School Anxiety & Avoidance

This come up pretty much weekly in my clinical work. I’ve phrased the heading very specifically. In many cases you’ll see it referenced as “School Refusal”. I’ve a difficulty with that description being used as it gives the impression that the young person is being “bold” or “oppositional” by refusing to attend school. Certainly for the majority of young people that I meet with they do want to go to school but are terrified at the prospect of it, they’re anxious not bold.

One of the biggest initial challenges for parents whose young person experiences significant school anxiety and avoidance is Why ? In some situations it could be relatively clear, a reported incident of bullying, relationship difficulties with a teacher, a recognised learning difficulty etc. But in many cases there is no obvious trigger for the young person’s significant increase in anxiety and their avoidance of going to school. I’ve spoke about do we always need to know the why here

The other piece to reassure both parent’s and young people about from the outset is that being so anxious that you feel unable to go to school is not rare or unique, lots of young people and in parallel their families can struggle with it.

The trigger for what no undoubtedly feels like overwhelming anxiety in this situation is the prospect of going to school. Despite what the trigger is, school, the experience of anxiety is not different to any other type of trigger that activates our emotion of anxiety and instinct to try and avoid it. What I find interesting is that if you asked most young people would they be as anxious going to school if there was only teachers there and no other pupils, the majority would say no. Why is that? It’s because for most it’s not school itself that causes the anxiety, but who’s in the school, the young person’s peers. What they want to try and avoid is any possible risk of being judged by their peers, assuming that any judgement that occurs will automatically be a negative one.

To learn more about what anxiety in general is and how we experience it have a look at this blog

It’s important to consider some (but not an exhaustive list) of the reasons why some young people might struggle with going to school and why it might make them particularly anxious

Transitions

One of the first times that a child is likely to get an increase in anxiety is when the transition into school in the first place. This could be from home to pre-school or pre-school to Primary school. The first day of primary school can be an anxiety provoking one for both parents and kids alike. For parents it can feel like a really big step, their first baby now in a school uniform, entering formal education and getting all grown up.

Will they be ok without me? Will they make friends? Will they have a nice teacher?

For kids, the worries are not too dissimilar

What will my teacher be like? Who will I be sitting beside? Will I get homework?

All understandable thoughts and maybe might even reach worry status. The for some the change to a big school, so many people, rules, having to sit in one spot, not being able to play whenever you want to and other changes from a pre-school environment can cause additional worries, but by far the most common thought that escalates to worry levels….

My tummy feels sick I don’t want you to leave me

What if Mum / Dad are late or forget to collect me

If our child gets very upset when we try to separate from them it can really pull on your heart strings. You know in your heart that they will be ok and at the same time it kills you to see them so upset and you can feel like you’re abandoning them in a time of distress. Parental guilt is one of the hardest emotions to try and cope with, you know it’s not rational but it doesn’t make the experience of it any easier. For most kids a an understanding and supportive junior infants teacher who will have been down this road hundreds of times will step in and support the transition from parent to classroom. I remember with my own kids dropping them off to creche and they clinging onto me like a limpet their eyes pleading with me not to leave them, it was horrendously hard, but it had to be done. I would usually get a call from the creche staff 3-4 mins after I left telling me that they were happy out and eating breakfast and chatting to their peers.

Whether this occurs at pre-school / creche / junior infant stage it is an important developmental lesson for both kids and parents.

Yes you might (both) get upset, it will feel unpleasant, but it will go away and it will be ok

For some kids reaching the stage where the separation causes no anxiety at all can take longer than others, but they all reach it eventually.

Uncertainty and unpredictability are two of the greatest contributors to anxiety, and the solution?

Routine

You might struggle to manage one or two kids at home with their behaviour or emotions and then you look at a Junior Infants teacher who can manage up to 30 of them, how do they do it?? Structure and routine. They have the same seat, they have visual prompts for the rules, they do things at the same time, routine and repetition. But how do routine and repetition help with anxiety? If the same things happen every day then things are less unpredictable and less scary and anxiety provoking.

But….

We all know that something unpredictable can happen that throws our schedule off, bad traffic (not that unpredictable unfortunately in most big towns / cities these days) we get held up by something unexpected in work. What works best with kids is to be really clear and factual about what would happen if Mum / Dad were happened to be late one day for pick up, it won’t happen very often but if it does:

  • Mum / Dad will ring our next door neighbour who’s collecting their kids and they will bring you home
  • Will ring Nan / Uncle / Aunty etc who will collect you
  • Will ring teacher to let them know that you will be there but will be a few minutes late

More Transitions

In my experience this is one of the potentially most difficult transitions for a young person. You’ve come from an environment where you’re:

  • Biggest and oldest in the school
  • Where most kids are relatively accepting of difference
  • Have had one teacher and one class
  • Know your environment inside out and backwards, you’ve been there every school day for the last 7 years
  • To….
  • 11 different subjects with 11 different teachers
  • A school that’s probably 2-3 times physically bigger than your primary school
  • You’ve gone from being the oldest and biggest to suddenly being the youngest and smallest
  • You might have to manage lockers, more books, timetables, it’s a lot to take it, it’s unfamiliar, bigger.
  • Your body is starting to change in ways that are typical and expected but still feels weird, suddenly there are hormones floating around, your mood doesn’t feel as predictable
  • People are suddenly deciding if they like you or even accept you based on what you look like, how tall or short you are, what body shape you have, whether you have spots or not and other physical factors that are beyond our control.

