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Child Caring

Vacation at grandma's without mom and dad?

Hi Barbara,
I have two girls, aged 8 and 5, who are supposed to visit my mother out of state in August. Either my mom or I would fly with them, then the girls would be with my mom for 2 weeks. After that, my husband and I will join them.

The 8-year-old has done this for the last 2 summers, but this is the first time the 5-year-old would do this. The 5-year-old is alternately excited and anxious about the visit. She gets especially anxious when talking about specifics, such as how she will get to my mom's house, who will put her to bed, etc.

She has a good relationship with my mom and I'm sure would have a good time once she gets over the initial separation. We have offered to video chat with her and/or call her every night to say goodnight, etc. but she is still anxious.

Is there any way to help her through this anxiety? Or is she too young to try this?

Thank you for your advice!
From: M, Metro Boston


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Dear M,

I do not think she's too young, especially since you or grandma are traveling with her and because her older sister is going as well. (Unless of course, sis is a source of angst and not comfort or fun.) It also sounds as if you are doing a good job of preparing her. Sometimes, parents are afraid to raise the "what if's" for fear of planting ideas in a kid's head. That's not the way it works. Walking through what-if's gives a child coping mechanisms:

Be matter-of-fact when you talk her through these what-ifs. In fact, suggest possibilities: What if you get homesick? what if you get sick sick? What if you don't like the food?

Don't dismiss any concerns. When she asks about x, y or z, don't say, "Oh you don't need to worry about that." Instead, ask her, "Well, what do you think would help you if that happened?"

Walk her through some of what she might experience, including in a sensory way. Kids tend to react strongly to new smells, tastes and other sensations. Remind her of some that might be pleasant ("Can you remember that wonderful fresh smell on grandma's porch after it rains? No! Boy, you're in for a treat.") as well as ones that might put her off ("Grandma likes to cook with garlic. You don't like that taste. Should we ask her to not use garlic in your food?" )

Remind her of experiences she can look to for guidance: "Remember when you were anxious about the playdate at Mary's and you had such a good time? What did you do to help yourself stop being anxious?" That also reminds her that she has some control over her feelings.

Here's the goal: When/if she has one of these moments, you want her to be able to say to herself, "Oh yeah, mom and I talked about this. I know what to do. " Maybe the what-to-do includes looking at a family picture, getting on Skype, talking to her stuffed animal or to grandma or her sister.

Show her pictures before she goes to remind her of what things look like. Make a book together beforehand of what she'll do/see/say that she can fill it like a diary while she's there, so she can tell you about it.

That said, you know your child best. Is she normally anxious but then does just fine? Or does she work herself up into a tizzy, getting sick to her stomach, unable to sleep or eat or function normally? That child is at the troublesome end of the continuum and a trip to grandma's probably isn't worth it. On the other end are lots of kids who get anxious before doing something new and different, learn to manage and then feel terrific when they master it. Another piece, of course, is you. How anxious are you about her ability to handle this? With help, she may be just fine. What about you?! If she senses anxiety in you, that could fuel her own: " Mom doesn't think I can do this."

Lastly, it's also fine to hold off until next year -- two weeks is a long time for a 5-year-old! -- as long as no one (including her sister or grandma ) makes her feel ashamed about it.