Here one mum explains about the complexity of dealing with “anxious school refusing”.
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘anxious school refusing’?
For the parents of a child who falls in to this category, judgements that are frequently passed usually include;
“it’s down to ineffective parenting, they’re being indulgent, they need to be tougher, and they just need to make him go”
Don’t worry we’ve heard them all!
As for dealing with the child themselves, pearls of wisdom from well meaning friends and family include… “Have you tried a reward system?” Not the dreaded sticker chart I hear you cry! Some say “Force him to go, (how does that work?), tell him he has to, and punish him if he doesn’t (sanctions I think they mean). Tell him he won’t have a job or ever come to anything”.
I’m not sure how any of these suggestions can help, particularly the last one, this is a child who is scared of the future and doesn’t want to talk about it, who cries and says he doesn’t want to grow up. Who will accept no screen time, pocket money etc but this doesn’t fix the anxiety.
These judgements are not just passed by the school gate brigade, who could be forgiven for their ignorance in this matter, but disappointingly by the professionals in the field of education, special needs and in some cases health.
The reality of what we are facing is a boy who finds the thought of going to school a terrifying prospect. Who cannot sleep at night, cries and locks himself in the bathroom to avoid it. On a daily basis he develops an ever increasing list of physical symptoms from tummy ache and feeling sick, through to headaches and random pains in his body, saying he’s dizzy and faint and that he’s actually going to vomit.
Each day brings a different combination of the above which requires a response which must somehow combine nurture and compassion with an air of detachment so that it neither encourages nor scolds.
He concludes most days that he cannot go, that to do so would be too stressful and amongst his tears and distress he sadly remains resolute, on other occasions he will shout and scream, slamming doors and hurting. On these occasions his conclusion is he won’t go under any circumstance ever again. The very mention of the word ‘school’ on these days is the lighting of the touch paper, and leads to melt downs which result in family members running for cover (including the dog!).
He used to go to school at one time, but never happily. As a smaller boy he was taken from his bed, dressed and sometimes carried in to the car, at the other end he was extracted from the car with the help of teachers and sometimes other parents. Rightly or wrongly these methods got him there. Happily?…..No I don’t think so.
Now he is 10 years old and physically too big to be coerced out of bed in to clothes and in or out of cars. These options are not available and so we are left with talking, and encouraging which we have done endlessly. We have talked about his fears, about the realities, about pushing yourself in life to sometimes do things that are uncomfortable, but they are ok in the end.
But this is a child who did not have the start in life he deserved, whose early years were a backdrop of loss, trauma, neglect and frequent changes in carer, leaving him with no stability, consistency or sense of safety. We have had intervention after intervention from educational psychologists, post adoption social workers, specialist teachers, paediatricians, clinical psychologists, statutory assessment service and more. He now has a collection of diagnoses which we hoped would help him to get the help he need and for professionals to understand him better but these labels do not offer much comfort if educators are not prepared to act on the advice. All it provides is a list of acronyms.
As a practitioner myself, I know we need to work from a place of empathy and trust. As a parent I just want someone to listen without judgement. What does my son want?…to ‘feel safe’ he says.
Parents and schools need to work together to find a solution, rather than engaging in a blame game. In amongst the meetings, phone calls, assessments and medical appointments you do wonder if this is the only way?
Are there some children for whom school will never suit? Is the system at fault? Or is there a perfect school out there for every child? These are questions I ponder, but the alternative is home schooling, which seems such a monumental step to take, a leap of faith almost and the loneliness it could bring is a far cry from the scrutiny and surveillance we currently feel as a family. It would come without, PP+, EHCP’s and diagnostic labels possibly, but will they be needed? In an environment that can be adapted so perfectly to his needs, surrounded by people that know him better, than anyone else, where he feels safe, where it doesn’t matter about ASD, ADD or even OCD because he can be provided with TLC!
I don’t know what the future holds for him and I confess I am unsure as to which path is the best one to pursue, but I do know that society needs to reconsider the way in which families with an anxious school refuser are judged and dismissed. And how children with anxiety are treated so differently from adults whom, I assume, we would not advocate forcing them in to their car and dragging them out the other end if they are too anxious to go to work. Until such time, hey ho society will continue to conveniently apply the label ‘parents to blame’.