Q My daughter cries nearly every day when going to daycare, and when faced with doing something she doesn't want to do (like go to daycare) will say that her stomach hurts. She often tells me that she cried at daycare today because she missed me. She will be starting school in September. I am concerned that rather than just having a dislike for daycare, perhaps she has some anxiety issues. Does this happen in children this young? What can I do to reduce these problems for her? There is some family history of anxiety and depression problems.
Young children can have diagnosable anxiety, and often display it in ways that you have just described — protests, crying, clinging, and stomachaches. When anxiety is transient, especially in new situations, it’s usually not much cause for concern. In your example, however, the anxiety has been persistent and certainly seems more than just an adjustment to daycare.
It’s great that you are reaching out before the school year starts in the fall, because it gives you time to prepare your daughter for the transition to kindergarten or nursery school. Utilize this time over the summer to get your daughter evaluated by a mental health professional. We want to learn as much as possible about your daughter and what might be making her anxious. Clinicians performing the evaluation will likely want to know if the daycare has told you that your daughter cries all day, or if she actually does well when she gets there. They will want to know if she has trouble separating from you in other situations, or if there a specific thing about daycare that she complains about.
Beyond setting up an evaluation, one of the most important things that you can do is something you’ve already been doing — continue to send your daughter to daycare. This may be difficult, but it is very important because if we allow children to avoid situations that make them anxious, we can inadvertently reinforce that those situations are indeed dangerous or scary.
If your daughter continues going to daycare for the summer, practice giving specific praise for brave behavior. For example, remind her you will be back to get her and tell her things like, “Great job going to daycare today. Tell me something fun you did.” If possible, you should also try to visit the school that she’s going to transition into. Making a trip or two to walk around the school and get familiar with it can be a fantastic way to help her cope ahead of time.