Do you ever feel on Monday morning that it would be nicer to go back to sleep than go back to work? How about facing reality after a vacation? As grown-ups those feelings are familiar, and most of the time we bite the bullet and resume our responsibilities. Young children on the other hand, are another story.
The mother of a three year old came to see me because her daughter was refusing to go to school, wouldn’t get dressed or get ready to leave. This behavior began after Spring break and she recalled that the same thing had happened after the winter holiday. Despite having made this connection between holidays and the child’s behavior, the mother was worried about whether this was a sign of a deeper separation problem. The behavior didn’t make sense because her daughter loves school.
It emerged that they had been away on a family vacation during the holiday. This involved staying at a hotel and having a new baby sitter whom the little girl did not like. Several days after their return, mom and dad were away for the weekend. The resistance to school followed. This was almost a classic example of the way young children react to change. They often express the way they feel about something in behavior that can seem unrelated to the event.
In this instance the initial reaction was to change itself. Transitions are especially hard for young children and as noted, even for adults at times. For this child it was a disruption of her usual routine, which involved a new place, a new bed and a new baby sitter. It is likely that her expressed dislike of the baby sitter was really an expression of her feeing about being left behind by her parents with a strange person in a strange place.
The refusal to go to school was really not about school but about the changes that she had been expected to accept. Her protest was expressed in the area over which she had some control. She couldn’t do anything about the other things that had happened but she could refuse to go to school! Besides, after all the changes it feels much better to remain in the familiarity and security of home.
The mother was concerned that this signified a problem with separation. Changes in familiar routines such as vacations or illness do often cause a regression in children’s behavior. They may drop back to an earlier developmental step that had seemingly been mastered. Such gains in development are fluid for a time and are still easily dislodged.
Parents often read deeper underlying problems into these seemingly inexplicable behavioral changes. Because the behavior is not a direct expression of a child’s feeling it may seem not to make sense. In this situation the mother tried to convince the child that she likes school, and about all the fun things she does there – all to no avail. This can seem to a child like a denial of her feelings, which then have to be expressed more forcefully to make her point.
As with this mother, parents are usually aware of the things to which a child might be reacting. However, instead of starting with the obvious, parental anxiety takes over in a search for underlying causes. Children are not always clear themselves about the source of their feelings. By letting them know we understand what was hard for them and are there to help them through it, their need to protest is diminished.
Thinking of Monday morning can help us identify with a child’s feelings.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D.