Having a child who refuses to go to school means you find yourself in a very difficult situation.
You need support around you to help you support your child and this is where friends can be a great help.
Yet, dealing with an emotional child who suffers from school refusal means you often find yourself drifting away from your friends. They don’t understand what is going on, which is understandable. Unless you have a child who suffers from school refusal it can be hard to understand.
When I say my child suffers from school refusal I mean that it is a condition they suffer from. School refusal is the refusal to attend school because of emotional distress. It’s not that the child is being naughty, refusing to go to school or even playing truant. A child who suffers from school refusal is physically unable to force themselves to go to school, no matter how much they may want to go. Don’t laugh because it’s true. These children DO want to go to school, but their fears and anxieties are so severe that they cannot. Just the mere thought of going to school can bring such severe anxiety that the child panics and makes themselves physically sick. Truant children generally have no feelings of fear towards school, often feeling angry or bored with it instead.
When my children were younger, I assumed, just like you probably do, that if children didn’t go to school it was because the parents weren’t strict enough with them. Whenever my children used to say they didn’t want to go to school or that they felt unwell, I would send them to school with promises if they still felt unwell I would come and get them. I knew that most of the time, once they got to school they would forget about feeling unwell, once they were with their friends. I would judge other parents who didn’t send their children, thinking them bad parents.
It’s natural to think that, we’re taught to believe that a child should be in school and that’s it. I understand that you’ve even thought that about me when your child has told you that yet again my child wasn’t in school. I don’t blame you and in your shoes, I would probably have thought the same thing.
What I want you to know
This is why I am writing this post. I want you to understand why my child has missed so much school. Why I don’t punish my child when they don’t go to school. I used to, especially when they were younger. I always wanted to make being home on a school day more boring than being at school. If they were too ill for school, they were too ill for technology and they had to lie in bed all day!
I can understand you thinking “I’d make them go” and believe me, if my child didn’t suffer from school refusal then I would make them go to school. I worry about their future, their education, their exams and their future employment. Just like you do. But for my child, their mental health is more important than their grades or their education!
My child just can’t go to school. I don’t understand it fully myself. Yet I see my child sobbing in fear, begging me not to make them go. Screaming and crying. Making themselves physically sick. Hiding under their blankets, ignoring me, almost catatonic. I’ve seen them react in fear, react in anger, hurting themselves or damaging walls. I’ve sat there for hours, talking to them, trying to calm them down and ease their fears. “What are you so afraid of?” I ask, my own heartbreaking as they sob. But they cannot answer. They don’t know why they feel so scared or anxious. Anxiety is hard enough for adults to understand, let alone a teenager who is struggling with puberty, or an even younger child who doesn’t have the understanding.
What about friends? You may ask. My child doesn’t have any. Hasn’t for years. They suffer from social anxiety, they don’t know how to react around children their own age. They don’t know how to make friends, how to become part of the gang, or even how to keep friends. Their social anxiety makes them say the wrong thing, even just the fear that they might say the wrong thing is enough.
I watched my child once in a group setting. A group of peers were stood in a group laughing and joking and my child wanted to join in. They didn’t know how and slowly circled the group, trying to join in the conversation, trying to be acknowledged. The more my child tried to join in, the sillier and more annoying their behaviour became. The more annoying their behaviour became, the more the group shut them out. In the end, disheartened and upset, my child came to me and asked to go home and never again attended that club. I don’t blame the children, they didn’t understand why my child was behaving the way they were.
To them, my child was just being their usual annoying self and they themselves were only 11. To my child, it was rejection. The horrible voice in their mind, the dementor on their shoulder whispering lies. “Nobody like you. You’re useless. You can’t even make friends. Look at them laughing at you. They hate you. They think you’re so ugly and annoying. You might as well go home because you’ll never have any friends!” My heart breaks as I see all this!
When my child does make a friend, which they did last year. That friend then becomes an obsession. They have to be with that friend constantly, in the same class, have the same interests, hang out with them constantly. School attendance might even improve, they might even start going out and hanging out.
But that’s a lot of pressure to put on another teenager. The knowledge that they are their friends’ strength is draining, having to be with this friend constantly and never be able to get away from them and having to deal with their silly behaviour. It’s stressful for the child and of course, it means that the friendship will eventually fall apart. The friend might say something, in frustration, which my child takes the wrong way.
My child might do something which is taken the wrong way and because of their poor social skills, they might not even understand they have done anything wrong. It might even be something as simple as they have drifted apart in the time that they haven’t seen each other during my child’s school refusal, especially if they live in different towns. But to my child, losing that friend is the end of the world!
You may think that I’m being too soft on them. That I should force my child to go to school. That I should shout at them, drag them out of bed. Believe me, I’ve tried all that and doesn’t work. We just end up in a double meltdown, my child and myself, sobbing and broken.
Parents are often blamed. We’re easy scapegoats. It’s easier to blame parents than a system that is overworked, underfunded and doesn’t work.
Professionals, teachers, friends, family, all well-meaning say the same thing. Punish them if they don’t go to school! Why should they be allowed to sit there on their Xbox or computer when they’re not at school. I’ve even tried that! My child would rather hide in their bed, with nothing to do, than go to school! That is how bad their fear and anxiety is.
