Dear David Coleman: My three-year-old is so upset going to preschool
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q. My three-year-old daughter just started preschool. I’m due another baby in three months. Prior to preschool, she was at home with me. She got very upset about me leaving her at preschool. She enjoyed the activities with teachers, but says she hates going. She wakes up every morning and says, “Please say I don’t have to go today?” Teachers pulled her away from me this morning. It felt wrong. I’m worried about the effect on her. I believe in loving, understanding, supportive parenting. This doesn’t feel loving. I’m not sure what to do.
David replies: You certainly seem torn. On the one hand you must feel that preschool is important for your daughter, but on the other, you seem fearful that this separation from you may not be good for her.
Indeed, your experience of your daughter being pulled away from you sounds very upsetting. I can see why you are worried that it may have been traumatic for her to be separated from you so forcefully.
Depending on the circumstances, we may or may not have a choice about leaving our children to be cared for by others. Where we don’t have a choice, all we can do is to be empathetic about the distress that our child may feel, while having to remain firm about the need for the separation to occur.
Now, in truth, unless there is some issue with the place that we are leaving our children, then they do, usually, settle into their new surroundings and that initial anxiety disappears after a period of transition. Most children just need time to get used to the new environment and people.
With your daughter, this may also be the case. She just may need time, empathy and some firm resolve from you about the fact that she has to go.
However, where we have a choice about alternative childcare, then it might be worth checking with ourselves about the rationale for that choice. For example, I do wonder is there a particular reason why your daughter is starting preschool now, rather than waiting until she is four?
Perhaps it was to do with your desire for her to have more social opportunity to mix with peers? Maybe you felt she needs the intellectual stimulation of preschool? Or maybe it was a combination of these and other reasons, like giving you a bit more time and space to accommodate to the arrival of the new baby?
I could imagine that your daughter probably feels very connected to you, having had the opportunity to be at home with you full-time. She probably feels very cherished and loved.
In that context, I am also interested in how she has reacted to the news of another baby coming into the house imminently? If I try to put myself into her shoes, I could see a new baby sister or brother being a big threat to her relationship with her mother.
Many older siblings have a real fear of being displaced by their new sister or brother. For a three-year-old, that fear of displacement is not going to be theoretical or conceptual. It is going to visceral and based on her real experience of the world.
If this is how she feels about your pregnancy, then she may actually feel like being sent to preschool is a way of pushing her aside such that there is physically more space in the house for the new baby. She may even feel like she is being placed in preschool so that the baby can literally take her place in your arms, and by your side.
Even if a subconscious fear of displacement is not part of her separation anxiety, it is still worth paying heed to her distress.
Her protests are still meaningful. It might be worth reconsidering if now is the time for her to be at preschool?
One of your key decision-making factors, though, has to be, “what does she need?” She may not need extra friends, or formal learning opportunities. She might just need to be with her mum, continuing to happily learn and engage with the world from her base at home.
She may find it easier to accept the arrival of her younger sibling, when she is actively involved in their care and where she can see that you still have time and energy for her.
So, if the current separation experiences don’t feel “loving, understanding and supportive” to you, then it might be worth rethinking if it is actually necessary just now.
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