The tears would often start in the late afternoon or early morning.
Often, they were accompanied by complaints of a headache, chest pains or tummy trouble. Almost always, the routine would end with a plaintive plea: Can I not go to school?
After the novelty of starting Primary 1 wore off earlier last month, my daughter began struggling with the reality of formal schooling.
Her resistance caught my husband and me off guard.
Our older son, who is less sociable and more inclined to space out, had adapted to school with relative ease when he hopped onto the academic ladder three years ago. So we were expecting an even more painless transition for our daughter.
She had never had problems adjusting to a new environment and got on well with her friends and teachers in kindergarten.
Besides, a few of her close friends are in the same school, so we assumed the familiar faces would help dispel any fears. But she started exhibiting classic symptoms of school anxiety after the first week.
Most of the causes were easy to identify. For starters, she missed her kindergarten friends dearly and the longer school hours were taking a toll on her. She dragged herself up with great difficulty each morning despite going to bed earlier and, by the afternoon, was often listless and cranky.
A girl sitting near her in class wasn’t making things easy for her either. The form teacher made some changes to the seating arrangement midway through the first week, and my daughter came back from school one day more glum than usual.
When I finally managed to coax the details from her, the dam broke.
The girl liked to flop herself onto my daughter’s desk, often while she was in the middle of writing or reading something. Once, when my daughter protested, she mimicked her and called her names.
We discussed things that she could do and say to discourage the classmate’s unsettling behaviour, including alerting the teachers.
“I don’t think she’s being mean on purpose. She’s probably adjusting to the new school routine just like you,” I said, careful not to overreact even as unease crept in.
But things did not improve.
The following week, my daughter reported that her neighbour was helping herself to her stationery because “she said she’s too lazy to take her pencil case out”.
“How did you react?”
“I told her today was the last time I would lend her my pencil and eraser.”
I was glad that my six-year-old was standing up to the girl. “Good. Be polite but firm with her if she’s taking your things without asking.”
The raiding stopped, but the classmate continued to be a source of distraction and frustration.
After two weeks, I asked if she wanted me to speak to her form teacher. I had put this option on hold as I wanted to give both kids time to settle down and see if things would sort themselves out.
As much as it bothered me to see my daughter unhappy, I was wary of acting like the much-derided helicopter or snowplough parent, swooping in right away to bail her out or clear the way for her whenever she faced a hurdle.
She was torn. The classmate’s behaviour bugged her, but she didn’t want to get her into trouble.
“And I don’t want my teacher to think I’m telling tales.”
So despite the urge to smooth things over for her pronto, I did what sensible parents are supposed to do: I told her I would always be there to offer help and support, but left the decision to her.
“I think you are handling it well so far, but let me know if you want me to speak to your teacher.”
For solace, I clung to the slice of advice that has gained traction in this age of hyper-parenting: We do more harm than good when we throw our kids a constant lifeline. Giving them the room to tackle their own problems and make mistakes helps them gain self-esteem and invaluable life lessons.
My daughter’s greatest source of stress, however, came as a surprise to me. One night, she broke down and told me how miserable she was during recess, the favourite period of every child.
She often lost her new-found friends after buying food in the crowded canteen and could not find a familiar face to eat with.
Then there were some classmates who brushed her off when she asked to sit or play with them.
“Sometimes when we return to our class, I would be trying hard not to cry because I feel so sad and lonely,” she said in between sobs.
My heart broke for this usually cheerful child of mine, who had no lack of friends in kindergarten.
After hearing about this, a friend whose daughter is in a different class suggested getting our girls to meet at the same spot regularly, so they could have each other for company during recess.
I was grateful for her kind offer, but decided this was something my daughter had to learn to navigate on her own.
If I made friends on her behalf now, would she be confident of forming and handling relationships on her own next time? Besides, it was only the second week then, and I figured this was a problem that would right itself with time.
Such piercing insights, however, were useless to her then. So again, we discussed various options: pack food from home so she didn’t have to waste time queueing; stick to the “nice” friends even if those around them were not as welcoming; take a book along to read or go to the library after she was done eating instead of wallowing in self-pity.
She pooh-poohed most of my suggestions, came up with a few of her own and finally settled on one or two that merged some of our ideas.
Now, more than a month after school started, my daughter is nearly back to her old self.
Mornings are still challenging, but she is usually chirpy when I pick her up after school and fills me in on the highlights of her day without much prompting. The only time she asked to stay home recently was when she found out that her brother, who was down with a fever, would be missing school.
That particular classmate is still a thorn in her side, but my daughter seems better able to tune out her antics these days. While she used to give me a regular news feed on what the girl did or said to her, she now talks about her only when I ask.
Best of all, she has found a few regular recess buddies and the fledgling friendships have helped put the spring back in her step.
The past six weeks have been enlightening for both of us.
Even as I realised how much she thrives on social interactions, my daughter is getting used to the fact that not everyone will like her, and dealing with difficult people is par for the course. She is growing a thicker skin, while I am reining in my mother-hen instincts to shield her from every hurt and rejection.
Together, we are coming to terms with the fact that I can be her guide but not her saviour.
Tee Hun Ching, a former editor and copy editor with The Straits Times, is now a freelance journalist.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times in 2017.