Q: I have a problem that even my physician doesn't know how to handle.

I am a working mother. (I have no choice in the matter.) My daughter, who will be 5 in October, was in the care of a large, loving family from age 5 months until this summer.

Although we tried to hide it from her, my husband and I have had severe financial reverses. The future looks excellent now, but we have had to cut back on our day care.After explaining it to her, we put her in the preschool two-three days a week, 8-6:30.

It's been a bad situation. The first day she cried and said she missed her mommy. The woman who owns the school has tried to help.

Our latest problem came when they installed a pool. Sharon is deathly afraid of water in her face. She said the teachers laughed at her because she didn't want to put her face in the water and wet her hair.

Sharon had never given her teachers trouble until this summer. Now she questions us every night to find out if she is going to school the next day. Her father says she sobs on the way to school. The teachers say she cries every morning, but they tell her to stop and she does, and then has a good time.

I found that they have several age groups together for the summer, unlike the rest of the year.

Our friends are surprised that she would have this trouble. They all feel she is bright and mature for her age.

We had planned to send her to the 9-3 public kindergarten in September and have her stay with her old sitter after school. The assistant principal says she is mature enough, even though she is 12 days too young. Sharon wants to go; her two best friends in the neighborhood go there.

Now we are in a quandry. Is she having trouble because of the big change from a family baby-sitting situation to an 11-hour preschool? Or is she too young to start kindergarten?

We always thought we had a normal child with very few problems.

A: Whenever a child changes abruptly and is patently unhappy in a particular situation, the problem is usually with the situation, not the child.

Children are much more perceptive than we give them credit for. Their concerns may be apparent or disguised; they may be based on reality or misconceptions, but they are real and they should be accepted as facts--not failings--just as we accept the quirks of our grown-up friends.

Your little girl sounds as if she has a good, if secret, reason to be troubled this summer.

Her fears may come from a scary experience which she connects with school and may not have the courage to discuss. But more likely, the problem is with the summer arrangements, both at the preschool and at home.

The irregularity of her new schedule is sure to stress her and so is the 11-hour day. That's a long time for her to be on her manners.

Day-care centers, like most businesses and most families, change in the summer. While a child usually enjoys the relaxed, make-do air at home, the vacation schedules and inevitable staff changes in a center can be upsetting.

Your child not only has left her beloved family of sitters but her day-care center has, in a sense, left her with its new and unfamiliar pattern. Putting several ages together can be stressful, even when it's done by experienced teachers. And when a teacher laughs at a child's fears--or treats them so lightly the child thinks she is being laughed at--the teacher is not very skilled.

Your little girl has been given much respect for 5 years; she doesn't know what to make of this different treatment. Some children, more used to changing environments, might be able to handle this new situation better.

A center that is good for one child may not be good for another, and a poor teacher or a different class plan--like the combined age groups this summer--can disturb some children more than others. If you decide to keep her in the same preschool this fall, you would want to take a whole day from work and observe, mouse-quiet, to see what is askew.

Your original plan for kindergarten seems much better.

Generally it's a bad idea to put a child in school before her time, but 12 days isn't a big deal, especially for a child who is smart and has been so well-adjusted to her environment.

Although a 9-3 program is still long for a 5-year-old, it would be relieved by a daily stay at her second home, which should make up for that stress. It would be hard to find a more sensible solution.

Let her go to the new school where she expects changes; she'll feel much safer about them. And you'll feel safer too. Parents who listen to their hearts usually hear the best advice.

Questions may be sent to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post.