Dear David Coleman: 'My five-year old daughter is suddenly very anxious and crying a lot. How can we help her?'

My five-year old daughter started school last September. She is a very sociable, friendly, caring and kind child. Recently she has started going to the toilet a lot. She also worries about getting bugs or germs on her, or worries about getting sick or ill. She seems much more sensitive and is crying a lot. She resists doing homework and it ends in tears; she says she isn’t good at things even though her teacher says she is getting on very well. This all started around Christmas time and we are worried it is a sign of something else.

David replies: I think you are right to be concerned. Significant changes in children’s behaviour often reflect emotional distress. The increase in urinary frequency, if not medically caused, could signal a level of anxiety, since we know that urinary urgency is a typical physical manifestation of anxiety.

Similarly, if she is showing an increased concern about germs, bugs, infections and illness, that too could reflect generalised anxiety. Her self-criticism regarding her academic ability and her increased sensitivity and upset may also be a sign that all is not well in her emotional world.

The fact that these are all relatively new behaviours or concerns, for her, suggests that something may have happened to upset her around the time the issues you mention began. Naturally, the “something” could have happened in any of the environments that she spends time in. So, do reflect on your own family life and any changes that may have happened in the lead up to Christmas. Think about extended family and any changes there. Think also about school.

Even though you have spoken to the teacher, I think it would be a good idea to go back and speak with him or her again, focusing on anything that may have happened, from an academic or social perspective, before the Christmas break.

Any kind of change has the potential to be important, since change usually creates some unpredictability in our lives. When change occurs, it can take a while to settle into the new patterns or routines and children can be very unsettled until things become more predictable once the change has bedded in.

Since your daughter is unlikely to be able to explain her upset or anxiety to you, you will have to do a bit of guesswork. Essentially, you are trying to guess at what things might have thrown her off, or distressed her. You might focus on friends, or workload in school, especially if her teacher gives any indication of anything that may have occurred there.

When we wonder, with our children, in this fashion, we make it possible for them to link their emotional experiences to the actual experiences they have, in a congruent way. We establish a fit, for our children, between what happened to them and how they feel about it. That allows them to process the feelings such that, hopefully, it will ease the intensity of those feelings.

Many parents are reluctant to do this, fearing that they will, instead, “feed into” the negative or difficult feelings, increasing their child’s distress. However, when a child does connect with the feeling, we can still help them to soothe themselves and their distress. Importantly, though, we are soothing the right feelings, such that a child can then move on from it.

So, see if you can identify any reason for the upset, and spend lots of time empathising with her about the apparent distress she feels and why she might feel it. Then you can offer her the comfort and reassurance that might ease the intensity of it.


My son might be the only child enrolling in junior infants in our small, rural school


Q My son is due to start primary school this September (he’ll be five in November), however, he will be the only one starting in junior infants. It is an excellent, small, rural school and his sister will be in the same room, but in first class. I don’t want to move my daughter, who’s really doing well, but neither do I want my son to have no same-age peers in school. What will I do?

David replies: These are the kinds of dilemmas that can haunt parents. It seems that the only way to allow both your children to have their needs met is to consider different schools for them. That may not be practical or feasible. Having your children stay located in your own parish may also be important.

Have you spoken with the current school about how they plan to meet your son’s social needs if they don’t have any other junior infant enrolments?

The alternative is to consider which child seems more robust and resilient — who might cope best with the challenges of the respective options? If you think your son can muck in with older children, or will be happy to play with younger children down the line, then sticking with the current school might work.

If you think your daughter has the capacity to settle and make friends in any school, then it might be OK for her to move school.

Be open to reviewing whatever choice you make, since nobody can predict how things will actually impact on either child. A review offers the potential to make further choices if either seems badly affected.

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