3-yo Suddenly Hates Going to Daycare
January 23, 2017 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Our happy 3-yo daughter has, in the last month, gone from being excited to go to daycare in the morning to having a full-blown meltdown pretty much every morning when we say it's time to go and acting like we're throwing her to the wolves when we drop her off there. There are no new staff at the daycare and there has been no other substantial change that we're aware of, but when we ask her what's wrong all she'll say is "I don't want to go!"

We've been using to this daycare for two years for both our 3-yo and her older sister (who is now in school). 3-yo is a good talker and usually has no trouble expressing her problems, but she's not giving us anything to work with here.

As I said, there's been no staffing changes, so it seems unlikely that she's suddenly being mistreated? There are a couple of new kids at the daycare, but they're younger than her and she has, in the past, been very forthcoming with complaints about other kids ("So-and-so pushed me today! No pushing friends!")

The owner and primary caregiver is going through a messy divorce, so she's no doubt stressed and maybe is having a little less patience with the kids, but she's a lovely woman and we know her well, so I really doubt that she's suddenly being mean to them. We've asked the owner and she agrees that she's noticed the change as well, but doesn't have any idea what's bringing it on.

So far, we're just soldiering through, making her go, and hoping it gets better again, but that's hard on all of us and I have this niggling fear that something's actually wrong and our 3-yo just can't express it. What's a reasonable level of concern here and what are some tactics for either helping her explain what her problem is or helping her to look forward to daycare again?
posted by 256 to Human Relations (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What is she like after you leave? Does she shake off her distress and jump right into friends and playing? Or does she continue to cry? Can you surprise pop in to check on her (without her seeing you)?

My son (younger than your daughter, though) sometimes throws a miserable tantrum when he's dropped off at daycare. The tears are dry by the time my husband hits the front door, though. She could be having trouble with the transition, she could just really want to be with you, she's now at an age that she really understands that you drop her off at school and then go do other things without her. I'm sorry, I know it's hard.
posted by Aquifer at 6:54 AM on January 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm interested to know things go after drop off. Does she generally have good days? When you pick her up, is she running to you as fast as she can or does she seem as if she's generally involved with what she's doing?

My almost-5-year-old has had phases of "I don't want to go to [daycare]" and being reticent at drop-off, but then almost always has a great day. For us, this almost always coincides with a time of change. When you say "in the last month" did that coincide with the return from Christmas break? I feel like 3 years old can be a time when kids start to really understand what's going on around them and times of change can be a new thing that they have to learn how to navigate.

In the absence of any specific complaints (and assuming she has good days after drop off), I would just chalk it up to her figuring some stuff out. If it persists, maybe talk to your pediatrician?
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:56 AM on January 23, 2017

How long after you leave is she upset?

My daughter (now 4.5) had been in the same daycare with the same amazing staff since she was six months old. We have random rocky patches with a few weeks of terrible terrible drop offs and then it gets normal again. From my perspective there is no rhyme or reason to the weeks/month when she has a hard time, I just assume t is something developmental going on...

I'm so sorry, bad drop offs are the worst..
posted by avocado_of_merriment at 6:57 AM on January 23, 2017

Or, you know, exactly what Aquifer just said as I was writing my post.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:57 AM on January 23, 2017

Simultaneously, find a new daycare if possible. My son is 5 and I'm in LA, so I realize the monumental task I am suggesting. But, y'know. What else can you responsibly do?

Make/Have a back-up plan.
posted by jbenben at 6:58 AM on January 23, 2017

Response by poster: The owner says that she usually perks up pretty quick after we leave, though apparently she is having unscheduled morning naps a lot more lately (she doesn't nap at all at home anymore on the weekends). When I pick her up at the end of the day, she seems happy and not in a particular rush to go home. I haven't done any unscheduled drop-ins, but I did run into her midday on the street with a group from the daycare on their way to the park last week and, while she was very happy to see me, she didn't seem distressed when, after a quick hug, I continued on in the other direction.
posted by 256 at 7:00 AM on January 23, 2017

Also, I would kinda rush off if I knew my son would settle down and jump into fun playtimes the hot second a parental audience wasn't around to see him fuss about drop-off...

