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My granddaughter has learning difficulties, but her crying fits are wearing us down. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My granddaughter, who is nine, has some learning difficulties. She did not speak until she was about four. She receives support at school and has speech therapy. She has a very supportive home, with a nanny and a mother who spend time with her, trying to make her environment very positive.

My granddaughter was two when my daughter’s marriage ended. Before that, her husband was the main carer. As the only breadwinner, my daughter has had to work hard at her career and now has a high-paid job that involves quite a bit of travelling.

My granddaughter takes very badly to her mother going away overnight, although it is usually me who is there to childmind, and her older brother is also there. In many other ways, too, my granddaughter seems very immature, crying at the slightest setback or imagined hurt. She seems to have no sense that, at nine, she is a bit too old to act in this way. The crying can go on for a long time and she sometimes works herself up into an alarming state. Her mother is always very gentle with her and can often resolve the situation by promises of treats, but it is wearing us all down.

Lack of confidence is, we know, at the bottom of many of her problems, and it is hard to know how to build this up, as she recognises that she is not very able intellectually and it is difficult for her to make friends, although she can be very sweet. She is also good physically, on the trampoline and at gymnastics, although she is always a bit wary of classes.

What is the best course of action to help her come to terms with her situation? The family couldn’t be more loving, except perhaps for her father, whom she doesn’t see very often. He does love her, but thinks everyone is too soft with her. Is he right? It seems as if everything revolves round the child’s crying fits, which is terrible for her as well as the rest of us. How can we achieve a balance and give her a sense of her own worth with independence and self-esteem?

I wasn’t able to tell how mild, or otherwise, your granddaughter’s learning difficulties are. But, generally, one grows in independence and self-esteem by being allowed to make choices, being allowed to be oneself – whatever that self is – being listened to and being believed in. I sense a family holding its breath and tiptoeing round certain things.

Elisa Reyes-Simpson, a psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk), who specialises in dealing with people with learning difficulties, sensed a “veneer, a cheerful gloss” in your letter, how loving everything seemed but “underneath were lots of difficult things to manage”.

I was intrigued that the father was the main carer until the little girl was two (these are formative years), and then wasn’t. How was that changeover managed? I also wondered if she was, or has become, a foil for other people’s emotions – frustration, anger, disappointment? Sometimes children act out unsaid things within a family.

Reyes-Simpson picked up on the fact that, instead of allowing a bit of room for your granddaughter’s emotions and normalising them, she is pacified. “By giving her a treat [to deal with separation, etc], you are making her behaviour much more powerful. Maybe there needs to be a little room for normal, negative feelings.”

It’s natural to want to shield children from anything less than the happy moments of life, but resilience is built by helping them to manage all emotions – including the negative ones – and giving them the tools to deal with them, bit by bit, not batting them away by denying them. As Reyes-Simpson also points out, “Somewhere along the line, you seem to have equated firmness with not loving.”

I’ve said before that children need to find the backbone in their adults so they can use it themselves, so if you and her mum are loving, but confident she will, in time, pick up on that confidence, too. If, however, you both panic at her emotions and deploy a giant sticking plaster in the form of treats or pacifications, she won’t learn how to deal with her emotions – which leads to meltdowns and tantrums. I wonder what guilt your daughter bears that stops her dealing with things more confidently? “If we feel guilty at what we’re doing,” says Reyes-Simpson, “we feel we have to cover it up.”

Reyes-Simpson also wonders if your granddaughter has been properly assessed for these learning difficulties? “An assessment tells you what you can realistically expect with regard to emotional maturity. If you had a clear sense of where she’s at, you could set expectations.”

In the meantime, Reyes-Simpson recommends calmly acknowledging how your granddaughter might feel when her mother goes away and saying things like, “I know you hate it when Mum goes away, but you can do without Mum for a night.”

She also suggests “promoting confidence, not the tantrums. It would give her confidence if she thinks others have confidence in her.”

If she cries and gets upset, comfort her, of course, but try saying something like: “I know you’re upset now, but Mummy will be back in 24 hours (or whatever). Shall we go and mark it on the calendar?”

Don’t say things like, “I’ll make it up to you” or promise treats. When your daughter is home, does she make time to spend it one-on-one with your granddaughter? Even for just a few hours? That will also instil confidence.


This article was first published in the Guardian Family section on 19 June 2015.