Sobbing uncontrollably, with his face buried in my lap, John gasped, "I uh-uh lost my, ahah, baby rabbit."
"Let's see if we can find it," I offered, hoping to calm the distraught child. "Where did you last see your rabbit?" I asked. "On the slide," sputtered John, who was now clutching my hand.
"We'll search there and the whole playground until we find it," I offered, thinking I should ha ve stuck to our rule that toys from home need to stay in cubbies. I made an exception because John's been acting so sad and needy lately. In fact, John wouldn't come into the classroom at all without his rabbit.
I know John is sad about his parent's recent separation. He never brought a lovey to school last year. And earlier this fall he was too busy having fun on the jungle gym or slide to cling to a rabbit. Now John seems to have lost interest in playing with other children. It's almost as if he's forgotten how.
A few weeks ago, John would eagerly bounce into the classroom each morning. He recently pleaded with his mom not to leave when she dropped him at school. Later, John seemed afraid of joining in a new activity that previously would have intrigued him.
I know that young children can have difficulty as a result of changes, such as separation and divorce in a family. In fact, I dealt with a similar problem last year. But things are getting worse. He often whines and clings to me, distressed over even minor things like the rearrangement of a few pieces of classroom furniture. After the episode of the lost (and quickly found) toy, John entered the dramatic-play corner alone and played out a drama of a "Bad Rabbit" whose mommy and daddy leave him. The rabbit gets "very, very hungry, because he can't cook breakfast for himself."
Although his parents' separation is the likely cause of all this, how can I help him?
THE PARENT'S STORY
John has always loved school. But since John's dad left and moved away, he cries bitterly, clutching me when I drop him off each morning.
It was almost a month ago that my husband left while John was asleep. I had difficulty explaining this to John, so I told him, "Daddy's gone away on a trip." When the papers came from the divorce lawyer, I couldn't think straight for days. Finally, I knew I had to tell John the truth. "Daddy isn't coming home, but you can visit him sometimes." He didn't say anything, just stared at me and began to suck his thumb and rock. He hadn't done that in years. I didn't know how to comfort him, especially since I felt like I could use some comforting, too. I have to work full time now, despite my daily headaches and tears at night.
Fm wondering whether John's teacher can help. Maybe she can advise me about what to do when John wakes up upset and comes running into my bedroom, or when he asks if Daddy left because he was bad.
DR. BRODKIN'S ASSESSMENT
John cries about his lost rabbit, but his sorrow is really for the absence of his daddy. He worries that if Daddy could leave, his mommy and teacher could, too. He clings to them and his lovey, terrified of being left yet again. Even now, at the once happy world of school, John very likely worries that his mom will not return to bring him home. What's more, it seems that he has a feeling that it is all his fault. He reasons that he must have been bad or Daddy wouldn't have punished him like this.
His mother has been too preoccupied with her own pain to reassure her child that he will, in fact, be seeing his father often. Now John's suffering is so upsetting that the parent has decided to turn to the teacher for advice.
What the Teacher Can Do
The teacher's concern about John and the parent's obvious distress might tempt her to take on the role of family advisor. Hopefully, though, she will sense that this situation calls for special help. The teacher's gentleness will be needed to guide the mother and child to a trained and certified mental health professional. It may not be easy to persuade John's mom that she needs to open up to a counselor. The teacher can mention the fact that other parents under similar stress have been grateful for this suggestion, as have members of her own family.
In school, it's a good idea to stick to the usual schedule and to keep things in familiar places. A child who is distressed by drastic changes at home can find comfort in a predictable routine at school. Cheerful reminders of the fun the group will have carving a pumpkin on Halloween and at other future events can help reassure John that school and the teacher are here to stay.
The kindness of this teacher offers a refuge for John. If she keeps John by her side for a while, the teacher may fill some of the void left by the new circumstances with his father.
What the Parent Can Do
It may have been difficult enough for John's mother to tell her story to the teacher. Now she is being urged to reveal her personal feelings of failure and bitterness to a stranger. Troubling though it is, the parent should consider the arguments for accepting such good advice. A counselor can offer help to John's mom on how to weather the storm in her own life and be strong for her child. When his mom conquers her own sadness and moves on, John, too, will have a better chance of getting over the loss. It will take time, but seeing his mother grow more confident, along with the steady presence of a caring teacher in his life, can help restore John's trust in the world.