Ask An Expert / Anxiety

A child whose mother is hospitalized cries daily, disrupting the class. Should we pity her or demand that she perform?

A parent's illness can be very distressing for a child

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

A child whose mother has been hospitalized for a few weeks, and in a rehab facility, cries daily in the classroom, disrupting the class with her crying. She sees school psychologist, but it's not enough for the child. Should she pitied or should we demand that she perform in class?

This sounds like a very tough situation. Without knowing more details, it’s hard to make generalizations, but we can infer a few things from your inquiry and I hope I can offer some support and suggestions.

For any child, there is enormous distress and upset that comes with a parent being in the hospital. Children rely on their parents to take care of them and keep them safe. When a mother is medically or psychiatrically ill, and even when she is on the road to recovery, it can be very disruptive for the child. It’s not uncommon to see problems with mood (for example, crying), behavior, and appetite when a child is dealing with this situation. A decline in performance can accompany a time of stress.

Seeing a school psychologist is a great start when a child is identified as having needs that go beyond what a teacher can and should provide. But having a few sessions with a school psychologist simply may not be enough, and this sounds like a situation where more needs to be done.

It may be helpful for the adults at school to take a step back and try to see the situation from the child’s perspective. To her, the mother’s absence may be very scary and the source of a great degree of uncertainty. This child is certainly not trying to disrupt others’ learning by her crying (though it may be hard to remember that when trying to manage a busy classroom).

This child is not likely to be able to complete her work, even if you put more pressure on her to perform. In fact, this is a time where she may need fewer demands and more support. The school psychologist and teacher should be communicating with the family members taking care of this child to provide a clear set of expectations. The child should know that the adults in her life are talking and care about her.

Finally, a comprehensive mental health evaluation may be helpful in highlighting exactly what the child’s concerns are. Is this stress transient or has she actually been struggling for some time? Is she depressed or anxious—or both?

There are wonderful treatments, involving short-term behavior therapy, that can be very effective for children going trough stressful family and school situations, so I hope that family or school will reach out and initiate contact.