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents) live on a remote Scottish island. They visit two or three times a year (Christmas and summer), for about two weeks each trip. The reported problem is that the three-year-old is getting increasingly “homesick” for the island and her extended family and is always desperately sad to leave. She also talks a lot about how much she misses her grandparents and their home - the place as well as the people and has verbalised how she hurts inside whenever she thinks about the island.
The mother describes how this started as soon as she could talk, but has got increasingly intense as she has grown more articulate. Otherwise, both children are happy and settled at home with us, with good friendship groups, a happy nursery, and lots of fun. Recently daughter has woken inconsolable four times because of lovely dreams that she was back on the island. When she finds out she is at home, she is bereft and hearing her dad on the phone to her gran, she sobs, because she misses her so much. The mother asks how they can make this less painful for her?
Are you and your husband both happy living in Glasgow? Where is your family, your support?
Milly Jenkins wondered whether the daughter is finding another way of expressing harder feelings she has? She adds that, at that age, children can be full of learning about feelings of separation and wider feelings of loss. Jenkins also points out that night times – the dreams – are about mini-separations and how saying goodbye on the phone to someone is, also a separation or loss.
Jenkins and Barbieri asked how the family found themselves in Glasgow and if they as a parental couple are happy about it. They also asked about other family and support.
The point was well made that sometimes, children can reflect something else that's going on in the family that we as adults may not even be aware of. Jenkins advised taking a step back to think about how they as parents talk about the extended family and the island.
Is it with confidence or a sadness? Does your daughter pick up that maybe you should be there too? Sometimes with the best intentions we say things, or children overhear things and they misinterpret them or take things too literally.
Jenkins also wondered how well the daughter is coping with separation in general and if perhaps these grandparents have become the repository for all the daughter’s less positive feelings, ie, if she felt she could be sad about that instead of about other things? Does the island, asked Jenkins, represent something else for her? Maybe watch [those points of] everyday separation for her. She may be managing separation by being brave and feels it’s OK for it to come out about the grandparents.
But ultimately, as long as you are confident about where they live and why, this will pass, explains Jenkins.
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