The Teacher's Story

WHENEVER I encourage Alexandra to join the other children in free play, she insists on nestling deeper into my lap. She simply won't part with me these days. What a change! A few weeks ago, this confident four-and-a-half-year-old would have been managing the pretend grocery store or assigning roles in the housekeeping corner. Lately, though, she's rarely involved with other children; she just clings to me and guards me jealously. In fact, this morning she pulled her friend Diana's ponytail when Diana sat down next to me and asked me to read to her. Our aide says that if I leave the room, Alexandra drifts off into day-- dreaming. When I return, she immediately runs over and clings to me once again.

I kept waiting for the behavior to pass and the old Alexandra to re-emerge. But nothing has changed, and I am completely in the dark about what is troubling her. I've been anxious to speak with Alexandra's parents, but we haven't been able to set up a time.

Happily, though, this afternoon I heard from her dad. He asked to come in and talk with me. I am relieved because now I think we can get to the bottom of this. Although he and Alex's mom are divorced, they both are very involved with our program-which, I'm sure, has helped Alexandra to do well here, at least until now. I'm hoping the mystery will be cleared up when he visits later today.

The Parent's Story

MY MARRIAGE to Alexandra's mother broke up before our daughter's third birthday. In the first weeks after I moved out of the house, Alex was constantly asking questions about why I didn't come home and why I didn't sleep at home.

My ex-wife and I agree that it is important to protect our daughter from our problems. And when I left, we made it clear to Alex that she could talk to either of us on the phone at any time. That has worked out fine; also, I see Alex almost every day.

At first, I didn't involve my daughter in my social life-until I met and grew closer to Maxine. Then the three of us and Maxine's five-year-old daughter, Hilary, began to spend a lot of time together. Several weeks ago, I explained to Alexandra that Maxine and I were getting married and that Hilary would be living with us.

I assured Alexandra that she'd be seeing me just as often as she had been. I told her that she would have her own room at our new house. But that afternoon she kicked Hilary and began to cry about her doll's lost shoe.

I am married now, and things are no better with Alexandra. I learned that Alex had confided in her grandmother, "My daddy got a new wife and a new little girl." I decided to call the teacher, hoping that she might help me persuade my daughter that no one will ever take her place in my heart.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

 Alexandra's parents have done everything they could to spare their daughter the grief experienced by some children of divorce. Maintaining such close contact with both parents must have eased her fear of abandonment-at least until her dad married another little girl's mom.

Most preschool children wrestle with thoughts about where they fit in, even in intact families. It is hard enough for a little girl to share her loving daddy with her own mom and siblings. Having to share a daddy with another family is an even greater challenge.

What the Teacher Can Do

 In her conference with Alexandra's dad, the teacher should acknowledge his devotion. She might encourage him to set up a regular day to take Alex to school or pick her up. Also, as a neutral party, the teacher can continue to support Alexandra's mother's caring efforts.

Sooner or later, the little girl is likely to express feelings about her situation through play. The teacher's quiet acknowledgement and acceptance of those feelings would be very helpful. The teacher might also read books to the class about different kinds of families.

What the Parents Can Do

Right now, Alex needs extra time, patience, and understanding from all the adults in her life. She and her dad should have their own special times alone together. These are times when Alex can express her worries if she is ready; in time, she will come to see that she has not lost her daddy.

Extra time alone with Mom on their days together would also be reassuring. It would be especially helpful to Alex if her mother can overcome any mixed feelings she may have about the new marriage. With everyone working toward the same end, Alexandra is likely to recognize that although some things in her life may be different now, the love and devotion of her two parents is and always will be unchanged.