What Should You do if Your Child is Distressed in Nursery School?

Starting your child at nursery school can be a stressful time for both children and adults. It’s normal to expect some anxiety and distress, and there are plenty of things you can do to help prepare your child for the change. Most children settle down quickly and accept nursery school as part of their lives. However, some children find the transition harder and may display signs of stress longer than you or their nursery carers would expect. Or they may have started nursery confidently and happily, and suddenly started becoming distressed later.

Here’s how to tell if your child is distressed and what steps you can take to help them.

Signs Your Toddler is Distressed

As with adults, signs of stress in toddlers can vary depending on the individual. However, small children can struggle to express how they are feeling, so it’s up to the parent or carer to take note of how behaviours have changed and what they may mean. These telltale signs could mean that your child is distressed:

  • Nightmares and fears at bedtime. An increase in bad dreams or waking in the night is a common response to stressful or traumatic situations.
  • Anger or aggression. Some children react to stress with physical aggression, which may be expressed through hitting, kicking or biting, to verbal aggression, such as screaming and shouting.
  • Bedwetting or self-wetting. Children who feel insecure and anxious may miss toileting cues. This could happen in the night or during the daytime when at nursery.
  • Becoming tearful and clingy. Tears and clinginess are to be expected when a child first starts nursery. However, if this continues for a long time your child may be finding the change very difficult.
  • Hyperactive behaviour. Some children express stress through hyperactive behaviour. This could be displayed as tantrums, running away or being disobedient. This shouldn’t merely be dismissed as bad behaviour as the child is trying to communicate that there is a problem.
  • Eating disorders. A sudden change in eating habits, whether eating less or more, is another sign of stress.

Why is my Child Distressed?

Because small children don’t have the emotional maturity to be able to tell you why they are worried or anxious, it can be hard to figure out what the root cause of the problem is. If your child doesn’t settle down at nursery after a while, it’s worth considering whether they are struggling with the following issues:

  • Separation anxiety. As young toddlers become aware that their primary caregivers are their main protection against threat, they develop a natural instinct to stay close to them. Going to nursery naturally makes separation anxiety worse for most children. It should usually recede quickly as the child becomes familiar with the nursery setting and carers, but some children struggle with it for longer than expected.
  • Potty training. Learning to use a potty can be a stressor for children, especially if the child doesn’t feel ready. Even if they are doing well with potty training at home, adjusting to it in a nursery setting may feel difficult and make them feel anxious or insecure.
  • Changes at home. Family changes such as bereavement, divorce, a change or routine due to a parent’s new job, or moving house can be unsettling for small children. Even a positive change, such as the birth of a new sibling or a bigger bedroom, can be stressful simply because it requires adjustment.
  • World events. It may seem unlikely that large international events would disturb the small world of a child, but exposure to the evening news or fears discussed by parents can influence children. Events such as the coronavirus pandemic which make noticeable changes to a child’s routine may also be confusing and distressing.

How Can I Help My Distressed Child?

If your child is displaying signs of distress whilst at nursery, there are plenty of actions you can take to help them relax and start feeling secure.

  • Don’t dismiss your child’s emotions. Though nursery drop-off time may not be the ideal moment to comfort a distressed child, it’s important that you allow your child to express themselves. Don’t ignore the fact that they are upset and rush off as this may only increase their negative feelings around going to nursery.
  • Stay calm, kind and firm. Remaining calm in the face of your child’s distress is very important. Acknowledge their feelings and convey that you understand that they are upset, but nothing bad will happen if you are apart for a short time. Speak kindly to them and demonstrate love and understanding through tone of voice and body language, but be firm that they have to go to nursery. Getting upset yourself or giving into your child’s fears will make things worse in the long run.
  • Stick to routines. Having a routine helps your toddler feel in control over what to expect and foster a feeling of calm in your household. Having consistent bedtime and nap time routines are particularly important as being overtired adds to a child’s feeling of stress. If your child is already distressed at nursery, postpone big changes, such as potty training, until they are feeling more comfortable.
  • Plan ahead to help your child adjust to changes. Preparing your child for changes will help them process and begin to adjust before an event has happened. Springing surprises on them will remove their sense of security and control and could make activities such as going to nursery difficult. For example, if you are moving house, talk to your child about it well in advance, explaining all the positive points and acknowledging where it may be difficult.
  • Monitor TV time. It’s increasingly easy for children to watch television programmes that could be distressing. Ensure that your children are only watching content that is suitable for their age group. Be careful if they are watching programmes with older siblings as they may unintentionally see things that upset them.

If your child has a hard time adjusting to nursery or starts acting differently, it could be a sign of distress or unease. By being empathetic and patient, and talking with your child, you’ll be able to get to the bottom of the problem. Support your child by sticking to routines, being kind but firm and ensuring they are not being accidentally exposed to anything that makes them anxious. With a bit of extra reassurance and love, they will soon relax and start enjoying nursery.

What Should You do if Your Child is Distressed in Nursery School?