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Daycare Drama: When To Call It Quits

Daycare Drama: When To Call It Quits

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I have been a long time reader of your blog and love your many smackdowns. I definitely followed your advice when my boys were babies and not sleeping. My boys are now 2 and almost 4 (in January) and my almost 4 year old is having a rough time.

Background: I have worked part-time almost their whole lives but was very fortunate to have mainly my in-laws as babysitters, and occasionally a nanny. About a year ago my last job ended (end of contract) and it took me 9 months to find the right fit in a new position (not a lot of part-time jobs available in my industry at the moment) so the kids got used to having me home all the time. I went back to work at the end of September and my kids are in daycare for the first time two days a week. My oldest has been in half-day, three days a week preschool for a year so he isn’t completely new to being in a group setting, but he definitely is the type of kid that would rather be with mom and dad and is slow to trust new people.

Imagine my shock then the first time I dropped him off at daycare with no tears and no drama. He did really well for the first month (my younger son has always been very easy going—toys? Snacks? Great! See you later Mom) but I expected drama with my oldest. Cut to about a month ago when he was sick a couple of times and got to stay home with his dad all day on top of in the same week we went out with a real paid babysitter (his preschool teacher whom he loves and trusts so not a scary stranger) when we almost never go out at night and now he is a MESS. My husband (who does drop off) has to carry him kicking and screaming into daycare most days. He usually refuses to even get out of bed that day, and the day before a daycare day he will start crying or get mad about the fact that he does not want to go to daycare. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night upset about it. His daycare is not perfect: it is language immersion which I knew was going to not be his favorite because he’s the kind of kid that wants to know what’s going on and what comes next, and he’s in a mixed-age class with mostly littler kids (including his brother) which he says he likes, but at preschool he tends to gravitate toward older kids. (He’s on a wait list to switch to the bigger kid room at daycare but there currently isn’t space and he says he doesn’t want to go in that room because it’s “too loud”—he’s also easily overwhelmed by too much noise not of his own making).

In addition to the crying about going there he has started acting out a lot more at home. He regularly pushes and hits his brother when he thinks I’m not looking. He called his dad names the other night, he goes to pieces about the littlest stuff (I know, he’s three and that’s part of it but it has gotten WAY worse). He also now gets upset when either my husband or I leave the house, like when Dad goes to work, or when I go to the store without him leaving him with his Dad, which he never cared about before. He also says he does not want to go to preschool on the days he is off daycare even though he loves his teachers and his friends there—he just wants to stay home with me.

The daycare assures us that he is upset for a couple minutes after his dad leaves and then he pulls himself together, but he is the kind of kid that doesn’t like to cry in front of adults he doesn’t trust and thus provoke interaction with scary strangers, so the fact he is not crying all day does not give me comfort, though my husband says he seems perfectly cheerful at the end of the day my son always tells me he did not have a good day and does not like daycare. I think the language immersion is making it extra hard for my shy kid to connect with his teachers. He doesn’t even know their names. They are lovely, the place is well-run, I am sure they are providing good care for my kids which is why I chose it, but now I’m torn.

I completely get that this is still new and it is going to take time for him to adapt etc. But it still hurts and makes me feel very guilty about working since by the time we pay for daycare I don’t take home much money and mainly do it because it makes me happy and feel fulfilled (I know those are valid choices but still, my baby!) So my questions are:

1. What can I do to help him deal with all of these feelings in the meantime? And,
2. How and at what point do I start looking for a different care option? How long do I let it go on? Six months? A year? We did not have a lot of options because most places in our area have long waitlists which makes it extra tricky with two kids plus I work a weird schedule (Monday and Friday) which a lot of places won’t accommodate (they want either MWF or TTH for part-time).

Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

Mom of sad and scared son

(General note of apology to all Smackdown readers and advice-seekers for the beyond-sporadic publishing schedule in December. I realize readers of my personal blog know what’s up but since the overlap is hardly 100%, this is for anyone who wondered where this column went: I developed a LOVELY, mutant zombiefied form of pinkeye called Epidemic Keratoconjuntivitis. And if that weren’t bad enough [hint: IT’S PRETTY BAD DON’T GOOGLE] I had an allergic reaction to a completely unnecessary antibiotic ointment that made things even worse. I couldn’t see, couldn’t type, couldn’t function beyond lying in bed and some Tina-Belcher-style moaning. My vision still isn’t 100% but I’m able to spend longer blocks of time staring at a screen, so I will be doing my best to work back up to your regularly scheduled posting schedule.)

