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Is Mom spending enough time with her child?
It sounds like you’re doing a wonderful job as grandparents, caring for your granddaughter and having her participate in activities in the community.

In describing your granddaughter, you’ve noted some examples of her being shy and fearful but also outgoing and self-confident. This seems very normal. At this age, children are experiencing many new things, and it’s common for them to suddenly develop new fears. For example, children might suddenly become scared of dogs or start to have nightmares.

Let’s consider some things you can do to help your granddaughter be less fearful and more self-confident. Above all, having consistent caregivers and routines helps children feel safe and know what to expect. They like to eat familiar foods and hear the same books and songs over and over. It seems like you’ve been able to provide a lot of consistency for your granddaughter.

But some things in her life have still been unpredictable, such as when her mother will spend the night at home, when she will see her father, and when she will have overnights with her father’s family. Here are some ideas for trying to make your granddaughter’s life a little more predictable.

Talk with your daughter, your granddaughter’s father and his family about your granddaughter’s fears and the importance of having a more predictable schedule to help her feel more self-confident. Ask your daughter to try to set up consistent times that she spends with her child, such as breakfast five days a week. And ask her father’s family to set up planned visits ahead of time. Also, try to encourage everyone to make sure that your granddaughter is not exposed to scary things, such as violent television and fighting at home.

Since your daughter misses the cuddly routine of bedtime with her child, encourage her to establish other special routines with her child. For example, she could take over bathing her daughter or doing her hair. She could also take her out somewhere special once a week, like the library, the zoo or to lunch.

Hang a calendar on the wall in your granddaughter’s room or the kitchen at her eye level. Use pictures of the key people in her life and tape them on the days when she will see them. Every morning, or even twice a day, show her what’s coming up: “Tonight, Mommy is going to work and you’ll be with me. But she’ll be home when you wake up in the morning. The next day you’re visiting Daddy.” She might start to put other events on the calendar, such as church and trips to the zoo or library. Make sure there is at least one weekly event, such as church, that always happens and won’t be missed, except for emergencies.

When your granddaughter stays overnight at her relatives’ house, pack familiar objects in her backpack, such as a little family photo album and a favorite stuffed animal to sleep with.

If you still worry that your granddaughter is unusually fearful compared with other 4-year-olds, be sure to discuss your concerns with her pediatrician at the next visit.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician