David Coleman Column: School-time separation anxiety

Every so often children can get pangs of anxiety

David Coleman

I have four children, so you would think I would be wise to their ways. My youngest is a very strong-willed four-year-old boy.

He started playschool last year and attended for two days a week. He loved it.

This year, he goes four mornings a week. At first, he couldn't get enough, but now he cries and screams each morning I drop him off.

He says he misses me and wants to stay home with me.

He used to mingle well with all the other children, but now has a firm attachment to only one other boy at the preschool.

He has started wetting and soiling himself again, and I simply cannot figure out why this is happening all of a sudden.

Other than the above issues, he is a happy, confident and very outgoing little boy.

It's heartbreaking seeing him so upset.

I am conscious that he is due to start big school in September and do not want him to think that he can get his own way by acting up.

Do you have any helpful suggestions that you feel might work for him?

I really would appreciate any ideas as I am at my wit's end.

EVERY so often children can get pangs of anxiety. Then it is natural for them to rely on us -- their parents -- for comfort and/or reassurance.

Sometimes, for no apparent reason, children can become anxious. They show this by refusing to let parents go in situations where they were previously quite happy.

However, the fact that your son was well settled in the preschool but now seems to have very significantly changed, including wetting and soiling, suggests to me that something quite significant has happened to him that has distressed or worried him.

Starting to wet and soil having previously been successfully trained very rarely occurs without some kind of emotional upset or distress.

It seems to me to be most likely that something distressing happened to your son in preschool, since this is the main focus of his resistance and anxiety.

Given his age, it is unlikely that he may feel able or inclined to explain to you what this might be.

So, your first point of call is the preschool teacher, to query any incidents that may have occurred around the time your son became more clingy, or when he started to wet himself and soil himself.

The incident may not have been very large or traumatic from an outside perspective, but it will certainly have been significant for him.

The fact that he now seems to have only one friend may indicate that other children pulled back from him.

Maybe he has felt very excluded? Maybe some of the other children are being mean to him, with or without the teacher noticing?

You can also try to track back to any events or incidents that happened in your home life. Were there any scares, upsets, or significant changes for any of his siblings or for you parents?

Has his after-school care remained the same, or is he being minded by anyone new? Are you fully happy with all of the care he receives?

With luck, you may identify something that has been significant for him, and you can then help him to understand the impact of this, using an empathetic approach.

Always tell him about how you notice and understand his apparent anxiety.

Where you can, you can guess about the likely source of the worry, whether it be preschool, home, or family. Once he knows that you understand his distress, he may be happier to settle into preschool (assuming there is nothing happening there that is ongoing and stressful).

As long as you are sure that he is not at any risk of harm (from teasing, poor care, harsh discipline etc) at the preschool, then do keep sending him, while remaining both warm and empathetic about the fact that he is finding it hard.