(P.S. My advice to anyone who just moved homes to a new area, or who anyone who has eyeballs, really, is to track down a specialty eye center that offers emergency services, BEFORE YOU GO BLIND FROM AN EYE-RELATED EMERGENCY. Because at that point, you won’t be able to find the information online because you can’t see and you’ll end up in a regular ER getting misdiagnosed left and right.)

Moving on!

So typically I tend to approach the daycare drama/separation anxiety situations with a big wind-up spiel about what’s…well, typical. That kids can be all about the theatrics at drop-off and then fine 20 seconds later, that it’s a phase most kids go through and it’ll pass with time, and that even the most epic of curbside fits of clinging and crying are far from an accurate prediction of how your child with spend his/her day at school or daycare.

Butttttt on the hand…there’s “typical” separation anxiety and then there’s a situation that just genuinely isn’t a good fit for your child. And there are a few details in your letter that stand out to me:

  1. Your son has previous group/preschool experience that was overall positive, and despite a recent resistance to going, still sounds like it pales in comparison to the daycare days.
  2. Your assessment of your son’s personality suggesting that just because he’s not crying all day, doesn’t mean he’s not spending the day feeling on edge, isolated, confused or sad. (The fact that he still doesn’t know his teachers’ or friends’ names definitely supports that theory.)
  3. The simple FORCE of his daycare-related anxiety, creeping into weekends, the night before…to me that really raises the possibility that this is NOT just a straightforward fear of separation (though there’s a hefty dose of that), but about a child who is having a really bad, unpleasant experience for some reason.

This doesn’t mean the daycare is “bad.” It’s just that not every program that looks or sounds great to us ends up being the right one for our kid. (I also chose a preschool that was an absolutely disaster-show for my oldest son. It happens.) Doesn’t matter if you’re talking  Montessori, or Waldorf, or play-based, or language immersion, or in-home vs. a big center vs. a nanny…none of these options are one-size-fits-all.

You write about your with a lot of insight and detail. So I really encourage you to trust your gut here.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the simple logistics (waitlists! weird schedules! deposits!) of childcare and sort of hope that with a little more time, things will work out. And they might! But in the meantime, your son seems to be undergoing a pretty major personality change that seems directly tied to the new daycare and I don’t think that’s something to shrug off. He was fine at first, then things devolved. He’s unhappy, anxious and acting out. I can’t really tell you what the “right” amount of time is to wait and see. But since you are dealing with waitlists and not a ton of other immediately-available options, I don’t think it would hurt to start exploring them in the event that things continue to spiral downhill.

Perhaps a M/F nanny plus his preschool? ( and are great sites for finding sitters and nannies, particularly for part-time and unusual schedules. And the hourly rate of one nanny might be less than two daycare tuitions.) Or a five-day half-day preschool plus some at-home aftercare with a sitter. Or just get on a waitlist for a smaller, non-language immersion daycare and do your best to help him through the current reality that is the current daycare.

One thing I’ve found with this sort of thing is that SOMETIMES, it actually helps to stop talking and asking him about daycare so much. It sounds like you guys are (understandably) trying to get the root of the issue — either hoping he’ll admit he had a good day or finally give you some insight on what, specifically, he finds so awful — and for some kids, this line of questioning makes them anxious, or just more rigid in their responses. “How was your day? Who did you play with? Your teacher is so nice, isn’t she? Just give it another chance, it’s so fun there! Etc.” When you pick him up, try laying off the questions. Let him volunteer information, but otherwise let him leave the entire daycare experience behind him. Play his favorite songs in the car, greet him with a little snack, and let him decompress without any questions or discussion.

His staunch anti-daycare position might shift, then, if he’s no longer able to use the “I don’t like daycare I don’t like daycare!” as an attention-getting/guilt-inducing ploy. Not to mention you’re repeatedly asking him for an opinion that he’s stated a million times and probably doesn’t understand why you keep asking, since you still keep making him go. Try treating daycare as more of a matter-of-fact thing, it’s okay that he doesn’t love it, it’s not for forever, and once he’s home with you guys the topic is more or less dropped. That might help him relax a bit more, or at least contain the anxiety “just” to the morning of. Lots and lots of positive attention and as much one-on-one time with you both as you can manage.

You sent this letter a couple weeks ago (THANKS EYES) so I am sort of hoping that you’ll be able to show up in the comments and be all, “eh, he snapped out of it on his own this month, thanks for nothing!” Maybe the big kid room will be better, maybe turning 4 officially will bring about a maturity spurt. But if it’s still the same situation or worse, I’d say it might be time to look around for a different environment or childcare arrangement. But you know your son. But for the love of everything please don’t blame yourself or your work or your reasons for working. This sort of thing can happen to any parent, with the best daycare with the best of intentions. Sometimes it’s just not a great fit, and your instincts will tell you if (and when) you need to make a change.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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