New Separation Anxiety
March 15, 2011 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me out with some recently erupting separation anxiety in my five year old kindergartering daughter.

In the last four or five weeks, my daughter has gone from a kindergartner who had her good and bad days going to school to a flat out, terrified, anxiety-ridden kiddo who does not want to go to school. At all.

At this point, she is absolutely anxiety-ridden and obsessive about school. It begins when she wakes up in the morning, and is generally part of conversation after school and on weekends. The mornings are the worst - she is crying upon waking up about not going to school. She also is very specific about when she will be picked up - she will ask over and over "mom is going to pick me up at afterschool at 4:30, right", about 50 times in a morning. I stay with her at the school up until the last possible moment (the class walking to their room) and then peel her off and hand her over to the teacher.

When asked, she says its because she misses me or her mother. She says that school is boring, but hasn't identified any particular bully.

A few other stats - she attends a public school in Brooklyn, NY. She has been going to school / day care since she was 1.5. She has been at this school for the last 1.5 school years (a Pre-K program). Her mother and I live separately, but nearby and co-parent; this has been true since she was about 2. I take her to school every day, and depending on the day, she is picked up by me or her mother. She is quite bright, can read and write, is G&T, is well-behaved in school, and popular among her peers. Her particular class is somewhat wild and her teacher is not particularly effective or dynamic.

I can not identify any changes in routine or habit that led to this, but it does seem to be getting worse. I am in the process of finding a decent child therapist, but in the meantime, any advice would be appreciated - but I am mostly looking for any basic CBT or other tools to get her to a point where going to school isn't abject torture for the both of us.

Thank you in advance.
posted by RajahKing to Education (23 answers total)
Have you asked the teacher if something might have happened, either in the classroom or at recess?

I guess it's also possible, especially if your daughter is G&T, that school is really boring for her. That, combined with a wild class, would have been torture to me.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:57 AM on March 15, 2011

Boredom caused by lack of challenge doesn't usually manifest in terrifying separation anxiety, though. It usually manifests as acting out in class and attention-seeking behaviors at home. I'm not saying it's not possible, just that it doesn't usually happen that way.

It really does sound like a typical response to bullying or perceived bullying, or a lack of connection with the other kids. Does she have friends at school? Being popular among her peers doesn't mean she has kids she plays with on a regular basis. As for bullying, did you ask her if anyone was being mean to her? The directness of that question could be frightening to her. Many victims of bullying are terrified to name their bullies because they fear even more bullying if they do.

Has the teacher said anything? Does she calm down once she's there or does she cling to the teacher the whole day? Does she play with friends or alone?
posted by cooker girl at 8:07 AM on March 15, 2011

I should have added that my answer re: CBT techniques or other tools to help her will depend on what the problem is (hence all the questions). If it's bullies, there are anti-bullying techniques she can use to empower herself. If it's boredom, I'd ask the teacher to offer some enrichment. If it's lack of connection, I'd see if the teacher could facilitate some small groups with your daughter.
posted by cooker girl at 8:15 AM on March 15, 2011

Thanks cooker girl - answers that I know from your questions: She does calm down after a while (though a couple of recent days have been bad throughout). She plays with friends; however she never mentions any of her actual classmates, only the kids in other classes (knows them through other things). I've asked if anyone is mean to her numerous times, and she one time mentioned one kid but it really felt like she was just trying to find an answer for me.
posted by RajahKing at 8:19 AM on March 15, 2011

HAS her mother been late to pick her up (a few minutes feels like an eternity at that age) and is there a specific place she waits at or person she has to wait with if that happens? I'm wondering if the concern about pick-up time means whatever is going on is happening at afterschool.

Data point: the year I was most reluctant to attend school was when I was being my third grade teacher. I would think about the staff she interacts with as well as the kids, and being bullied by an adult might be more difficult for her to express.
posted by camyram at 8:28 AM on March 15, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are there multiple classes at the same grade level? Can you ask to change her class to one of the others, perhaps one where the other friendly kids are?

Even without identifying the actual issue, you may be able to remove her from the environment which is causing her so much stress.
posted by CathyG at 8:33 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I really don't think its boredom.

Clearly something scary/bad (at least in her mind) is taking place at school. My suggestions would be:
a) talk with her teacher, and
b) make a point to drop by the school at a couple of different times, perhaps at recess or during a free-play or other open activity time at her school, and just see what's going on.

Also c) the therapy sooner rather than later.
posted by anastasiav at 8:38 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know how to express this well, but little kids don't necessarily even *know* if someone's being mean to them, especially if that someone is an adult. It's possible she's not communicating issues because she believes she's responsible for them, and afraid she will be found out.

