THE TEACHER'S STORY
"C'mon, KyIa. Let's make a spaceship," her classmates coaxed; but Kyla just shook her head and nestled deeper into my lap. What a change! A few weeks ago, she would have been leading the group to the block corner. But lately KyIa is too sad to have fun with her friends. Why would a confident, almost 5-year-old suddenly begin clinging to her teacher? If I briefly leave the room, KyIa drifts into daydreaming. When I am around, she guards me jealously. This morning she kicked Louis for sitting down next to me. I can't understand what is troubling this child. Maybe the mystery will be solved when her dad comes in to talk. Kyla's father phoned just as I was considering which of her parents to contact. Although they are divorced, both are very involved with our program. I'm sure that their interest in Kyla has helped her to do well in school, until now. What can I do to bring back Kyla's independent spirit and good feelings about school?
THE PARENT'S STORY
My marriage to Kyla's mother broke up before KyIa turned 3. It was a tough time for all of us. Kyla cried easily and had many tantrums. For a while, she forgot what she'd learned about toilet training. In the first weeks after the separation, Kyla was clingy and constantly asked questions she already knew the answers to. Most of them began with the word why. My exwife and I agreed on how to protect our daughter from our problems. We never fought in front of her, and we let her know she could talk to either of us on the phone at any time. I see Kyla almost every day-and we've been careful not to change other things in her life. Her mother still has the same part-time job and Kyla has the same after-school babysitter.
At first, it was painful watching Kyla play games in which mommies and daddies would make up and go home together. I didn't involve her in my social life until I met Maggie: I included Kyla when I spent time with Maggie and her 5-year-old son, Neil. Several weeks ago, I explained to Kyla that Maggie and I were getting married and that Neil would be living with us. As I told her nothing else would change, that she would see me just as often and still have her own room at our house, her eyes glazed over. That afternoon she punched Neil and began to cry about a toy she couldn't find. Maggie and I are married now, and when KyIa comes to visit she is either whiny or aggressive toward Neil and ignores Maggie if she can. She told her grandma that her daddy got a new wife and a new boy. I don't know how to persuade my daughter that no one will ever take her place in my heart. Maybe her teacher can offer suggestions.
Dr. Brodkin's Assessment
Kyla's parents have done everything to spare their daughter the grief experienced by some children of divorce. Since there was no bickering and instead a genuinely amicable arrangement, their child adapted at home and was fine at school. Maintaining close contact with both parents eased her fear of abandonment until her dad married another child's mother. Most preschool children wrestle with thoughts about where they belong in the family. Having to share dad with another family is an added challenge. But with such caring parents, Kyla should ultimately do well.
What the Teacher Can Do
In her conference with Kyla's dad, the teacher should praise him for his loving care. She might encourage him to set a regular day to pick up KyIa or to bring her to school. Having dad actively involved in Kyla's life is very important right now. As a neutral person who can support each parent's good efforts, the teacher should offer to chat with Kyla's mother, too. The teacher's acceptance of Kyla's feelings expressed through play would be very helpful to her. She might also read books to the class about different kinds of families, all of which have lots of love to give. At the right moment, she could gently suggest that KyIa share her artwork and school experiences with each of her families. Some things are different, but KyIa can be helped to recognize the fact that her dad's devotion remains absolutely unchanged.
What the Parent Can Do
Right now Kyla needs extra time, patience, and understanding from all the adults in her life. She and her dad should have time alone together. This will give Kyla an opportunity to express her worries and help her realize that she has not lost her dad after all. Extra time alone with mom would also help to reassure Kyla. Neither parent should become impatient. Kyla's acceptance of this change may take some time. Remember, Kyla was recently entertaining fantasies, expressed through play, of her parents' reunion.