Child Caring

First grader doesn't want to go to school

Hi Barbara,

My DD recently turned 7. She is in 1st grade. This school year she has started crying and complaining of stomach aches in the morning when we are getting her ready for school.
I've worked her whole life and she has always gone to daycare and been away from me during the day.

Last year in Kindergarten she was excited to go to school. This year about 75% of the time she either starts crying that her belly hurts or is just sobbing that she doesn't want to go. I've spoken to her teacher (who is male) and he has said she is great in class and hasn't complained of stomach aches or been crying. I mention that he is male because DD has said that she misses us and that no one takes care of her like we do. And perhaps having a male teacher is less nurturing? I'm just grasping at straws here.

She's been going to an in-home daycare for the past 18 months after school and it's been fine, but in the past 2 months she is telling me how much she hates it. But the lady that watches her is telling me she is having a great time. This past Monday, after being at home for a week for Thanksgiving Break, she actually went to the nurse at school complaining of a belly ache. This is the first time she has done that. I think she was trying to get sent home. But the nurse put her on the bus since it was the end of the day.

Her bus driver has told me that she is mostly chatty and having fun with friends on the bus to and from school everyday. She has lots of friends. I don't think bullying or teasing is really the issue. DD has stated many times that she just misses us and it makes her cry. This morning we tried sending her to school with some pictures of the whole family so she could look at them if she needed to. Yesterday my husband included a little note in her lunchbox. But she said she read it and it made her cry!

How do we stop the tears? I think she is mostly fine during the day at school once she is with friends and having fun. The teacher said he never would have guessed that she was struggling to get on the bus every day. Should we ignore it in the morning? We are trying to keep her getting on the bus and going to school. Once in a blue moon we will have to drive her because she missed the bus while in the bathroom saying she has a stomach ache. Her pediatrician says it's anxiety and to keep getting her on the bus because once you let her stay home, she will try to do that again. So, do we ignore? Talk to her more about how she's feeling? This morning I asked about it and it sent her from not crying into a 30 minute sob fest. She said she felt stupid crying but that she couldn't help it.

Help us!
From: Kristen, Burlington (Ma? Vt? LW doesn't say)

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Dear Kristen,

Did she have any tummy aches over the Thanksgiving break? Does she get them on the weekends? If the answer is no, my money is on your pediatrician's diagnosis of anxiety (assuming medical issues have been ruled out).

Stomach aches from anxiety are real. I do not recommend ignoring them. But that doesn't mean keeping her home from school.

Tell her the doctor has checked her out (assuming he has) and he hasn't found any medical problem. "But I know your tummy still hurts you."

You want her to know that she has credibility with you; otherwise, how can she come to you with problems in the future? How can she trust that you will take her seriously? At the same time, though, I'd ask her; "Why do you think you get stomach aches?" Or, "Sometimes people get stomach aches because they have worries. Is there something about school/after school that gives you a tummy ache?"

Your pediatrician is concerned that "school reluctance" (yep, there's even a name for this) can escalate into school refusal, which can be a serious phobia. Here's something else to know (and I quote from my own book): "Not wanting to go to school can surface for the first time at age 7 or 11, even in a child who has never had separation issues." It typically occurs "where noticeably increased demands are made on kids" and -- for whatever reasons -- the child perceives he or she cannot meet them. The perception may be tainted, of course, by magical thinking: She was called on in class, didn't know an answer, and concluded she's stupid. A boy was teased because he forgot to pull up his zipper. She stood up quickly, knocked over some books and everyone laughed. In other words, it doesn't have to be an on-going, bullying-kind of event. It could have been a one-time think that she's blown out of proportion and here's what's hardest for parents: You may never know what triggered this.

So what do you do? Offer empathy but no wiggle room: "I know some days, things happen at school that make you wish you didn't have to go. But you do have to go, even if your stomach hurts." Use support and reassurance to help her figure out how she can solve her problem. Brainstorm what she should do if she gets a stomach ache in school, as she did when she went to the nurse. Ask the nurse what she thinks, especially if she sees a pattern develop around what time of day they happen. Certainly keep her teacher in the loop, too.

If you think she is genuinely sick, of course, keep her home. The sure-fire way to know if sickness is related to a school problem is if there is a quick (although not instant) recovery. Even then, it's not that she was faking it; it's that with the source of anxiety removed, she really does feel better. Still treat the day as a sick day, not a fun day.

The sobbing that you describe fits the pattern of anxiety-related school refusal. That kind of behavior can include all kinds of dramatic pleas, from, "I'll be sick all over the school if you make me go," to "I'll hate you if you make me go." It's hard to be firm in the face of that. , but if you aren't firm, you become an enabler.

One other possible cause: is there anything happening at home causing stress? New job, loss of a job, illness, etc? If she's worried about you, magical thinking could make her think that if you both stay home together, all will be OK.