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littleone
littleone asks:
Q:

How do I get my daughter back to school without moving back to Virginia?!

My daughter is 9 and has always been a very social, independant and outgoing little girl.  she's always loved school and has never been "clingy" with me.  Her father has never been around; her step father (who has been there since she was a baby) and i split up recently.  both my daughter's and i moved 3000 miles to be with my sister and mother and start a new life.  my 11 year old has adjusted famously.  i'm so proud of her and pleasantly surprised at her acceptance of our new situation.  my nine year old however has lost her mind.  she started out crying and telling me she missed me during week one of school.  then it escalated into a stomach ache in week two.  week three was nighttime fits and refusing to sleep (along with school refusal).  fast forward to week five and it's world war 3 every single day trying to get her to school.  i've taken her to a medical doctor, i've taken her to a therapist.  we've "talked" with every admin in the school down to the janitor almost!  she kicks and screams and says hateful horrible things to me.  but once she knows she doesn't have to go to school, she's an angel.  she says she wants to go back home (where we moved from on the other side of the country!) she says she won't stop throwing these tantrums and she won't go back to school until i take her back to Virginia.  i'm at my wits end.  i don't know what to do.  i've tried offering "rewards" for her attendance and she says she doesn't care; that there's nothing i can offer her that will be as important to her as going home.  UUUGGGHHH!!!!!  please help me figure out how to bring my sweet little girl back.  she's missed so much school that i fear she will not only fail for the year but we will end up explaining to a judge why she hasn't been in school.
In Topics: Discipline and behavior challenges, Blended families
> 60 days ago

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Expert

lkauffman
Sep 24, 2008
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What the Expert Says:

Sounds like this has been a very difficult time for you! Can you say a little more about what advice school personnel and the therapist provided?

It is understandable that your daughter would be struggling with the transitions facing the family. There has been a lot of change recently, and some children have a lower tolerance for coping with stressful experiences than others. I think it is important that your daughter begins to understand that her emotions and stress surrounding the changes are normal; what is important is how she chooses to cope and adapt to her circumstances. Developing new and improved ways of managing her emotions is the goal for now and the future.

I suspect that your daughter is clinging to you and fearing time away from you during this difficult time. Many experts believe that refusing school is often based upon a set of contingencies and rewards. That is, when your daughter stays home, she gets more time with you and attention. If, and when, you cannot get her off to school in the morning, you may consider planning a "boring" day for her at home that involves little "mommy and me" time in order to reduce the reinforcing quality of being home. You may wish to talk with the therapist further about how you can do this.

Finally, she would most likely benefit from continued meetings with a therapist to work on developing improved coping. If the first therapist she met with was not a match, you should ask for additional referrals from the school or others in the community.

For more on school refusal, please see:
http://www.education.com/reference/article/Ref_Understanding_School/

Good luck and please keep us posted.

L. Compian, Ph.D.
Counseling Psychologist
Education.com Reference Team

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Additional Answers (5)

Developmentalist
Development... writes:
Hello.  Thanks for reaching out.  Help is available.  I'd like to refer you to an amazing non-profit organization, called Hand in Hand Parenting.  You can find them at www.handinhandparenting.org.  They are based in California and you can also reach them for phone consultations at 650-322-5323 to get immediate support and guidance.  They have a course and booklet titled:  Building Emotional Understanding which you can order on their website.  I have heard many parent testimonials that the workshop/booklet has transformed difficult situations like the one you are in.  There is so much love for your daughter in your words.  You will get through this!
> 60 days ago

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Hand in Hand
Hand in Hand , Teacher, Caregiver, Parent writes:
Dear littleone:

You've been working hard with this difficult situation: good for you for reaching out. I think I can help you with this situation, though what I will recommend will be a bit "off the beaten path," at least in some parents' minds.