Let me ask you a question. If you were off work for your mental health, would it help you if the doctor told you that you couldn’t have your phone, laptop, TV, Internet etc? Would it help you feel better or would it make you feel worse? You may say it’s different because you’re an adult, but why is that? They need distractions to help them push their fears away. Using their Xbox as a distraction is better than using other more extreme ways to deal with their anxieties.
I don’t want to see my child self-abusing because they can find no other outlet for their fears. Nor do I want to get into a battle that I cannot win. Most importantly, I want my child to trust me and be able to open up to me. How can I help them, if they don’t trust me and can’t talk to me? How can they open up to me if all they feel I do is punish them for something they cannot control?
What else have you tried?
I’ve tried everything I can think of. I have seen teachers, educational psychologists, psychologists, counsellors, CAMHS, GPs the lot. The problem is that CAMHS have long waiting lists, they are underfunded and overstretched. Even when you do get to see them, the help might not be what you need. There is no magic wand to make it all go away. No magic wand to magically cure your child. All you can do is offer support.
I’ve become an expert at documenting everything, researching avenues and conditions, trying new ways of helping my child. I’ve helped friends who I see are starting the same journey and don’t know how to navigate the stormy seas of their child’s anxiety. The most shocking part of that is how many parents are struggling yet childhood mental health is only just starting to be acknowledged. Even then, school refusal is not widely accepted as a problem with childhood anxiety. The child is just seen as naughty and the parents as the one at fault for not forcing them to go.
Don’t you get into trouble?
Yes. I can get into trouble because my child doesn’t go to school. I could be fined, prosecuted and I could even face prison. Worst case scenario I have heard of other parents in the similar situation being threatened with social services and having their children removed from their care as their seen as neglecting their child by not forcing them to go to school.
I am my child’s advocate and I do everything I can do to help them. Yet people need to realise that their mental health is just as important as their physical and emotional welfare! Why do we expect children to do something that adults don’t have to do? If an adult doesn’t like their job, they change it. If an adult is struggling with their mental health they’re given medication and time off work to recover. Yet children are still expected to go to school, no matter how poor their mental health is! Why are they not as important as adults?
How can we help?
It can be emotionally and physically draining dealing with an anxious child. It’s harder to leave the house than you might think. You might think I can leave a teenager home alone all day, but I cannot. My child doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be left alone. I even have to make sure that all my medications are locked away so that they have to ask if they want anything.
It’s also isolating and I find myself drifting away from friendships and isolating myself further. It’s easier to be by myself with my child than deal with the constant questions and advice about getting my child to school. I know you are only trying to help and I love you for it but sometimes I need a break from thinking about it. Listen to me if I want to discuss it, but don’t make it all we talk about.
Come to my house to see how I am, even if it’s only for a quick cuppa! I’d love to see you and catch-up with you and your family but sadly I can’t meet up with you like I used to do. I can’t leave my house for very long in case my child needs me and I certainly can’t hold down a job, yet I often feel judged for not working. Especially now all my children are in school full time.
Think about the behaviour you have witnessed from my child, can you help me unpick it? I need to understand the triggers to help me help my child. I know it’s not just a tantrum and I need you to understand that as well. They may be behaving like a threenager, but just like a threenager it is their frustration and lack of control that is forcing their behaviour.
Understand that my child can’t manage school. Attending other activities is still important, so please invite us out to join you. We will try to join you but understand if we don’t that we wanted to and don’t stop inviting us. Even just being invited can make a huge difference and help us stop feeling so isolated.
Please remember that my child, despite their age and size, is still just a child. A frightened child who doesn’t know what to do and is scared by all these scary emotions that they don’t understand swirling around their head.
I know its hard but please avoid making judgements. I know so many people already are. Consider how you would feel if I were you. You might think of something which I haven’t yet. You have a wider view than I do as I’m too close to it.
Yes, school is important but it isn’t everything. There is more to education than school and you might have ideas that might help.
To help my child I have had to give up my hopes and dreams and even the chance to go back to work. I do this out of love for my child and I know that one day things will get better. Something I remind myself of every single day. I have to, it’s the only thing that helps me get through the day. And when my child gives me a hug and tells me “I love you mum. Thank you for supporting me and never giving up on me no matter what!” it means everything to me and makes all my sacrifices worthwhile!
As a family we are struggling to deal with a ship that’s gone off course and now needs to find it’s own way. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to lose contact with our friends and family.
Just as our child needs support, so do we as a family. Even if it’s just inviting one of our other children round to your house for a little bit. It’s hard for my younger children having to deal with their older sibling and it can be hard to find the time to give them the time and the support that they need to have. It can be isolating for them as well as they may be too embarrassed to have their friends over to play because of their siblings’ behaviour or they may not want to leave the house as they don’t want to leave us.
Dealing with a child with mental health issues is hard. But what makes it harder is that it isn’t a recognised condition. If I told you that my child had a different condition, something you’d heard of, you might be able to understand or at least sympathise. Yet it’s the same with a child who has a mental health issue. We still need that support and understanding and the knowledge that we’re not being judged as poor parents!