EVERYTHING had been fine before vacation. Christine was very much at home and full of enthusiasm about school. She cooperated and made friends easily, yet, when necessary, was able to hold her own. The other children enjoyed being around this cheerful little girl. That's why an incident that happened the first day back from vacation was so surprising. Christine had been building a tower with some other children when, for no apparent reason, she shoved her good friend, Paul. The almost-completed block tower-and a shocked Paul-game crashing down.
Christine stormed over to her cubby, grabbed a toy she had brought from home, and sat down. After comforting Paul, I went to Christine and asked her what had happened. That's when she burst into tears and begged me to call her mother. Although I spent 20 minutes with Christine trying to soothe her, nothing worked. Her sobbing just went on and on. Ordinarily, I would do whatever I could to help a child work through homesickness. But this 4-year-old's pain seemed overwhelming to her. To help her express her feelings, Christine and I wrote her mom a note saying how much she missed her. She also drew a picture of herself to include with the note, which seemed to calm her down. I left a message on her mother's voice mail, letting her know what had happened.
When Christine's mom and I talked, she mentioned that Christine had been away visiting her dad over vacation. My feeling that this child has more to contend with than ordinary post-vacation uneasiness was correct. I wish I knew how I could be of help.
The Parent's Story
IT'S SO HARD to know what to do. I don't want my daughter to be deprived of a father, but I guess I shouldn't have agreed to Christine's visiting her dad for such a long holiday.
Since my ex-husband moved out of town, his visits with Christine have been sporadic. He lives quite a distance away, and his work schedule is demanding and unpredictable. That's why I gave in and agreed to a long holiday visit. I should have remembered that Christine had trouble adjusting even after briefer visits when her dad lived nearby. But this time has been the worst. I was so thrilled to see her arrive home yesterday, but she was grumpy and sad and wanted nothing to do with me. Christine didn't even want to go back to schooland she loves school! I have so many questions. How can I help Christine readjust to her routine? And what'll I do about her future visits with her father?
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Separation issues may re-emerge after vacations. In fact, teachers have reported that for some children, Mondays can routinely be difficult. Christine's teacher and parent realize that, in her case, there are a number of separations to deal with all at once. Each time she goes off with one parent she must leave the other, which understandably saddens her. And now she must leave them both to return to school.
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher should invite the parent to spend some time in the classroom. Even if the parent can only stay a bit longer at drop-off time, this might be a big help. If Christine has angry outbursts, the teacher should remind everyone of the class rules about being kind to others. She should encourage Christine to come to her to express any feelings, including anger, in safe ways. Most young children prefer to express themselves through dramatic play or a high-energy activity. The teacher can also share picture books that deal with separation issues.
What the Parent Can Do
Now that they live so far apart, both parents should do some serious thinking about how to handle future father and daughter get-togethers. Christine is entitled to be with her father, but things will go better if there is some predictability and regularity about the visits and fewer changes in Christine's life. If possible, the father might come to see his daughter rather than having Christine travel. Otherwise, a more frequent exchange of notes and cards or videoand audiotapes might take the place of some of these visits.
At any age, a child in Christine's situation should have the freedom to communicate often with the absent parent. And at each parent's home, photographs of the girl and the absent parent should be displayed by her bed. Special toys or other transitional objects should be welcomed too. However, some anxiety before and after visits is still to be expected.