“Mommy, I’m scared. Please don’t make me go!”
All over the world, moms, dads, nannies and other caregivers hear the same refrain, morning after morning. Kids who don’t want to go to school. Kids who are afraid to go to school.
My Facebook feed has been peppered these past few weeks with the questions and laments of parents whose children are objecting, for one reason or another, to school. In most cases, there’s nothing more going on than normal kids adjusting to the routine of long days of schoolwork after a carefree, self-directed summer. But for some kids, it’s a little (or a lot) more complex. And as both a teacher and the parent of a child with severe anxiety, I feel for those kids and their parents. I feel for them so, so much.
And because it’s impossible to adequately answer the questions or give advice in the space of a Facebook comment, I offer some strategies here, in the hopes that my words might help another parent coping with an anxious child. Even if it’s only to let you know you’re not alone, and that you – and your child – can get through this.
There are many factors that can contribute to school anxiety, school avoidance and school refusal, and many strategies to reduce or (hopefully) eliminate it. But first, it helps to understand the mechanisms behind anxiety. Think of it like this: all of us have a sort of “anxiety alarm”…it’s necessary and it’s there to help us in case we face real danger. Hiking in the woods and you see a bear? BOOM. Alarm goes off, body systems prepare for the fight or flight response and you suddenly find the strength of ten to run the heck outta there. NOW. That’s what the “anxiety alarm” system is there for. It’s a good thing.
You and your child can get through this.
But when you suffer from anxiety, your alarm is frequently tripped by things that don’t pose a threat – it’s as if your body reacted in exactly the same way to seeing a chipmunk cross the trail as it would to a charging grizzly bear. A signal triggers your body to prepare for the fight or flight response, and because of this, your mind thinks, “there must be something to be afraid of because my blood just ran cold, my knees went weak and my heart is pounding.” Except in this case there isn’t. Often there’s no trigger whatsoever, and the anxious child might not even be able to answer the question, “but what are you afraid of?” They just know they’re scared and they don’t want to go.
So. Knowledge is power. For anxious kids it can be empowering to know that they don’t always have to believe their bodies when they send the “FEAR! FEAR! FEAR!” signal. For parents it is important to know that this isn’t your child’s fault. It is a physiological response that they can’t control. With treatment and much practice, they can learn to manage it, but it isn’t something they can just “turn off”. This is an important lesson for many parents to learn.
With this knowledge, you can help your child put their mind to work and rationalize those fears! When my daughter was younger, some of the professionals we worked with called this “bullying back” the anxiety. First you have to externalize the anxiety, sort of like this: “that mean old anxiety is making you miss school and Brownies, and that means you don’t get to see your friends and do fun stuff. That anxiety is just being a bully to you. Let’s bully back that anxiety and tell it to go away!” If you practice this externalizing, you might get some traction when the anxiety starts to build up in your child if you remind them that the mean bully is back and it’s time for you to stop it: “that mean anxiety doesn’t want you to go to school again, but you’re in charge so you can tell it to go away.”
Older children need to be treated a little differently, because they understand a lot more. So don’t condescend to them: call a spade a spade and explain how to rationalize their anxious thoughts. The first time I heard my daughter say, “I don’t have to believe everything I think” I knew she was on the path to managing her own anxiety.
“I don’t have to believe everything I think”
It’s also important to know that anxious children spend much of their waking life in a state of heightened arousal (fear). All of us have experienced a time when something scared us…you’re alone at home and it’s dark, you just watched a scary movie (why do you always do that?) and you hear a strange noise…suddenly your heart is racing, your hands are trembling and you break out in a cold sweat. Of course nothing’s really wrong, it was just the cat jumping off the couch, oh…here she is (purr, purr) but for a minute there, whew! You were really scared! Well imagine living like that all. the. time. That’s what kids with anxiety do. No wonder they seem so keyed up and ready to explode at the least provocation!
For this reason, it’s really important to teach them to relax. This can be really hard to do, so investing in a guided relaxation or visualization CD (or buy it on the iTunes store and download it to their iPod) is a great help. I found these two recordings to be useful. Indigo Teen Dreams (also available on iTunes) and Slow Wave Sleep. Practice these relaxation techniques every day, during non anxious times. Make sure your child learns how to “tummy breathe” (diaphragmatic breathing) and that they practice it lots. It’s amazing how effective just slowing and deepening your breathing can be in stopping anxiety in its tracks.
But the most important advice I can give is this: AVOIDANCE IS NOT A STRATEGY. It’s natural to want to avoid the things that scare us, and in some cases we can do so without adversely affecting our daily lives too much. Afraid of horses? Don’t go to the rodeo. Easy. Of course, you’ll never overcome your fear of horses this way, but is equinophobia going to impact your life in a material way? Probably not.
Avoidance is not a strategy.
On the other hand, if the thought of going to school (or dance class or soccer practice or swimming lessons…) paralyzes your child with fear, avoiding that setting forever could lead to some big, life-altering problems. And the more you avoid the thing that makes you afraid, the more frightening it becomes. That’s why parents of kids with school anxiety notice that Mondays and the first day back after holidays are so much harder.
But no matter how hard it is, don’t let avoiding school become a pattern. School avoidance or school refusal behaviours can become very entrenched very quickly. I know this from painful personal experience. And yes…in some cases it’s a lot easier than it sounds. Your child looks (and is) terrified to go to school. She sobs when you bring her to the door. He clings to your leg and won’t let go. Parents in the playground look askance at you, teachers tsk-tsk. And most of all, your mother-heart screams, “no! I can’t put my baby through this much fear and anguish!” But trust me when I say that it’s much, much easer to make a seven year-old do what you say than a thirteen year-old. So: if you possibly can: don’t let your anxious child stay home from school because they’re too scared to go.
But finally and most of all, remember that you’re not alone and that you and your child can overcome this. There is hope!
This post is not sponsored and represents only the author’s personal opinion. Kath’s daughter has successfully returned to full-time school attendance thanks to excellent treatment and very hard work.