It was early morning on the first day back from vacation. I was eager to see how the children would react to some surprises in the classroom. New activity tables were spread around the room. Toys were rearranged, and many new books were on the bookshelves. I tried to retain a warm and welcoming feeling while easing into a "getting ready for kindergarten" environment. I was hopeful that having new activities to greet the children with might make the return to school after the holidays more appealing. My excitement was abruptly interrupted by the arrival of exuberant 4 ½- and 5-year-olds. Most noticed the changes instantly and moved around the room, exploring and inviting others to join them. "Wow. This is cool!" "Look what's here!" "When can we use this stuff, Ms. Lilly?" I gathered everyone on the rug to talk about the new materials, pleased with the enthusiasm expressed on most faces. But one tearstained face stood out. "Stacey," I offered, "Come sit here beside me." With my arm around the child who I thought might be having some return-to-school separation blues, I proceeded to talk about the new things in the room, inviting a few children at a time to try things out. While other children scattered, Stacey stood frozen and forlorn. "But where are the dolls?" she asked. "I can't find the Madeleine doll. And I want my dad back. " I had to think quickly, as I wasn't prepared for the young girl's announcement about her dad. We drifted over to the book corner and sat facing each other on two cushions. "Daddy doesn't live in my house anymore," Stacey whimpered. It was no wonder the changes in school were more than she could bear. How can I help?
THE PARENT'S STORY
It was certainly not a storybook holiday season for our family. My husband's and my shaky marriage could not stand the strain. We agreed to split up over the holidays because it was just too stressful to stay together. I'm really sad, but the one who appears to be hurting the most is Stacey. She cries every night for her daddy. Of course, she's free to speak to him on the phone as often as she likes, and he picks her up for visits at least twice a week. We've agreed to hold off on overnights until he is more settled. However, maybe the most worrisome thing since he left is that Stacey can't tolerate changes in plans or routines. Now she only eats totally familiar foods. If a rainy day prevents us from going to the playground, she cries as if she'd lost her best friend. If any toy is moved to a different spot in her room, she's inconsolable. Now that she's back at school, Stacey's full of complaints about changes in the classroom. It's getting harder to persuade her to go to school in the morning, and when she returns, she is uncharacteristically grumpy. How can I comfort my little girl?
DR. BRODKIN'S ASSESSMENT
The teacher couldn't have known what happened in this family unless the parents had called her. This would have been difficult with school closed for vacation. But if she had known, the teacher couldn't have been expected to cancel her plans for updating the classroom. It was an unfortunate coincidence that unwanted changes at home occurred precisely when the classroom routine also altered. Children who are distressed by events at home can often find comfort in a predictable school environment. Through their mutual cooperation, however, the teacher and parent can still help ease the situation for the child.
What the Teacher Can Do
Soothing stories and songs, an arm around the child's shoulder, or even a spot on the teacher's lap at story time can help dispel Stacey's sense of loss and helplessness. It's best not to make any more nonessential classroom changes until Stacey regains her equilibrium. When she seems ready, walk Stacey through an activity center or two. Help her find favorite toys that may have moved. In the mornings, offer Stacey a warm welcome. At the end of the day, a "see you tomorrow" could help ease some doubts. The teacher should invite Stacey's mom to come in and chat, in hopes that she will be forthcoming about the family's situation.
If the teacher establishes a supportive relationship with the parent, in time she may feel comfortable saying something like, "You know, when my sister's marriage broke up, she found counseling very helpful. You might want to think about seeing someone who could help you and Stacey, too."
What the Parent Can Do
It is always a challenge for a divorcing parent to console her children when she herself is feeling lost. Stacey's mom needs the support of family and friends and, if possible, a compassionate counselor. With such help, the parent will feel more capable of encouraging Stacey to ask direct questions, such as "Why is my daddy not here anymore?" or "Will you go away, too?" "What else is going to change?" and the big one: "Was it my fault? Is it because I was bad?" Most young children assume they are to blame for their parents' marital discord. On the one hand, children feel helpless to stop unwanted life changes but, at the same time, feel responsible. These contradictions and misimpressions can be addressed and corrected in free play with parent and child and, perhaps even more convincingly, through counseling with an expert.
In addition to seeking support for her and her daughter, the parent should try to avoid other major life changes right now, such as moving. Above all, Stacey's mother and father can help their daughter by giving up lingering anger and resentment toward each other. Studies emphasize the importance of divorcing parents getting along in the best interest of their children.