This only works if the staff is in on the plan + you have previously come back and spied on your child (and the staff) to make sure the problem is the transition of drop-off and not the daycare itself.
posted by jbenben at 7:03 AM on January 23, 2017

Response by poster: Oh, one last thing, I work from home. If it came to it, we could pull her from the daycare temporarily or permanently and she could stay home with me for a while, though it would be very inconvenient. So, that's on the table, but it seems like a pretty big overreaction at this point? Not to mention super counterproductive if this is really just her going through a developmental phase.
posted by 256 at 7:09 AM on January 23, 2017

Sounds like a phase. My son is nearly 6 and he had periods of not wanting to go to his grandparents or preschool or now school. You just have to stay consistent as much as possible but if you have a day where you feel drained by the whole thing you could make an exception and enjoy the day together, ideally you'd just decide before trying to do the drop-off so she doesn't get rewarded for throwing a fit. And I remember how hard this was, it tore at my heart some days to know he wanted to be with me but generally he was fine within minutes after I left.

My son still does run up to see me, I don't think that's a sign that they don't like the daycare, just a sign they're really excited to see you/individual difference.
posted by lafemma at 7:18 AM on January 23, 2017 [4 favorites]

My 3 year old has been doing this off and on lately. It's a bit concerning, but usually when I go to pick him up he's having a great time and doesn't want to leave. It seems to go much smoother on days where he is well rested and wakes up with enough time to get ready at a more leisurely pace - I think it's the rush that really upsets him. Also, the best way we've found to avoid drop off meltdowns is to have dad handle the drop off.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 7:31 AM on January 23, 2017

Be alert, but also be aware that this is a common thing kids go through. Our 2.5-year-old has gone through I-don't-wanna-go stages, but he has a good time once he's dropped off. Keeping your eyes open for a different daycare is never a bad idea in general, but don't pull her out.

Definitely do more unscheduled drop-ins; those always make me feel more at ease. And how's your morning routine? Is she getting enough sleep; do you have to rush to get her out the door? Our guy does better if he has enough time to eat and play a little bit with his own toys before leaving; if he only has time for one of those, we let him play and wrap up breakfast for him to eat at daycare. And I think letting him know that daycare is the day's destination before we get out the door ("we're going to eat toast and then put on shoes and then get in the stroller to go to school") gives him a little more time to process it; little kids like routine but I think they often need to be reminded of the actual routine. Making and talking about after-daycare plans helps too.

Since she's upset when you get there, working out a short drop-off routine could help. You don't want to rush off so quickly that she's caught off guard, but you don't want to stick around so long that you're enabling clinginess. Something like one minute of hugs (if needed), then helping her find something to play with, then a goodbye kiss.

Do continue to keep an eye out for anything odd, but give her a few weeks and build a little extra cushion and structure in your morning routine if you can and see if it passes.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:50 AM on January 23, 2017

Phase, possibly connected with a growth spurt (the extra napping) and maybe just a little developmentally appropriate boundary testing/pushing.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:52 AM on January 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

I am not a parent.

I realize this would create a giant inconvenience if she says "yes,"' but consider asking her if she wants to go to a different daycare. If she says no, then it's probably about wanting to be with you. If she would rather be at a different daycare, then something may be going on, despite all your good reasons for doubting there's something going on. And though it would be a huge inconvenience to move her, I'm sure, if something is going on, you probably want to. If she says no, you have the reassurance of being even more sure that nothing is going on.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:52 AM on January 23, 2017

A three-year-old may well not be able to process that "a different daycare" means "leaving at the same time and doing the same things, just at a different place," though.
posted by praemunire at 8:03 AM on January 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

My daughter went through a phase like this when she was about 3 years old too... it was the worst. Similar to your kid, there was no change in the daycare staff or routine that precipitated it. It lasted on and off for about 2 months, and then disappeared completely. My theory is that 3 year olds can just be difficult sometimes.
posted by barnoley at 8:08 AM on January 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

My theory is that 3 year olds can just be difficult sometimes.

By jove, I think you might be on to something here!

My guess is threenager plus needs a pinch more sleep right now. To me, the street crossing meeting and the calm pick ups nearly obliterate concern.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 8:18 AM on January 23, 2017 [6 favorites]

The owner says that she usually perks up pretty quick after we leave

This is what I was wondering. However much they kick off beforehand, if everything at the daycare is OK they generally calm down fairly quickly once they get distracted by friends/toys/activities. If she's fine for the rest of the day, and she's happy at pick up, I wouldn't worry about it and put it down as One Of Those Phases That Will End Eventually (there are a bunch of these).
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:25 AM on January 23, 2017

I am not a parent.... consider asking her if she wants to go to a different daycare.

I am a parent. Do not solicit input from a 3-year old. Or, feel free to solicit input, but do not lend very much weight to a 3-year old's opinion. Reason is really not in their wheelhouse.

