Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My 5-year-old grandson, now living with his dad, cries about everything. Any ideas that would help?

It's normal for kids to have adjustment difficulties after a lot of change

Amanda G. Mintzer, PsyD
Amanda Mintzer, PsyD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

I have 2 grandsons who are 3 and 5 years old. They live with their dad and his girlfriend and she has a 6-year-old daughter with ADHD. My concern is my 5-year-old grandson cries about everything. He was shifted back and forth from mom to dad for the last year and a half and now he is with his dad permanently. His mom had taken him out of preschool, and he's just going back now. He was doing good at first, but now he cries if his dad is sleeping (he works nights), he cries if he gets attention and when he doesn't. He cries about going to kindergarten, and the teacher said he might flunk because he doesn't know all the stuff the other kids know. And now when my 5-year-old grandson is crying the 3-year-old starts crying too.We all are at our wits' end and don't understand what is the matter with him. Any ideas that would help? My son also blames the daughter of his girlfriend for my grandson's problems. Please help if you can.

First of all, the thing that really struck me is how caring you are and how great it is that you’re part of this family system. You are obviously involved in your grandchildren’s care and worry about them, and they are lucky to have someone like that.

It can be chaotic, and sometimes traumatic, for kids to shuffle between mom and dad for a year and a half, and it is not unusual for kids to experience separation fears when they are missing one or both caregivers. It sounds like your older grandson has a healthy attachment to his father, and may be experiencing some normal separation anxiety and feelings of worry since he had been going back and forth so much.

Likewise it is not uncommon for kids to have some adjustment difficulties when they have been out of the normal routine of going to school. It sounds like your grandson is going through a rough patch and his younger brother might be modeling his own behavior after him. Going to a new school, starting kindergarten, and living with dad, a new woman, and a third child is certainly a lot of change for anyone, especially a child. As much as you can, try to be a consistent source support for him. Try to be there for him and to point out the potential positives of these changes by saying things like, “Now there are more people in your life who love you.” If that feels like too much for him to digest, just asking him how he is feeling and giving him the opportunity to be heard can go a long way.

While I do not think that the daughter of your son’s girlfriend is to blame, it does sound like their entire family system has changed recently, which can be quite difficult. Perhaps the boys are getting less attention than they are used to. If your son was able to spend even five minutes a day to have special time with each boy separately — an activity of their choosing like going to the park or playing a board game — that special attention would feel really good to them and would help them feel supported. Relying on extra support outside of the home is also an avenue to explore. Now that your oldest grandson is in kindergarten, it might also be a good idea to alert the teachers that he is having some trouble at home so that they can keep an eye on him and provide extra attention at school.

If your grandson’s crying persists and teachers are noticing behavioral or mood changes or academic trouble, it might be time to consult someone who can provide individual or family therapy to help everyone get a better grasp on the changes to the family system. Finally, parent management training, an evidence-based approach, is an extremely useful type of intervention that helps parents and caregivers better manage their children’s behavioral problems both at home and school.