A Parent24 reader reached out to us with a question about her son, and we approached an expert on her behalf. Read the question and answer in full below:
My 10-year old son is and has struggled with severe homesickness when he goes on extended visits with my husband’s parents.
It usually consists of nightly phone calls while he’s away that end with him begging us to come and get him, which isn’t possible. I end up trying to calm him down and reassure him he can do this, while my husband loses his mind.
My husband doesn’t understand why he’s homesick, and instead of understanding him, he loses his temper and tries to dictate how my son should be feeling.
My mother and father-in-law also don’t help, they tend to get upset instead of trying to sympathise and support him and leave him alone to deal with it on his own.
This has been happening for years.
We’re getting ready for another such trip now and my son is already crying at night telling us he doesn’t want to go and my husband is not giving my kids the option.
I’m at a loss on what to do and how to help my son, well, both of my boys at this point. I want to teach them to be strong but I don’t want to give them anxiety issues that they’ll deal with the rest of their lives, or make them think that how they feel isn’t important.
Dear Concerned Parent,
The "homesickness" which the reader is referring to, is a normal developmental difficulty, which children need to negotiate over time.
When this separation anxiety hinders a child’s day-to-day activities (such as attending school), caregivers may need to look at whether there is a deeper issue at hand.
Separation anxiety is a very complex type of anxiety because it is embedded in relationships, and it is really hard to formulate a clear reason for the distress in this case.
There could be a number of reasons, and it is important to explore these reasons with your child.
One of the main reasons could be the idea of being too far away from you as parents, their main source of emotional security, and this is may not be a comment on the type of care that the grandparents provide.
This difficulty gives the parents and the grandparents a chance to work collaboratively to help the children manage this distress.
There are strategies to help a child negotiate separation from caregivers:
It is important that the child knows what is going to happen and when. In our reader’s case, it is important for her children to know when they will be visiting their grandparents and how long their stay will be.
You can do this by drawing up a child-friendly calendar. They will need to know what activities the grandparents have planned for their stay, and when they will be doing them.
The kids will also need structure/ routine even when they are visiting their grandparents. The parents can have scheduled daily calls with the kids, perhaps calling the kids midday and in the evening to say “goodnight” to them.
Keep goodbyes brief
Parents need to keep their goodbyes brief. So in the case of our reader, it would be important that they leave their children without having a prolonged goodbye.
Kids know that parents struggle with brief goodbyes when they are distressed. So a child may prolong the distress to avoid separation. It’s important for parents to not engage with the distress a lot (I know it is hard to do, especially when your little one is sobbing inconsolably).
In light of our reader, she can empathise with her children’s distress about missing home, and she may remind them of how they have managed to stay away from home for a certain period and that she is proud of them for doing so.
It will not be beneficial to engage with thoughts about fetching them. If the children ask about being fetched, she may inform them that they have a certain amount of days left and she is looking forward to seeing them on the day she is scheduled to fetch them.
Notes of affirmation
These are really worthwhile during separation. The parents can write notes to affirm the child that they are held in mind, even when they are far from them.
Some parents place these in lunchboxes when kids struggle with separation when at school.
In our reader’s case, she may want to hand these to the grandparents to give the kids each day, and it will be important that she writes these notes together with her husband. The kids need to know they are loved and held in mind by both their parents.
This is a hard matter to manage if the grownups have different ideas on what works. As it needs the adults to think together about how to manage this difficulty.
It seems in our reader’s case, the adults hold different views on how to manage this difficulty, which makes it tricky.
It will be important to handle this difficulty with empathy, as well as clarity (all the grownups need to send the same clear message to the kids).
Also, it would be useful for the child to take a favourite toy, snack, and/or photo of parents with them.
Tsholo Jood, Clinical Psychologist
Tara Hospital - Children’s Unit
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