Tuesday 20 February 2018

David Coleman: My daughter has nightmares about a boy from crèche

The clinical psychologist gives advice on how to deal with an issue at a crèche and how to cope with anxiety over the move to 'big school.

Question: My two-year-old daughter has been having nightmares that seem to upset her a lot. One morning she woke up crying that a particular boy in her room at the crèche is pushing her. She has mentioned that this boy pushed her more than once, but she has also said that she pushed people. I just presume it is the usual argy-bargy that you find between toddlers. It is a lovely crèche and I really like the staff, so I have never really worried about what goes on there. These nightmares are worrying me though. What should I do?

David replies: Based on the information you have provided there are two issues to consider and deal with.

The first issue is the "pushing" that is happening in crèche. It sounds like this may be more upsetting for your daughter than you have considered up to now. It may well be the usual mini-power struggles of toddlers, but it seems to be upsetting your daughter.

The second issue is the nightmares. Nightmares, or bad dreams in general, are typically our unconscious processing of stress or worries. They do often occur more when we have worries or anxieties in the day.

The happenings in the crèche do seem to be a clear trigger for her nightmares and so this is the place to start.

With no disrespect to your daughter, or two-year-olds in general, they are notoriously unreliable witnesses when it comes to describing events that occur. So, chat to the carers in her room about what dynamic they observe between her and this boy.

She might feel a bit intimidated by this boy, such that she just doesn't feel as safe and settled as she normally does. Even if there isn't pushing, he might be doing something that bothers her.

Depending on what the staff say, there might be several things that can be done. Your daughter might need a bit more confidence to deal with the day to day "to-ing" and "fro-ing" that occurs.

The boy she refers to might actually need some help to manage aspects of his behaviour if they are upsetting for your daughter or for others.

You might also want to consider arranging for this boy and his mum to call over some weekend for a coffee and a play. That will give you a chance to observe for yourself how they interact. Maybe they need some coaching about how to get on with each other.

You and the other parent might, therefore, find that there are things you can suggest to both children that will help them to interact better or have more fun together. You could also bring this learning back to the crèche so that the staff, too, can engage the two children in some shared activities and further reinforce ideas of turn-taking, talking nicely, playing calmly and such like.

Even "lovely" crèches can make mistakes occasionally and miss some of the interactions of the children in their care, so do check it out with them.

At the very least, when you bring your concerns to their attention, they will keep a closer eye on this boy and on your daughter and that extra supervision might return her sense of security.

I do believe that the nightmares will probably fade away when the issue in the crèche between her and this boy gets resolved.

Given her age, you can also increase her sense of safety and security at night by having a really familiar and consistent bedtime routine. Do use any comforters such as "blankies" or favourite teddies to further strengthen her sense of security.

Make sure she is getting enough sleep by having an early enough bedtime. It will also lessen the tiredness that can creep in if she is being disturbed, or woken, during the night by her dreams. Make sure she knows she is always welcome to call you or come to you if she wakes.

You can even talk with her about the content of the dream and help her develop a powerful conclusion to the dream in which she vanquishes all "pushers" by her mighty powers!

Reimagining the outcome of bad dreams, by replacing the upsetting or scary ending is often a really successful way to reduce the occurrence and/or the impact of the dream.

My four-year-old is stressed about 'big school'  next year and clings to me

Question: Up until recent weeks my four-year-old daughter was a shy but very happy, secure little girl. Now, every morning at Montessori drop-off there are tears, which can last up to two hours every morning. I took her to an open day for "big" school around the time she started getting unsettled. She seemed unhappy and nervous about this, especially about the older boys that were there. Other than this there are no major changes in our family. I literally feel sick every morning leaving her in floods of tears but I have no clue how to deal with this.

David replies: It is very distressing to see and hear our children being upset. Indeed, when it comes to separation anxiety, it is potential distress that they are subconsciously appealing to.

If we think about it from a child's perspective, their parent represents safety and security. So, if they feel in anyway unsafe or insecure, they will naturally turn to their parent for comfort and reassurance.

If, however, they are feeling unsettled and their parent isn't available to them they will, equally naturally, be upset. When they see that their parent is going, they may become highly anxious and show that anxiety with lots of tears.

These tears, then, are an expression of their distress at being left without their primary source of security. They are also an unconscious effort to draw that parent back, to make it impossible for the parent to leave.

As an "emotional manipulation" it is very effective! Many parents do get stuck, feeling unable to leave. In most situations, though, once the parent does leave, the other carer, who is taking over, can usually settle the child very quickly.

It isn't clear, from what you describe, if your daughter isn't settling with the Montessori teacher, or maybe you aren't leaving her.

If it is the latter, then even though it is upsetting for you, you need to have faith that the Montessori teacher can cope with your daughter's distress and that she will soothe your daughter. You need to drop your daughter off efficiently and with little fuss.

Be warm and loving in your goodbye, but once you have crossed the threshold into the classroom you need to hand your daughter over to the teacher and to turn and go. It may sound harsh, but your daughter is, presumably, in good hands.

If, however, you get reports, after you have left, that it still takes two hours for the Montessori team to soothe your daughter, and help her to settle, you might want to talk with them about how they are responding.

It may be that there isn't any one person available to stay with your daughter to soothe and comfort her, before distracting her to the routine of the morning. If so, then discuss with them about assigning a single person to be her new point of security.

The other issue that you can try to help her with is to process the possible trigger for this bout of insecurity. Based on what you describe it does sound like she has been upset by the next change that is on her horizon when she goes to "big school" in the Autumn.

It is unfortunate that this has peaked her anxiety so far in advance.

The only benefit is that you have lots of time to help her process what this transition means for her.

That might involve talking at different points during the next few months about finishing up in preschool and starting in school. Be alert to the fact that she might be sad about leaving preschool as much as she is nervous about what faces her in school.

Do remind her of things she can do and things she does well, to further bolster her self-esteem and sense of her ability to cope with different situations.

You also have time to try to develop, or continue to nurture, friendships with any children you know will be joining her in national school. The security of having some known friends entering with her might also reduce her anxieties.

Continuing the chat about big school and getting good support from the Montessori teachers should help her through her current, temporary, insecurity.

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