Children of 9 can have lots of feelings about separation: about the present separation from her familiar home and friends and school and stepfather, as well as a storehouse of feelings that are left over from early childhood. Some children seem to be more sensitive to separation situations than others, because early in their lives, they had experiences that felt to them like more of a threat than the early experiences of siblings or other children their age. For instance, children who ever spent time alone in the hospital, at birth or at any time in early childhood, were separated from a parent under really difficult circumstances. Though they are just fine in most situations, when a big separation like this comes up, feeling very threatened, as a very small and helpless child might feel, gets triggered. They can't escape the feelings of fear and threat, no matter how hard they try. Feelings, when they flood a child's limbic system (the social and emotional center of the brain), simply take over, and a child can't possibly be rational. We can't, either--feelings shut down the reasoning we ordinarily have, and it returns when the feeling has subsided, which is why she's wonderful as soon as she doesn't have to go to school. That threat of separation is gone, and the feeling (which is probably at least in part coming from some much earlier incident of separation, because it's so strong) subsides. Her prefrontal cortex switches on again, and she's herself.

Here's what to do! Feelings, when they get triggered, govern a child's behavior and their interpretation of reality. Situations that are clearly safe suddenly become "threatening" because they are painted by the feelings that are leaping out of a past incident. How feelings can be healed, and a child's behavior and perspective can become more reasonable, is to set an expectation that the child will function reasonably. In this case, it's "You're going to school today. It's a good place. You'll be safe there, and you can come home at 3 pm. I'll see you then." This expectation (very kindly offered--if you're angry while offering it, this won't work so well because your upset is coloring the situation, and is making it feel unsafe) is necessary to trigger her big fears and pull them out of their hiding place in her memory. Once she is upset, get close, put your arm around her if you can, and keep saying, "Today is a school day"==actually, I would do this on the night before, to try to trigger the feelings early so you have time to do the next step.

Then, Staylisten. Stay with her, offer warm eye contact and your support. Be there to listen to her feelings. Listen. Don't talk, don't ask lots of questions. All that is an attempt to engage her prefrontal cortex, which isn't working well. She needs to feel your love, so she can tell you how awful it will be to go to school, and how scared she will be to be there without you. Listen. But keep saying, "I know it's hard. But it's a school day. You're going to go, and you'll be safe." Let the tantrums and crying begin. Listen. Let her have her huge, awful, I'm desperate, I won't live through this feelings. Stay with her and listen. Don't argue. Don't reason. Just say, I know it might be hard, but I am sure you'll be safe. And I'll see you when school is over." She needs to have someone listen carefully to all the feelings, before they can lose their power. One good long cry/tantrum/struggle/trembling desperate episode--you can expect it to last an hour or more--can change a child's perspective entirely. Sometimes, if there's a big early hardship stored in her emotional memory (like time in the NICU, or treatment for jaundice, or any early long separation from you for any reason), you'll need to listen several times before she can actually make it to school. But this process of Staylistening and offering connection and caring, while still holding the expectation, and letting her have her feelings as big and awful and passionate as she can, is very very very effective. Feelings release in tantrums and crying, and they lose their power, gradually, over a child's perspective, and over a child's behavior.

If you've listened and stayed with her through a giant cry, and tantrum, she will, if you've been able to hang in there with her, probably end the time with big sobs, and lean into you and feel very close to you and loved by you, even though she's been hating you and protesting every wrong thing that ever happened in her life. Hang in until it shifts. It will, if you listen. After it shifts, ask her if she's ready now to go to school. If you have to start this on a school morning, it might be halfway through the morning before she comes all the way through this emotional work. If she's ready, take her in. If you both judge that it's not going to be great to go midday, then tell her she's done a good job of showing you how it gets inside for her, and let her have another day. She may or may not have more big emotional work to do the next day, but one of those days soon, she will be ready to go to school.

