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When parents send their toddler abroad

Q. My practice sees immigrant families from all over the world. A number of Chinese families have one child (born in the US) and are here as graduate students or working in a technical field. Some of these families send their child back to China (usually in the second year of life) to live with the grandparents for a year or more, while the parents remain here to pursue their careers. What are the developmental consequences of this separation? And how should I counsel these families in preparation for it?

Joseph F. Terrizzi, MDEvanston, Ill.

A. The practice of sending children to live with grandparents is not unusual among graduate students from foreign countries, and it is not new. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American settlers who moved west would often send their children to live with grandparents or other relatives; many children did not see their parents for several years. Some cultures, such as those of certain tribes in Uganda, routinely send toddlers to live with grandparents, who often live some distance away.

Fortunately, in this technologic age, there are many ways for parents and children to keep in close contact. These include telephone calls, videophone calls, photos sent via email, and videotapes of the parents reading stories to, or singing to, the child. Grandparents should facilitate ongoing contact to make the eventual reunion less traumatic. Counseling of families should emphasize the importance of frequent visits, phone calls, photos, videotapes, etc. The parents should be told, however, that such separations may have negative psychological consequences for the child, depending on his or her personality.

Karen Olness, MD

Dr. OLNESS is professor of pediatrics, family medicine, and international health, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Cleveland, Ohio