Sunday 19 August 2018

Dear David Coleman: I can't get my six-year-old daughter into school without tears. What can we do to help her?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q.  My six-year-old daughter is kind and sensitive. My big problem is trying to get her into school. Her daddy brings her to school and as they approach the school gates, she complains of pains in her tummy and wants to go home again. We never bring her home. Her teacher says she is very good in school, doesn't struggle with schoolwork and settles quickly once we are gone. We have promised her rewards, threatened her with taking treats away. She gets into such an upset state; we don't know what to do. Would counselling help?

David replies: Counselling might help, but I'd suggest that it is you and your husband that might benefit most from it. Your daughter sounds like she is experiencing a separation anxiety. We normally associate separation anxiety with younger children, typically in their toddler years, but it can occur for older children too.

Sometimes for older children, what is a natural separation anxiety can develop into what is called separation anxiety disorder. This is where a child becomes so distressed at the thought of separation that they can't sleep the night before, they cling to their carer, they may get physically sick or they may refuse to go to school.

While your daughter does seem to feel anxious at the thought of being separate from you, and so protests with the "drama" you describe, it doesn't seem to be of a scale or nature to be considered a disorder.

Her anxiety at that moment may not even be an especially conscious experience for her. It is more likely to be an instinctive reaction for her, to the impending time when she has to cope without you. In reality, from what you say, she does "settle quickly", according to her teacher, and so patently she is able to cope without you. She doesn't remain upset once you are gone.

The level of distress that children may show us, at that moment of separation, is often quite extreme, as they have to put on a big demonstration, for us, to persuade us that they can't be left and that we either have to stay with them, or take them with us.

Watching such a distressing demonstration from your child is often equally distressing for a parent. Our heartstrings are well and truly tugged! We too can worry that our child won't cope. So sometimes we might respond by "rescuing" them and bringing them home with us, or staying with them.

Unfortunately, that response of rescuing may only intensify their anxiety the next time, since our actions may confirm their unconscious belief that they couldn't cope, and by staying with them we simply give them the message that we too believe they can't cope without us.

It is really helpful that you haven't ever taken her home, despite her protests.

As you've experienced, and hard as it may seem, we do have to let our children go, even when they are upset, providing we know that they are going to be minded and cared for by a warm and considerate carer who will help to soothe and distract them. The new carer does need to be able to help them to settle in those early moments.

You have probably found that your daughter's distress is prolonged the longer you stay. So, it is always helpful to be prepared to just drop her and go. Ideally you will be able to hand her over, physically, into the care of her teacher.

There is little point in trying to rationally offer rewards, or threatening consequences for her at the time of separation, as she is too emotionally caught up in her anxiety to take notice of what you say. It is better to be able to acknowledge the extent of her anxiety and distress, in an empathetic way.

So, returning to your question about counselling, learning about how to effectively empathise and show yourselves to be warm, responsive, but firm parents is what you and your husband might want to attend a psychologist for.

Adding to that warm and firm response to her, with consistency and a stable routine of drop-off and collection, should help her to grow in the confidence that she can cope fine with being separate from you.

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