School is out for the year and children everywhere have taken a collective sigh of relief. Admittedly, even teachers and principals. But like winter in Canada, school is just around the corner; possibly the most wonderful time of year for parents and the most dreaded for students. However, for some students, getting up and going to school may be harder than most.
Parents, have you tried waking up your child in the morning only to be greeted by the words, “I’m not going to school today”? Join the club! As parents, we know kids refusing to go to school is par for the course. We expect it. After all, we probably did it ourselves. So it’s normal, right? Well, what if all of a sudden, that sober statement turns into a deep guttural, heart-wrenching cry that reverberates throughout the whole house as your child yells and screams that s/he does not want to go to school! This is no longer an act of defiance. This is something far greater.
As you try to pacify your child, nothing seems to work. No amount of promises, sweet talk, nor even taking a firm stance dissuades them from their position. Scared and concerned, you retreat from your child’s room wondering: Where did my happy-go-lucky child disappear to? Did something happen at school? Is my child being bullied? Your mind races with scenarios to explain this other-worldly presence that is now inhabiting your child’s bedroom.
What I have just described is a child experiencing anxiety. Yes, you heard me - anxiety. Kids experience anxiety, and data confirm that anxiety is on the rise in children and adolescents.
Anxiety occurs when our amygdala, the part of the brain that’s responsible for the flight or fight response, becomes hijacked by our brain’s effort to protect us. This served us a well when we were being chased by wild animals, but now, the triggers often tend to be psychological in nature, such as feelings of uncertainty, embarrassment, or separation. With neurochemicals surging through the body, the mind and body are primed to tackle the threat - muscles are taut and the body is on fire ready to fight or flee. Thus, the anxious screaming child who does not want to go to school will resist at all costs.
Some of you may be reading this and feel relief that you can now identify what you have personally witnessed. Again, recognize that this is anxiety and not simply “bad behaviour”. People suffering from anxiety participate in avoidance strategies that ironically fuel their anxiety even more. The child who does not want to go to school and is given permission to stay home will become more vehement about not returning to school the next day because the fear of humiliation or embarrassment has grown to a new level. On the other hand, forcing your child to go to school may also cause problems. But what do you do?
1. It is important that you as a parent become well versed in anxiety. There are many books that have been written on anxiety and its impact on children. As you educate yourself, you will need to educate your child. Your child needs to understand what is happening at a level that matches their cognitive development.
2. One technique is to distance the anxiety from the child. The anxiety is NOT your child. Often, counsellors will name the anxiety, “Your anxiety brain,” or “Mr. Bossy Pants,” or “Mrs. Fuddle Duddle.” Whatever works and connects with your child. Let him/her choose the name.
3. Your child will need to learn to challenge his/her “anxiety brain” with questions like “How do you know that by going to school something bad will happen?” or a direct confrontation like, “Show me the facts!” Sometimes a flat out denial of anxiety’s authority is necessary: “The last ‘x’ amount of years of going to school nothing terribly bad has happened, so I don’t believe you!”
4. Your child will need to establish and manage a new relationship with worry. The worry in itself isn’t bad; however, when it takes over all cognitive processes, then we need to do something about it. Your child will need to determine when it’s time to let worry in or not, how often worry comes around, and how long it will stay while visiting.
5. Parents, this one is specifically for you. Get your school involved! That’s right! Your child’s teachers and the administration team (principal/vice-principal) should know that your child is battling anxiety. Your school should be there to support you. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. I can you tell you from personal experience that my son has moments where he needs to remove himself from class. He walks out of class and right down the hallway into the office where a special journal is laid aside for him to write down his worrisome thoughts. All his teachers are in on it and no one bats an eye when he walks into the office. It’s the epitome of support and it allows my son to make it through those school days when the going gets tough.
Witnessing anxiety in your child can be a frightening experience. Anxiety doesn’t have to be a debilitating condition. It is a good idea to have your child talk to a therapist to help them manage their “worry brain”. With summer out, now is a good time to talk. Give your child the confidence and the tools they need to face the new school year head on!