When you move away from your family

I have a very sensitive eight-year-old daughter. She is the oldest of my two children. She has mood swings, crying at the drop of a hat and sulking when she feels lonely or pressured. We recently moved from Texas to Alaska and this is the first time ever we have been away from our family. She was very close with her grandparents and they played a very active role in her life. I know she misses them dearly. How to I help build her self-confidence so she is happier?


Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your daughter is fortunate to have a mother who is sensitive to her needs and willing to adjust her schedule to be available to her during this time of transition. But do not mistake "being there for her" as "making her happy". Your investment in her moods and smiling behavior may not leave her much room for grieving her very close relationships to her grandparents and the friends she left behind. Not to mention the dramatic changes in weather, a new school and home environment as well!

Your daughter is "opening up" to you by showing her pain! "Crying at the drop of a hat" is an expression of the emotional stress she is experiencing. This is no doubt largely due to losing significant attachment figures (grandparents) in her life. Do not pressure her to "smile". Instead, accept her grieving and reflect her sadness to her. You may be feeling guilty yourself, which may cause you to pressure her into "happy" behavior so as to ease your own pain at moving her away from her grandparents. And you may be ignoring your own sadness by "putting on a happy face" yourself, which only leaves your daughter as the one "elected" to express the sadness for the family!

Do not avoid her anger at you for this change, or sidestep her sadness. If she is not able to express her feelings, they may fester and develop into a more long-standing depression that would further delay her adjustment in finding new friends and activities in her new situation.

Encourage your daughter to talk about missing her grandparents. If she looks sad or cries, simply reflect her feelings back to her so she knows you understand. Let her know that you are grieving too, that she is not alone. Hold her, stroke her hair and tell her "I know it makes you sad to not be with grandma and grandpa". Help her write letters, draw pictures or make a videotape of her surroundings for her grandparents. Send them schoolwork if she would like so that she can stay in touch with their love and does not mistake their absence for "forgetting" her. Over time she will internalize their love and develop attachments to new friends and situations. If she becomes angry, reflect her anger as well as her loss..."You are really angry right now"...Realize that she is struggling to adjust to her loss, and it is natural for her to express anger and tears as she had no control over the move and the unwelcome changes that were precipitated for her. It is the most significant event that is happening in her life right now and she cannot be happy about it!

Your daughter will be soothed by your acceptance of her "negative" feelings. Expect her to be sad and fragile for a period of time. She will in time be grateful that you see her as she is and feel loved by the space you make for her frowns as well as her smiles. And to do not underestimate the fact that your new availability in her life may mean that your relationship is also in flux! You may need a "getting acquainted" period if you have shared much of the primary parenting with grandparents due to work responsibilities in the past.

The affection and dependency she invested in her grandparents will be gradually transferred to you. This is a beautiful opportunity for mother-daughter sharing. Do not destroy the potential for closeness by pressuring her to "put on a happy face" at a time when sadness prevails. The heart of your intimacy will be determined by your ability to forge a relationship with her that invites all of her in, rather than only the smiling part!

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