Academic Pressures

Some young people I’ve met over the years have found learning to be more difficult than they would have hoped. They can sometimes get by in primary school but sometimes the jump in expectations in secondary school can be too much. Faced with increasing stress and pressure many young people can become so anxious about the academic demands that they start to avoid school.

That pressure can also come at the other end of the spectrum for those who could be described as high achievers. Many of the young people I meet set extra ordinary high standards for themselves. Some believe that the only good or positive thing about them is their academic ability. If they don’t consistently reach the high standards they set for themselves they can believe that they’re not good enough at anything and therefore there’s no point in trying because not going / getting 0% in a test from not trying is better than trying and not getting 100%.

Social Anxiety

For the overwhelming majority of young people I meet who are referred with reported School Refusal, when we look into it a little it becomes pretty clear that what they are actually experiencing is Social Anxiety .

One of the biggest challenges of secondary school and becoming a teenager has always been trying to fit in and to be accepted by our peers. For young people low in confidence or who view themselves through an overly critical lens this is feels like one of the greatest challenges they have ever faced. Trying to figure out how to be liked or how Popular you need to be is an impossible task. Does everyone need to like me before I’ve succeeded socially? Can I get in with the academic types and the sporty types at the same time and be good enough for both / all the time? How many friends is good enough? What if they laugh at me / think I’m boring / weird? It get’s even harder when a teenager does get to make friends because then the anxiety kicks in “are they talking behind my back?” “they don’t really like me they just pity me” and the worst fear of all “what if they leave me and I’ve no friends and everyone thinks I’m a loser and loner for having no friends?”

I’ve posed this question to teenagers many time over the years:

“Would you fear going to school as much if your peers weren’t there and it was just the teachers?”

The answer is almost invariably no. Why?

Because they don’t need to be accepted by the teachers, it’s their peers approval and acceptance that they crave and fear in equal measure.

Covid19

In the current climate it would be wrong not to mention the impact of Covid19 and how it has raised everyone’s anxiety levels. On top of the normal pressures of academia and the prospect of social judgement young people now have a global pandemic to be fearful of. Anxiety breeds on uncertainty and we have had one of the most uncertain times of many generations and we’re still living it.

Will school be open?

Will I get Covid and get sick?

Will I give Covid to my family and make them sick and die, will it be my fault?

Will my leaving / junior cert happen this year?

Will it be predicted grades and does my teacher like me or see the work I’ve done?

Could you really say if a young person refuses to go to school in the middle of a global pandemic that they are being “bold” or are just scared and that fear is understandable and justified?

Avoidance

Children and teens have a need developmentally for instant gratification, and this is especially the case when it comes to anxiety. When they feel it they want it to go away as quick as possible. If they get the opportunity to take the chance to avoid what’s making them anxious they will take it, it makes them feel better quickly so in theory it makes sense.

The main strategy for school avoidance is “I don’t feel well / my tummy aches / I feel sick”. This usually kicks off on a Sunday night / Monday morning (coincidence). They will rarely feel this way at the weekends. From a parents perspective we would normally instinctively think they’re grand / trying to pull a fast one/ there’s nothing wrong with them (Although in a world of Covid19 that’s a huge anxiety for a parent to make the right call). BUT there is something wrong with them. They do have a dodgy tummy, but not because of illness, but because they feel very anxious and don’t know how to / don’t want to say that.

Young people believe if they can just stay at home from school just this once then it will be ok. In theory yes, they feel a relief from not going in and having to face all the catastrophic events their anxiety has predicted would happen.

But, the feeling of relief from anxiety they experience and the belief that they’ve avoided the catastrophic event feels a little too good. So when the prospect of going back to school comes back up again invariably their anxiety will shoot up again and what do they do? The remember what gave them instant (but short term) relief the last time, avoid going it. Their parent pushes because they know they’re not really physically sick, the young person get’s more and more distressed and the parent thinks “I can’t send them in this upset it could traumatise them and what kind of parent would I be if I was seen dragging them in the school gate when they’re so distressed” At this point then the parents are also in the grasp of anxiety, both their young person’s anxiety and now their own anxiety about what’s the right thing to do?

The young person believes they’re now safe from social judgement by not being in school.

But…..

Their peer then notice they’ve been out of school for a while

The questions start….

What’s up with X, why are they out so long / so often, what’s going on with them

The avoidance of school actually brings more focus and attention on the young person, something they are desperate to avoid.

In many cases over reliance on avoidance makes the thing we fear most more likely to happen, more attention on us.

Then if / when the young person does have to go back to school and even bigger fears arise…

What do I say when they all ask me where I’ve been?

What if I go back and they don’t even notice I’ve been out?

So What do we do?

Managing school based anxiety is similar to how we manage most other types of anxiety, we don’t judge the person we validate the feeling and help them to cope with it as best we can

For a webinar on how we support children and young people with anxiety click here to learn more

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