Ask An Expert / Anxiety

After being home sick for four days, my daughter, who loved school, now cries when I leave her. What can I do?

Help her by supporting her coping skills

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

I have a nearly 5-year-old daughter who used to love school. After being at home for 4 days due to sickness, she now refuses to go. She is happy to get dressed in the morning and on her way there, but as soon as we get close to her classroom she starts crying saying she wants to be with me. If this had happened the first few days of school I would have understood but I am trying to think what could be causing this as she has been happily in school now for 2 months.

Her teacher says that once I´m gone she is absolutely fine and I have seen her through the window before I pick her up and she seems happy there. In the morning when she is upset she will only say that she wants to be with me, and when I pick her up, it´s like she has forgotten about the morning.

I have practiced attachment parenting since she was born and until last month I thought she was totally secure, but now I am starting to doubt it. I hate seeing her so upset in the morning and I hate having to push her to do something she does not want to do. I would appreciate your advice.

A: I’m glad your reached out to us because you are clearly distressed. I know that for a parent, leaving a crying child is one of the hardest things to do. But most kids are pretty resilient, and we don’t want to underestimate their ability to cope.

If a child is sick and misses school for 4 days, it’s not uncommon that going back to school is causing her some stress. But it doesn’t sound as if the stress is overwhelming for her – she may say she doesn’t want to go, but she does go, and seems to recover quickly.

I don’t see evidence here that your daughter is not a securely attached child. Being secure doesn’t mean she’ll never feel any anxiety or reluctance to do something, but that she’ll be able to cope with those feelings.

It sounds as if her absence interrupted a healthy adjustment to school and triggered a pattern it would be good to break as soon as possible. You’ve already asked her what’s bothering her, and she has not articulated anything specific, so at this point, you don’t need to feel compelled to ask her what’s wrong every day. Rather, it would be good if you’d praise her for things she’s doing that are positive — “Great job getting dressed,” or “I know it’s hard, but I love that you are walking to the car to go to school.” At school, if she’s wavering, offer factual information that might encourage her — you can mention friends who are there, and things she likes to do. And it’s good to model with your own behavior that you feel she’s okay, you’re comfortable that she’s going to be fine, you know she can handle it.

If your daughter was disengaging from activities at school, not playing with her friends, not participating in things she had enjoyed, or if you saw changes in her eating and sleeping habits, those would be signs that something more problematic might be happening. And you’d likely hear from the teachers about their concerns if she wasn’t rebounding well.

Otherwise, you can help her get back to separating from you confidently by not worrying too much about her complaints. Sometimes we unintentionally encourage behavior that’s not effective by paying lots of attention to it, and the behavior will fade surprisingly quickly if we don’t pay attention to it. It’s not being a bad parent to ignore a little bit of whining or reluctance. It will actually help a child move beyond it if you give more attention to things that you do want to see her do.