“I don’t want to go to school!” Anxiety and School Refusal

school refusal  My Personal Experience with School Refusal

I will always remember when my sensitive/anxious, five year old son had a very difficult morning.  It had been a tough week for him.  First, he had to go back to school after a long weekend and lots of home/family-time.  Second, he had to be in the school concert which took place yesterday.  Third, Daddy was away for a few days.  Fourth and final tipping point:  The day before, the kindergarten teacher had let the class know that she wouldn’t be teaching the next day, as she was going to be at a workshop, and therefore there would be a substitute teacher!

Our morning involved my son hiding in the  bathroom, wrapping himself in his duvet and clinging to his bed, locking himself in the car, and a lot of tears.  I empathized and I set limits but he was in the grips of anxiety and nothing was going to change his mind.  It ended up with me carrying him to the car and into school where we sat in the hallway to re-group.  I listened to him, I mirrored his comments back to him, and repeated that he would be okay and that he had to go to school.  Fortunately, his class was on the way to music class and so the substitute teacher (a very experienced, retired teacher) had the time to take his hand, as I gave him a kiss, told him I loved him, his sister would meet him at recess and lunch to give him a hug and check in on him and I would see him at 3pm, and then waved good-bye.

It is so difficult to watch your child experience such anxiety.  I knew my son would be fine.  I knew that every time he faces a situation like this and gets through it that he grows, but it still pulls at my heart strings.  He is learning that even though he feels scared and worried, that the feelings do go away and that he does survive.  I knew that when the time was right, he and I would chat about this particular morning and talk about the “worry dragons” that sometimes enter his mind and tell him untruths.  He had had this same substitute teacher before and he had had a good experience with her, but that morning the “worry dragons” were telling him that it was going to be awful, she would be awful and that she would do everything different from the routines of his regular teacher.  Thankfully, he did have a good day and we were able to prove the “worry dragons” wrong again!

Understanding the brain when it’s flooded with anxiety

Why can’t we hear reason when we are in a heightened state of anxiety?  Knowing the pathways of the brain helps me to breathe and stay calm in these kind of situations. It also helps me have compassion for my son in his state of anxiety.

The amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh) is our alarm center.  It controls and blocks information from going to the pre-frontal cortex, in order that it can be reactive – in a state of “fight, flight or freeze”.  This is very helpful if you are in a true emergency, such as being attacked, but unhelpful when you are experiencing anxiety in a safe situation.  Unfortunately, the amygdala can’t differentiate between emergencies  and non-emergencies and thus the walls go up and the pathways to the pre-frontal cortex are blocked.  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that uses reason, makes decisions, computes, and analyzes.  It then passes on any information worth remembering to the hippocampus which creates, stores and processes all important information.  Therefore if the amygdala is in alarm-mode, your child will not be able to hear reason.  He/she is not trying to defy you, his/her brain has temporarily shut down this portion of the brain.  Taking deep full breaths calms your amygdala and helps you think rationally and feel compassion for your child.  (Amazingly, this information about the brain is being taught in elementary schools where Mind-Up is being implemented.)

If your child doesn’t want to go to school, but you know it’s a positive and supportive environment, support, empathize, breathe deeply and do your best to get him/her there to break-through the grips of anxiety.  This is the hardest thing to do as a parent, but if we allow our children to stay home from school when they’re anxious, then we have confirmed that their “worry dragons” are true and it will get more and more difficult to get them back to school.

Intervention for Long-Term School Refusal

For some children, especially the ones who have been out of school for a significant amount of time, you may need a more intensive plan.  For example, you may:

  • Begin re-entry with a graduated entry (coming for a short period each day and gradually increasing the time).
  • You may need to stay at the school and sit in the hallway or volunteer in the library until his/her “alarm bells” have calmed down (which can take a period of days/weeks).
  • Then, you may be able to progress to having check-in times, thus allowing you to leave the school but come back at a pre-arranged time to say “hello” and then leave again.
  • While this “exposure/desensitization” process is happening, it is also important for your child to be building trusting relationships with adults in the school such as the classroom teacher, school counsellor, principal etc.

The goal is for your child to attend school, but it may take some time for your child to be able to do this completely independently.

For more information on anxiety and management strategies please see my previous post Helping Your Child Manage Anxiety.



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