There's about a megaton of projection in my saying that, but it's something to think about. If she's being bullied into feeling ashamed, then she won't report it.
posted by endless_forms at 8:40 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does her school have a school counselor or psychologist? That would be my next step if the teacher has run out of ideas. Or has the teacher run out of ideas? The teacher should always be your first go-to in situations like this, and if she's not responsive you may get a clue that she could be the problem or part of the problem.

Your chain of command in schools is thus:

Vice Principal or Principal

Don't wait days for responses. Keep at them until you get meetings and find answers.
posted by cooker girl at 8:44 AM on March 15, 2011

I was exactly like your daughter when I was in the first grade - G&T, bored in class, less than likeable teacher, friends in other classes but not my own. I had been generally "fine" in kindergarten, but something about my first grade year brought out extreme separation anxiety and I was just a nervous wreck. Crying through class, hiding in the bathroom, needing the bus driver to hold my hand and walk me into class, etc. Anyways, all that to say that, from my experience, there could be a number of different causes or, in my case, no one change or cause that can be pinpointed. For me, I just felt really incapable of handling multiple parts of my situation (my teacher, my lack of close friends in class, my boredom) alone, and that scared me. Things didn't magically resolve when I entered second grade (I continued seeing a counselor for anxiety issues and I started taking Prozac in sixth grade) but they were markedly improved. Perhaps your daughter is like I was growing up (and a lot of other unchallenged G&T kids) - anxious, stressed and somewhat isolated - and this stage in her life is particularly stressful. I guess my point is that, from my experience, it will get better.

For right now, yes - therapy sooner rather than later. Also, my parents and I came up with a number of different "hacks." Every morning, my mom kissed a kleenex that held on to for the rest of the day. My best friend was in the classroom next to mine, and we were allowed to sometimes meet up besides recess (I don't remember exactly how this worked - maybe bathroom breaks or something?) and that was important - I think that I felt very alone in my classroom this gave me a connection. This is a little weird, but really worked for me: sometimes I would pretend like I wasn't really a student in the class, but rather a journalist or a spy or something who was pretending to be a student as part of an investigation/story/something. Again, sounds bizarre but it solved both the boredom and isolation problems and made me feel mature and as if I had a purpose. Maybe some sort of game or new outlook could make things temporarily more interesting and bearable for your daughter.
posted by hefeweizen at 8:47 AM on March 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, do what cooker girl says ... I too worry that it's more than just separation anxiety (though it could be as little as a late library book and she's scared of the penalty; it could also be something much bigger). Talk to the teacher RIGHT AWAY -- do this as soon as something like this comes up -- and then escalate to the counselor, then the principal.

I will tell you, in my district we recently had a kindergartener who became unreasoningly fearful of school, for no apparent reason. (The principal didn't take it very seriously, which is why I got a phone call.) There was no apparent problem with the class, the (excellent) teacher, even the lunch ladies. Something had just put this fear in his mind -- maybe something very small, maybe something very scary -- but in any case he couldn't get past it and was just TERRIFIED of school. In the end, the child was moved to a different school building. PROBLEM COMPLETELY SOLVED. (Since adult panic attacks can be triggered by locations, I sort-of wondered if this was the kindergarten version of a panic attack and either stress or fear had just become "attached" to that building for him.)

Anyway, hopefully the school will work with you, and sometimes it just happens that everyone is at a loss and no one can figure out WHY a child is upset, but it still needs to be solved so she can feel safe and comfortable at school.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:53 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a similar-to-hefeweizen bad-experience with my 1st Grade teacher, and I was also G&T (although unidentified as such at that time). I remember my mom made me feel safe telling her that my teacher was singling me out and being mean to me by sort of casually expressing that not all grownups are always right, and had a grownup ever acted in a way that made me wonder about that? (Or something similar.) I was older than your daughter, but I managed to cope with this terrible woman by knowing that my mom had my back with her when she was egregiously out of line (and once she knew my mom knew she was a little out of whack, for whatever reason she backed off a little).

Some teachers are shit with gifted kids. They feel threatened, or I don't know what. I'm not saying for sure your girl's problem is the teacher, but I'm definetly agreeing she could be part of the problem.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:56 AM on March 15, 2011

If she's in G&T, but spends most/all her day in a "regular" class, that could be part of the issue. You pretty much start being ostracized in some fashion as soon as the other kids find out you're different. Not necessarily bullying, but teasing, or being ignored in favor of the kids that spend all day together (i.e. who don't leave to go to their GT classes for part of the day), only being asked to join groups for group work so you can do all the work for everyone because you're "smart," etc. First grade seems a little early for that kind of behavior to start, but I remember I started liking school a lot less once I was put in GT because everyone from my "regular" class teacher to the other kids started treating me differently and I could pretty much only be good friends with other GT kids from then on.
posted by elpea at 8:57 AM on March 15, 2011

Would it be possible for you or her mother to take a day off and volunteer as a teacher's helper so you can observe the class? You might be able to notice a problem that a busy teacher would otherwise miss...for example if she seems fearful of or avoids one particular classmate, if she's clearly overwhelmed by noise and classroom chaos, if she just clings to your side the entire day, etc.