There is more about this approach, which we call Parenting by Connection, at <www.handinhandparenting.org> It's an approach that gives a child lots of reassurance, but doesn't ultimately give in on the limit--the deal is that she needs to go to school, and that, more importantly, school is a good and safe place for her. She's not threatened there. Keep repeating that while she's crying and having her tantrums. That reassurance addresses the deep roots of the fear she feels, rather than the rules that "have to be followed" to be a regular person. You just make room for the feelings that are driving her, and you, nuts. Make room for them, accept them, let her be tossed through the stormy seas of her "emotional bad dream," and steer her little boat with a good hand on the rudder, telling her that she's safe, that she'll always see you again. There are little baby feelings stuck inside that need to be listened to before she can be free of them and think reasonably again.

We have a set of booklets that explain this process at the website above: Listening to Children. A mom I know with much the same problem resolved it in a short amount of time using Staylistening---she's just full of backed up emotions that need release. Listen. Let her go totally ballistic. Listen and love her. Hold the expectation. Magic will happen!

Hope it helps!
> 60 days ago

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Boys Town National Hotline
Here are some suggestions for you:  Try and make it clear to your 9 year old that your intention is that she will attend school.  As with any decision that you have given her, and she needs to accept it.  Currently she is not accepting the decision of attending school, she will earn a consequence.  This consequence needs to be appropriate to her age.  Loss of T.V. time, playing on computer, free time, no candy, pop, cakes, etc.  Make sure she sees the contrast of her behaviors and choices, and her sister being allowed all access to privileges and fun things.  Continue to reward and praise your older daugther of her good choices and tell your 9 year old, she can have this also, but she needs to make better choices, and right now she is not.  If she accepts the decision by attending school, tell her what she can earn.  Therefore, work with her teacher, school, school psychologist, and pediatrician to make sure they are aware of this situation and that you would like to correct it, and how you plan to correct it.  Can you volunteer at the school? If she decides to stay home, she will be doing work: reading, writing, math.  

Gaining support for yourself is also key for you right now.  Let your sister and mom know of your plans and ask them to assist and help you follow through.  Remember, consequences change behavior.  Following through with the consequences is also very important.  Be loving, yet firm with your decisions.  

Teach self control to your daughter.  There are many different strategies to try: take a deep breath, count to ten in your head fast, etc.  Also teach her to accept decisions.  If she gets a decision she does not like, she will have to accept it and not scream, yell, call names, etc.  You can practice accepting decisions.  Also let her know that she can earn 1/2 hour of her favorite T.V. show.  Gradually, you can make the decisions "real" and over time and practice she will learn to accept decisions--she may not like them, but she will accept them!

With love, kindness, teaching and patience from you as the parent, your relationship with your daughter can develop and a regular routine of attending school can be established.  

Boys Town National Hotline
1-800-448-3000
> 60 days ago

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Loddie1
Loddie1 , Parent writes:
Hi,
I'm sorry to hear you are having the stress of this situation. One thing you can consider is homeschooling the rest of the year. School is stressful on children and also she is dealing with "change". I actually homeschool my child and its legal and you don't have to worry about the truancy factor as long as you keep the records. Sit down and think about it long and hard. Once you start to homeschool, it will take some adjusting but you will see your sweet little girl come back. Take the year to learn at her own pace while she is going through some tough times. If you need further links or advice, I don't mind helping. Good luck!
> 60 days ago

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socialworker
socialworker writes:
Try reading "Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children Adjust to Change" with your child.The story centers on Harry,a caterpillar that has a fantastic life full of games, friends, school and leaf eating. He is stunned when, one day at caterpillar school, he learns that he is expected to  build a chrysalis and become a butterfly. Harry vows to remain a caterpillar forever, as his friends build their chrysalises and move on.  Eventually, Harry  learns to accept change as a necessary part of life, and  joins his friends as a butterfly. There are tips in the back of the book to help parents and educators use the story as a vehicle to help kids talk about their feelings about change, and teach them coping strategies to manage their anxiety.
> 60 days ago

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