When They Suddenly Say, “I Don’t Wanna Go!

It can be confusing when what was once fine, suddenly isn’t. Yet every one of us knows how it feels to have to do something we just don’t, at that moment, feel like doing. When a child suddenly resists going to daycare, though it may be a natural waxing and waning of interest, it is still important to consider the source of the child’s unhappiness.

  • There may be a change or new issue at daycare
  • Your child may be experiencing separation anxiety (which replays again and again as his world gets bigger and bigger)
  • He may be testing out what he can and cannot control—”hmm, can I stay home with mommy and daddy when I want to?”

The keys are to ask the right questions about daycare, and, if applicable, to support your child’s ability to cope when he is missing you and/or when he is upset that life does not go his way.

Evaluating Daycare

Because a child’s sudden change of heart can be a warning sign, it is important to check in with what is happening at daycare.

  • Is there a new teacher? New dynamics? How do YOU feel about daycare?
  • Talk to teachers and pay attention to your child’s words. With your child, be matter-of-fact, and refrain from leading comments or questions – you don’t want to create concern. If a situation at daycare is troubling your child, the teachers should help with a solution. If not, you may need to look into a new room or new daycare.
  • Ask yourself if YOU are comfortable with the daycare and daycare in general. If you have concerns, or if you are missing your child, or are having feelings of guilt around daycare, your child is very likely picking up on and reacting to your feelings. If so, you will need to do the work of (1) finding a daycare you feel good about, and/or (2) coming to terms with your feelings. Remember, you are parenting in an era flush with unrealistic expectations. Other working parents and parent educators can help you maintain a realistic perspective.

Helping Children Cope When Life is Not Smooth

Turns out everything is fine at daycare, your child just doesn’t want to go right now—he doesn’t want to do something, but he has to, and he doesn’t like it. You know that feeling—we all know it—and your child is knee-deep in it. He is experiencing what life is like when we don’t get exactly what we want. What do we all do at times like this? We find a way to cope. So, this is a time:

  • for the child to practice coping skills, and
  • for the parent to help—not by meeting wishes, but by supporting the ability to cope.
  • You will know best what your child’s general coping strategies tend towards, but here are some general strategies to help a child cope with (1) separation anxiety (a common reason for rejecting daycare) and (2) not getting what he wants.

Coping When Missing Mom & Dad

  • To help him feel secure and connected, have him take an object from home of mom’s or dad’s
  • Likewise, give him a photograph, or together create a family photobook, that he can have and look at any time at daycare.
  • At daycare, make sure he is anchored to a teacher or someone he is comfortable with before you leave.
  • Let him see a strong link between you and the daycare and his caretakers. If your child experiences a good relationship and interaction between you and the adult caretakers, it will help him to feel connected to you during the time he spends there.
  • As you are getting ready to go, draw a picture in his head of what will be fun at daycare during his day. Be specific. Name names of his favorite people and describe the activities he likes the best.

Coping When “I Don’t Get My Way”

It is normal for anyone to feel disappointed when they don’t get their way. It is normal for a young child to cry and get upset at this disappointment. Allow him to feel what he feels, to express it (appropriately), and let him know that you see and understand his feelings—“you do not want to go, you are upset” (until he really believes you “get it” he is likely to continue to express his feelings). Then, start practicing coping strategies, such as:

  • Matter-of-factly remind him of the good he will miss if he remains upset: “Crying uses up a lot of energy. If we use it all up we won’t have any left to… (skip to the car/go swimming this afternoon/ etc.)
  • Remind him of something he can control: “Miss Tanya likes to see the favorite books you bring from home. Do you want to pick one?” “What flavor of yogurt do you want in your lunch today—Strawberry or Vanilla?”
  • Draw a picture in his head of what will be fun during his day at daycare. Be specific and vivid.

A sample script for what to do when no strategy is working:

Every parent has experienced one of those heels-dug-in days of mega-resistance when nothing you try seems to work but not going to work/to daycare/to the doctor’s office is simply not an option. On these days your body must do the work of supporting the child. It will take everything you’ve got to remain calm, positive and relaxed. Do your best, knowing that your child feeds off your mood. If you are tense and angry, it will likely escalate his resistance. If you are calm, he may be able to “borrow” some of that calm.

Get down at his level and matter-of-factly say: “Is this a day you can do it yourself or do you need me to help?”

If the child remains resistant, call on your strength to remain calm, and with steady strong muscles and firm follow-through, do it for him (whether this means putting his hands through his coat sleeves or picking him up and carrying him into the classroom) explaining as you go: “I will help you this morning and another day you will be able to do it yourself.”

Continue to offer empathy and name his feelings: “You are upset,” “You do not like this.” As you name his feelings, try to also match your facial expression to that feeling. Seeing his own feeling mirrored on your face tells him that “Yes, mom/dad gets it.”

Call on your various calming strategies (though, it may simply be one of those days that they just don’t work). Some examples:

  • “Now we just need your hat—it goes on your nose right?” (humor, distraction, opportunity for your child to show competence)
  • “It’s been a crabby morning, I think we need to crab walk to the door.” (game, silliness)
  • “The itsy-bitsy spider…” (song)
  • “I think today is a morning we should play your favorite cd and you can choose which song to play first.” (offer a positive future)