Is she a sensitive kid? I went to pieces if a grownup even looked at me sternly. If I'd had a teacher who was a little harsh and scolded me a couple times, or yelled loudly at the whole class, I could easily see how five-year-old me would view him or her as a very scary person.

A more remote possibility--maybe she saw a TV program or read a news article that was scary and is making her worry that she (or you) will get hurt while she's at school? Five years old is when kids start fearing "real world" dangers like natural disasters, war, burglars, etc. I was G&T and often was reading stuff I maybe shouldn't have been (news magazine articles), so I was pretty irrationally afraid of fires and bombs and so on. Kids that young can't figure out how unlikely these things are, and they have no sense of geography (a hurricane in Florida = a hurricane will HIT MY HOUSE).
posted by castlebravo at 9:16 AM on March 15, 2011

Just to expand on what was said above, does she have any books that involve kids who are afraid to go to school? I know several kids who weren't afraid of the dark until they read a book about someone who was...and then the wheels started turning because they were sure there was a good reason to be afraid of the dark.
posted by corey flood at 9:30 AM on March 15, 2011

I'd be concerned about this. A 5 yr old girl is pretty vulnerable. It would be great if she turned out to have an irrational fear of school - but what if her fear is rational? I mean, there are a lot of bad things that both kids and adults can do to a 5 yr old, and a lot of ways that they can shame or intimidate that 5 yr old into silence.
posted by selfmedicating at 9:37 AM on March 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Four very different things come to my mind.

First. As a long shot, and the most terrifying possible explanation, there is a chance that someone has sexually abused your daughter. I'm sorry to be the first person to say it so directly or bluntly. Notice I'm not asking "is it possible that someone may have done this?" I'm telling you it's possible. There's a reason for this choice. This is something that I am not qualified to help you discern, but it heightens the need for therapy now. All of the literature on child sexual abuse points to "do not try to elicit this information yourself, go straight to child therapist and report her sudden behavior changes. Do not pass go, do not collect $200." With luck it's not this, but is one of the three things below.

The second and maybe most obvious is the coparenting. 5 is an age where realizing that your parents are not together takes on a bigger, badder shape. Especially when other kids have parents who are still together. And no, it doesn't help to be reminded that other people have a mommy and a daddy who live apart. And that realization that parents leave each other is huge. HUGE. The fear that it sprouts is...logically profound. If they left each other, then I need to make sure they don't leave me. How do yo make sure they don't leave? Don't let them out of your sight.

Third, Cultural Theory of Risk (developed by Mary Douglas, discussed very much in Anthropology literature. The most common example I see is malaria) - your kid is joining a different culture now. School, peers her own age. Although most members of a culture "agree" which things and activities are dangerous and to what degrees, there are always outliers. And for a young member of two communities, keeping those separate may be really difficult. Now add in that she's at school where she's being exposed to things she just hasn't seen at home. Has she had any "stranger danger" training? If so, school is crawling with strangers. Janitor. School principal. Newspaper reporter talking to the lunch ladies. Heck, lunch ladies can be pretty damn scary. Substitute teachers in other classrooms. Also, schools make lots of weird sounds. We had a boiler at our elementary school and some kids were terrified of it. And other students don't help. Just blithely saying that "one time...a kid died in there" is enough to make the whole damn building a nightmare.

Finally, Agency. I say this all the time here on the green. Your children need a sense of agency. If they are uncomfortable, they need to be able to excuse themselves. If they are hungry, they need to be allowed to eat. If they are not hungry they need to not be forced or coerced to eat. If they are afraid of something they need to not be told "school is normal and you are a baby for being afraid of school" (YOU haven't said this to your daughter, but if a single one of her teachers has, woe betide them.)

Just being allowed to confidently exit a situation may make the discomfort easier to bear. Also, knowing that you will listen when she talks will be a big help. Try asking more specific questions - did anyone say anything that hurt your feelings today? Did anyone push you? Did anyone take anything from you? Try asking very different questions - what was the most fun part of today? What are you thankful for? Who did you eat lunch with? What did you eat for lunch?

Because if every day the only question she's being asked (again, not saying you're doing this) is "Was somebody mean to you?" then she's going to have a different concept of the importance of people being mean to her, and she's not going to work out for herself what to do when it happens.

(I'll share that I pretty much had a standing pass to the guidance counselors office during some years, and while my situation was wildly different from your daughters, it was the difference between me staying in bed versus being able to get myself to school on some days.)

