NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A 5-YEAR-OLD’S SUDDEN CHANGE OF HEART
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My 5-year-old granddaughter has taken ice-skating lessons for a little more than a year.
A couple of months ago she started crying before her lesson, saying she didn’t like it and didn’t want to go. She was told to give it another try because she had liked it (and the lessons were paid for).
Then she started crying before her dance lessons. But when she gets home, she says what a great time she had.
Now she’s starting crying before school and having bad days at school. She was always so excited to go to school and telling us all about her day.
What could be going on? Is she just “playing around” to see how far she can go? What can we do to help?
A. Five-year-olds who have complied with activities that their parents choose for them may suddenly realize, “I want to decide what I’m going to do – all by myself!” This wish to be in control can be a healthy sign of growing self-esteem: “I’m going to decide what I do now because I know what I’m doing!”
To help her open up, commend her for wanting to have a say. Then, if she can tell you what she doesn’t like about these activities, she may be able to focus on what she likes about them. Her parents could make an agreement with her to remind her that she says she enjoys these activities.
If a child complains about one activity, she may need help to figure out why. Is it too hard, frustrating or lonely without friends in that class? Is she too tired or hungry at that time of day? Perhaps something frightening happened there? A traumatic experience in one setting can lead a child to be fearful of others.
If you had told us that she was crying most of the time, and if you hadn’t said that after class she realizes she’s had fun there, we might have wondered if she could be depressed. If the crying is limited to these times, and if she is bright and cheerful at home and with friends during less structured activities, that’s reassuring.
It is concerning that she is also having “bad days” at school. You need more information about these bad days, about what is going on in school and her behavior there. Her parents could ask her teacher how she is handling the everyday school challenges. Her teacher may have ideas about how to help her enjoy school more. The teacher might even let her parents observe her in the classroom.
Another possible reason for the crying might be trouble with transitions. Many children this age become so absorbed in one activity that they can’t stop and switch to a different one. Reminders 15, 10 and five minutes before it is time to get ready to go can help. Another possibility is that her busy schedule may overtax her parents. If they’re frazzled, she’s bound to feel that way too.
When a child is more insistent on staying home or with a parent than avoiding a specific activity, separation may be her challenge. Such anxiety is common at this age, especially after a loss such as the death of a grandparent, or a move, or when a parent has been ill or preoccupied – by stress at work, financial worries or marital tensions. Five-year-olds may also insist on staying home after a new baby is born, as if to reassure themselves that they will not lose their place in the family.
For some children, dance and skating and other classes can just be too much. Your grandchild is only 5. Perhaps she’s trying to tell you that she needs a different pace, a few more breaks during the day, or more time for learning on her own – through play and with her friends. She may not know how to make friends yet – another reason to be miserable at school and in other group settings. Setting up play dates would then be an important first step.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.