Check with the daycare employees, and let them know you are concerned. If they tell you that your kid adjusts quickly after you leave, then it's fine, this too shall pass. If they tell you that your kid is sad all morning, has trouble adjusting and playing with friends, etc, then maybe a change is in order.

Sorry about the tantrums though, I know how stressful they can be.
posted by joecacti at 9:25 AM on January 23, 2017 [9 favorites]

I am not a parent.

I realize this would create a giant inconvenience if she says "yes,"'

Never offer a 3y/o something that will be a huge hassle to implement unless it's something you were planning on doing anyway. And if you were planning on doing it anyway, why are you offering them the option to say no?
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:29 AM on January 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

Do not solicit input from a 3-year old.

"Ask your kids what they want for dinner only when they're buying." - Erma Bombeck
posted by John Borrowman at 9:32 AM on January 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Kids have times of realization, and times when outsiders to Mom and Dad, are OK; then times when they are not. The big realization is when the stuff they use to manipulate their home reality, does not work in daycare. This stuff piles up, and three year olds are still in magical reality about half the time. It is a clash with the dreamy state of becoming and the other state we experience of being, and not necessarily being as we want to be driven by immediate events. The tantrum is their best negotiation. It is good to listen about everything, they are mythical creatures, three year olds, and severe discord in the lives of their caregivers is obvious to them on subtle levels we leave behind as we grow more hardened with age and experience.
posted by Oyéah at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2017

Just going to chime in that, like others above, my three year old also went through a similar phase, so I totally feel for you. I felt like the worst dad on Earth for several weeks. The good news is that he eventually got through it and now doesn't even stop to give me a hug goodbye when I drop him off.
posted by noneuclidean at 10:07 AM on January 23, 2017

Perhaps relevant, perhaps not, but the couple of new kids may actually be a factor. When a younger new child started at our 12-person daycare, my 3-y-o daughter reacted not-so-greatly. She pushed the new child away and said "Go away, baby!" I think she was working out some feelings around whether she herself was a baby or a big girl. We eventually named the feeling "littlebig," in which you still feel like a baby sometimes but want to be a big girl at other times. The phase passed after a few weeks, and fortunately there was only one instance of pushing.

As in any group context, even adding or subtracting one person can alter the group dynamic, and maybe she's sorting out her place in the new order. I agree with all the other posters that it is a phase which will pass, and not something you need to drastically change your behavior over.
posted by Liesl at 10:10 AM on January 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

My huggy, happy 3 year old has also been having occasional weeks where he just doesn't want to go to preschool, despite the fact that he loves school, loves his teachers, and loves his friends. He's always fine once he's actually dropped off, and he's always in a good mood at pickup and doesn't always want to leave.

3 years olds are in a big boundary-testing and independence-asserting phase and I've always assumed that it's just about seeing if he can assert his will in that particular situation. [answer: no].
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:16 AM on January 23, 2017

Earlier bedtime. She sounds exhausted.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 10:20 AM on January 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would not switch daycares over this, especially if she's ok after dropoff! Switching daycare is MAJOR, like similar to finding a new house and moving, major!

Kids that age have enormous tantrums all the time, over everything, and if you're certain that nothing is harmful at the daycare, then there's no reason to switch until you've exhausted all other options. I also wouldn't keep her at home. I work from home too and it is next to impossible to work with my preschooler there. I can get maybe 20 minutes on my computer but even then he wants to bring every pillow and every blanket over and sit on my lap.

The fact that she's napping in the morning makes me think maybe she's not getting enough sleep the night before. I would move up her bedtime and see if that helps.

But, yeah, this is normal three year old behavior and for the most part you just have to stick to your schedule and wait it out.
posted by TheLateGreatAbrahamLincoln at 10:22 AM on January 23, 2017

My first recommendation with grumpy kids is "more sleep," but they generally don't listen ;)

Are no naps on the weekend because weekends are busy, or because she fights naps at home? If it's the latter, I totally understand - our two year old didn't nap this weekend and it made him a real grump, but big brother doesn't nap, so why should he? At daycare, he naps with the other kids, which is good.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:59 AM on January 23, 2017

My daughter always complained about the first daycare she went to (when she was around 2.5). She didn't want to go in the morning and would leave ASAP when someone came to pick her up. We ran into one of the teachers on a weekend and my daughter started crying when she saw her. She travelled out of town for a couple of months and went to a daycare there and she didn't like it either. When she got back we put her in another daycare and she loved it. I don't think that any of the daycares were any better than the other and it didn't seem like she had better friends at any one of them, so we just chalked it up to her being a bit older and now at a stage where she liked daycare more. I know your daughter started off liking the place, but kids and their likes can change for whatever reason.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:22 AM on January 23, 2017

This sounds like a combination of "threenager" boundary-pushing and fatigue. Is there some kind of new distraction or change in routine at home, or home-based-boundary-pushing behavior, that could be keeping her from getting enough sleep at night?