My apologies that this is a bit scattered and terribly edited. The insurance people are due any minute now to estimate the cost of repairs to the water damaged bathroom.
posted by bilabial at 9:48 AM on March 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

The only time I ever had an outright FEAR of school was 2nd grade, when I had to ride the school bus with kids all the way up to 6th grade. (I had ridden a school bus to kindergarten, so it wasn't the bus ride itself that scared me.) The kids were all terribly big and terribly loud to a little kid, and I had nosebleeds every afternoon on the bus for a week straight until my mom started driving me to school herself. And I was a kid who usually loved school, and dealt with change and new experiences really well.

So I agree that there's something that's really scaring her, whether it would be a rational fear to an adult or not, and you definitely need to keep working to get to the bottom of it. Maybe have her tell you what she did that day, and see if there's anything that sets off your alarm? By 2nd grade I was easily able to tell my parents that it was specifically the bus ride that I hated, but a kindergartener probably isn't that articulate yet.
posted by MsMolly at 10:00 AM on March 15, 2011

I was terrified of going to school for the first several weeks of first grade, because on the first day of class the kid sitting behind me was really annoying me, so I flipped him the bird (having only the vaguest idea of what I was doing). His eyes got huge (indicating to me that what I had just done was much worse than I had thought) and sad he would tell. He never did tell (he was a "bad kid" and I was a "good kid," and probably no one would have believed him), but I was SURE he would tell and I was terrified.

So, this is just to say that she may have a reason to be frightened, and it could be a good reason, or it could be the kind of reason that is scary when you're five but is actually not a big deal.

If she's shutting you down on talking about why she doesn't like school can you maybe try and talk to her about things that she likes about school? It could be a way to get her talking, and, being a kindergartner, she might well let something slip.
posted by mskyle at 10:26 AM on March 15, 2011

and it could be a good reason, or it could be the kind of reason that is scary when you're five but is actually not a big deal.

This is a common misconception with kids.

If the kids thinks it's a big deal, then it is. What needs to happen is there needs to be a way for the kid to reframe it herself as "not a big deal." Being told "that's not a big deal" (which I don't think mskyle is suggesting...) is not helpful for 5 year olds. There's a psychology term for it - invalidation. And invalidation, like so many behaviors, happens on a scale. It's not "all perfect" or "all destructive." This kid might need more validation than another kid. And while that's ok, therapy is a good way to help answer that question.

Effects on adulthood of invalidation including (but not limited to) minimization, and distress in response to negative emotion) Yes, some minimizing can be beneficial, but chronically, it's not good.

And a study that suggests that invalidation may have a part to play in the development of eating disorders
Again, in small doses, some minimizing is useful. But if the constant message happens to be "your fear is unfounded. this is not something a grownup would worry about. we're sure you're blowing this way out of proportion," the parenting is not likely to create a well adjusted adult.

And as I always say, you're in the business of raising adults. You are not raising a child. Because, when you are done, you want her to be an adult, right?
posted by bilabial at 11:33 AM on March 15, 2011 [4 favorites]

FWIW, my daughter, now 6, went through this for a time last year, though not quite as severely as you describe. She attends a Montessori school, and by all accounts enjoys it while she's there. But there was a stretch where she would constantly cry and complain of stomach aches as a way to try to stay home, and only wanted to be with her mom. She also complained about being bored with her activities, and that the class was too loud. We thought about going to a doctor to verify whether the stomach thing was real, and we asked her teachers how she was in class (fine). By the time we started thinking more seriously about what to do, it suddenly stopped.

She's had a number of other anxiety issues, most notably after she lost her first tooth. For a few months after that moment, she was constantly worrying about other body parts falling off. But again, she got beyond it on her own.

So as long as you can confirm with the school that nothing out of the ordinary is happening there, I'd suggest it may be "normal" little kid anxiety. Perhaps the school day is simply wearing on your daughter. Which isn't to say you should ignore it, but just that you may not need to be overly worried.
posted by schoolgirl report at 2:03 PM on March 15, 2011

This sounds like a good reason for a classroom visit.
It is amazingwhat you can learn in a hour in a classroom about how the class runs and what goes on there.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:09 PM on March 15, 2011

I have twin kindergarteners at home, a boy and a girl, in different classes, at a public school in Philadelphia. As a rule, I validate their feelings but try not to worry or make a fuss unless it's a Big Deal or it goes on for a long time. As a data point, I will say that neither of my kids has had anything beyond fleeting anxiety about going to school and they each give reports about their classmates most days. Your daughter's behavior, at this intensity and going on for this long . . . it makes me nervous, makes me wonder if something happened at school. If it were me, I would ask the teacher if they've noticed anything (but I trust/respect these teachers, enough, anyway). And then I would probably call my pediatrician and explain my concerns, ask them to chat with my child and see if their 'spidey senses' picked up on anything.
posted by MeiraV at 8:05 PM on March 15, 2011

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