When I drop off my two-and-a-half-year old at school he suddenly complains of a belly ache and always cries when I leave. What can I do?
MOLLY: I have to confess that this is my own dilemma that I really need some help figuring out.
Every day when I drop my little guy off for preschool we get into the classroom and he says he has a belly ache. He then will cry when I turn to leave and won’t stop until after I’ve left.
I’ve investigated if he actually has a belly ache by changing his diet and watching for it to happen at other times, but it’s become obvious that he doesn’t have stomach pain and that this is just what he says when he starts to get upset that I’m leaving him somewhere. Lately he has been doing this behavior even when I’m just putting him down for the night and not going anywhere.
This behavior is really distressing for me and upsetting for both of us. No matter what I say, nothing seems to help.
DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: (Molly’s Mom): It sounds like he has a pattern of saying he has a belly ache whenever he separates from his mom.
MOLLY: Yes, that’s what seems to be happening.
DR. RUTHERFORD: Whenever we see a pattern of behavior going on in children, we want to step back and address the root of the problem rather than what’s at the surface. So, we’ll want to examine not the claim of a belly ache, but rather the issue that’s underlying the belly ache complaint.
It’s separating from you that’s really causing this distress and he’s learned that complaining of a belly ache will get him attention and may even stop you from leaving him. To help him adjust to the reality that sometimes he will spend time without you, you’ll want to make sure he understands deep down that you will always be back for him.
During the drive into school, you might want to tell him something along the lines of: “Oh, it looks like it’s going to be a great day at school! When I pick you up, I’ll want to hear all about the fun things you did today.”
Saying this will help calm him with a sense of security as well as the anticipation of being able to tell you all about it then.
MOLLY: I already say, “Mommy always comes back,” and repeat that mantra. I tell him, “I can’t wait to come back and get you after school,” too, but these words don’t seem to be working.
DR. RUTHERFORD: He’s very young and it may take repeating it over and over again for months for it to sink in for him.
MOLLY: And at bed time too?
DR. RUTHERFORD: The tummy ache is just an expression of the underlying separation anxiety. It’s the same issue at bed time: he’s looking for a way to derail your departure from his room by complaining that his stomach hurts. Consider planting a kiss on his belly and saying, “A kiss will make your tummy feel better.”
Then, you’ll want to say something like, “It’s time to go to sleep now and in the morning we’ll have breakfast together. See you in the morning!”
These steps will offer him security along with the anticipation of seeing you again.