/not a parent, but plenty of kids are part of my life
posted by desuetude at 11:47 AM on January 23, 2017

I did this myself around the same age. It was because I'd had a nightmare that was set at daycare. The dream was totally unrelated to anything that had ever actually happened as far as anyone can tell, including my own memories. Just something that happens when you're too young to really distinguish between dreams and reality.

Nevertheless, it wasn't resolved until my parents switched me to a new daycare.
posted by waffleriot at 12:16 PM on January 23, 2017

I apologize for offering a negative experience!

Last year I pulled my son out of a daycare after the owner was accused of abusing some of the children. He and the others were quite young, not old enough to talk clearly about anything.

Another employee reported the owner to daycare parents and the city. In addition to that, other parents highlighted niggling concerns they had had to one another. Otherwise, I would have not had a clue about this as all seemed fine. There was a lot of contention among the parents whether this was a matter of she said/she said and miscommunication. The center was ultimately shut down after a lengthy investigation.

You're doing all the right things. This may well be a phase! To assure you further, I'd recommend asking other daycare staff (besides the owner) and daycare parents about your toddler and other toddler's experiences. If you DO end up with any concerns about the center based on discussions with parents/staff, the city or state oversight bodies will likely offer you the ability to FOIA any complaints/investigations that have been made in the past.

(nobody freak out! We have our son in another lovely daycare and feel very confident about the care he is giving - having learned many lessons from our first experience).
posted by xaire at 12:54 PM on January 23, 2017

Yep, we saw this, too. We talked it over with the teachers, and they helped her develop skills for handling this transition time by engaging with her when she came in and getting her into a groove of put away coat, sign the book, put away lunch bag, find an activity, etc., while I took care of other details and quietly departed. After a while, this was fine and she could deal with the arrival on her own (without the teachers' attention).

Sometimes this behavior will arise when they have had a bad run-in with another kid but not mentioned it. The staff may or may not have seen it, so they may also be in the dark. This is tricky, because without your child sharing details, there's not much you can do to mitigate this unhappiness besides resisting in getting Child to school and having them rack up a bunch of uneventful days.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:56 PM on January 23, 2017

What about the other kids? Is she being bullied by anyone there?
posted by metajim at 1:48 PM on January 23, 2017

Do you know any of the other parents who have kids at the daycare? If they ever drop off after you, can you ask them to let you know how your kid is doing?

My kids haven't really gone through this stage, but I've seen it at times in other kids at their daycare. The DCP's strategy in this situation is to shoo the parent out as quickly as possible so as not to prolong everyone's agony. I cannot tell you how many times I've watched a parent leave almost in tears because the kid is wailing the most miserable wail you've ever heard, then see Kid stop crying before Parent has reached the bottom of the stairs. The mom I was friends with, I texted on the worst days to let her know that her son was fine and how quickly he had settled in.

I think another parent a good check on what the providers say, because the parent doesn't have a vested interest.

Also be warned that 3 year olds can have a really skewed sense of reality. Mine creeped our after-school sitter out REALLY BADLY earlier this year because she started telling everyone, every day, that her DCP spanked her when she pooped in her diaper. She demonstrated on her leg. It was disturbing, because we had never talked about spanking at home. After a lot of careful questioning, it turned out that a couple of kids' home situations had recently deteriorated and they had been taking it out on the dolls (this daycare is an economically mixed demographic). The DCP monitored the doll play more closely for a while, and after a few weeks my daughter stopped talking about it.

I don't mean that if your kid tells you something untrue that she's necessarily lying. And it's always important to listen to a little kid - they're telling you *something*. They just aren't always telling you exactly what their words say, especially not at 3 where they still have a tenuous grip on reality.
posted by telepanda at 2:18 PM on January 23, 2017

Your question made me recall our experience with one of our kids, also age three, who suddenly didn't want to go to nursery school which she'd always enjoyed. Her very experienced teacher suggested putting her to bed a half hour earlier. Problem solved.
posted by Elsie at 2:35 PM on January 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

Occurs to me, this would've happened since the holidays? Maybe something happened over the holidays, or maybe she simply learned she preferred being at home to being at the daycare?
posted by zadcat at 3:21 PM on January 23, 2017

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