How I Ignored My Child’s Preschool Trauma

When my second son was about to start school, he was extremely excited. There was none of the separation anxiety – he was already used to being away from me since I went back to work 6 weeks after he was born. He had no fear of school. He had seen his older brother happily go, day in and day out. So when it came to school, he mostly felt like he was missing out.

Proud of his monkey-shaped backpack and his hippo lunchbox, he was looking forward to it all. When the big day came, he woke up an hour too early, full of excitement. He loved the classroom and all the kids and toys and decorations. And he was perfectly a-ok when I said good-bye.

But over the course of the next few weeks, I started to see some changes. He didn’t want to go...but he knew he had to.

That’s when a new ritual started…

There was a bougainvillea at the entrance of the school and every day, he would refuse to enter unless I let him pick a single flower from its vine. He was really adamant about it...unusually so. I’m not sure what this flower meant to him but he would hold onto it all day long. Literally...All. Day. Long.

I thought he was just going through a period of adjustment. But then, things got worse. He stopped eating at school. He wouldn’t use the bathroom. He wouldn’t take a single sip of water throughout the 6-hour day. His face changed. The light was gone and he just looked miserable. He had completely withdrawn, while still clutching that bougainvillea in his hand. Was it a symbol of the outside world, maybe?

There were plenty of signs that my son wasn’t thriving at this preschool. I didn’t have to look hard. But I chose to ignore them all. I had to take him somewhere. I was a working mom and the politics in the office were so bad at this time, any sign of weakness would not be tolerated.

Besides, I reasoned, my older son had gone to the same school. Sure, there were a few changes since then… the head teacher of the class was now the director. Some of the other teachers were new. But one teacher who loved my older son was still there… though oddly, while she used to be so friendly and talkative before, she now seemed so incredibly distant. Why?

So I made excuses... He’ll be fine. He’s just transitioning. He had such high expectations, there’s just a normal letdown period.

During my lunch breaks, I tried making a few surprise visits to the school to see how he was doing. But the director would stop me. Strange! Surprise visits are allowed, according to school policy.

I tried a few times to speak to the teacher who previously had been so nice. She mostly would smile and step away.

Except one day, she caught me in the parking lot. She pulled me aside and very hurriedly told me that the director had instructed them to ignore him throughout the day – that she wasn’t allowed to help him, play with him, or even speak to him. She could lose her job. Apparently, the director felt that my firstborn had gotten so much attention when he was there that they decided make up for it with my second son by just shutting him out. And the more they shut him out, the more he shut down.

My only photo of him from his short stint at this school perfectly captures him during this period. They had a special visit from the Easter Bunny one day and he's sitting on its lap. He looks completely withdrawn...a dark cloud hanging over his head...and he’s still holding that bougainvillea by its stem.

Needless to say, I removed him from the school and found one where they treated him with respect. But he still carried a lot of trauma with him.

From holding his bladder for six hours a day at age two, this child, who was previously potty-trained, had major bathroom issues to overcome. While before, he would easily make friends at a park, he now chose to play alone in the classroom. He carried a distrust for the teachers and never would look to them for affection or contact; he’d avert his eyes and walk away.

He carried with him his outcast position and it became his role. While he enjoyed school, he still wasn’t a part of the group. He wouldn’t sing along, he didn’t participate at the same level and he took on an air of aloofness. And his new persona just really meant he was constantly missing out.

Of course, I blame myself….whether or not the director made some bad calls is completely irrelevant. I’m the one who told him daily that he had to go to school despite the signs. I helped him pick out his bougainvillea flower and rushed away as his sadness settled onto the rainbow-colored rug.

And while the pressures of work made all the signs easy to ignore then, I have to figure out how to help him find a way to overcome it all.

Has your child had a less-than-perfect preschool experience? How did you overcome the trauma?

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Tags : confession   motherhood   working moms   preschool   

Shirin, My heart is broken for your little man. I hope you have been able to talk with him and provide some healing. But also, I hope you're taking steps to make this known about the preschool director. This person is unfit for the job on two levels: treatment of children and of staff. This is serious. Please, do what you can to let her know what trauma and damage she caused to a young child. This abuse needs to be made known. I am praying for your son. His face, his eyes, are so hurting in the picture. I have three kids and it makes me so angry. How is he doing today?
Maya Slavin
Crying right now. I'm so sorry your little one had to go through this.
Deborah Essner
Thank you for your beautiful, raw honesty!
Afshin Behnia
Thanks for the correction, Shirin. There are private school review sites. You should share your experience on them to warn others.
Shirin Behnia
Afshin, it was actually a private school. There aren't really any public school options yet.
Elodie Nilsson
So terrible!!
Afshin Behnia
God damn public schools! This makes me so angry. They're accountable to no one. Just looking out for their own interests. It's sickening.
Tricia Goss
We had a similar experience with my daughter's kindergarten teacher. That was 24 years ago and I still haven't forgiven myself for not realizing what was going on and reacting sooner.