WORDS BY: Michael Hawton, MAPS, Author of The Anxiety Coach
What we know about children’s anxiety is that it is mostly learned. In the past 25 years nothing has changed with children’s brains. If they are experiencing more anxiety, it is mostly a result of environmental factors contributing to the situation. As children grow older their anxiety can get better or worse depending on what’s happening around them. So, intervening early in a child’s anxiety is important.
A common symptom of a child’s anxiousness is avoidance – avoidance of normal challenges or emotional reactions which they haven’t yet worked out how to manage, just yet. School can be one of those activities that children avoid.
No parent wants to see their child getting anxious so it is not uncommon for parents to want to ‘save’ their child from that distress – and let them stay at home if they put up some resistance to going to school. In such situations a parent might give-in to a child’s distress. In the research on anxiety, this is called accommodation. It happens where one or another parent softens the child’s distress by allowing the child to avoid the problem of going to school.
In the short term both people get relief. The child gets to stay home and the parent giving in, removes the drama. The problem gets worse where a pattern gets established. It might start off as one or two days here or there. However, soon enough, it can turn into a pattern. But before you think this is all down to parents; it’s not. School teachers and school systems can also find themselves accommodating student anxiety by allowing the child to avoid otherwise challenging but normal activities like doing a class talk.
Allowing a child to stay at home, can creep up on parents and it can become an issue if a parent then attempts to change the pattern back to a more normal way of operating.
For example, parents who are trying to re-establish a routine of attending school can find that their attempts are met with violence from some older children or that their child calls them mean for wanting them to get back to school.
It can be very hard for a caring, loving parent to not be triggered into thinking they are being mean. As a consequence, some parents can feel compelled to jump-in to relieve their child’s distress. So, a vicious cycle ensues. It’s ‘a damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ moment.
One thing is for certain; a child’s anxiety is unlikely to get better by itself or that the child will simply grow out of it. That’s not what the research is saying. Most anxiety will tend to get worse unless it is attended to as early as possible.
Not all school refusal is at the extreme end of the spectrum, where children might be experiencing an anxiety disorder. Thankfully, that small group of children only represents about 7% of the child population.
During the pandemic a lot of parents, understandably, did not want to be too hard- and-fast with their children. And, so they tried to not put too much extra pressure on their children. But there’s a middle road between backing right off and being too harsh. It’s called warm and firm parenting.
It’s important for mums and dads to develop a plan for what they are going to do to resist giving-in to their child’s school refusal.
5 tips for getting your child back to regular school attendance
- Set reasonably high expectations: Tell your child, “It’s your ‘job’ to go to school and it’s my job to go to work. That’s the deal unless you’re very unwell”.
- Work out a plan that you and your partner will follow – and stick to it. If you don’t have a plan, chances are that you may find yourself inadvertently giving-in to the child’s avoidance. Stick to your plan, even if you feel under some kind of reprisal from your child.
- Acknowledge to your child that it is going to be hard ‘some’ days. Tell them you ‘get it’ that they are going to feel reluctant, nervous or unsure.
- Don’t get ‘tripped up’ by their distress. Parents can feel mean by making a firm rule. You need to overcome your compulsion to acquiesce. When parents give in because they don’t like seeing their child being upset, this is called a transference reaction.
- For avoidance behaviour that’s entrenched, stage their return to school. Get a piece of paper and draw up a ladder, with ten rungs on it. At the top at level 10, write ‘goes to school for full days, without protesting’. At the bottom rung of the ladder at level 1, write ‘NOT getting dressed for school but hopping in the car for a drive-by of the school at the beginning of the day’. Fill-in steps 2 to 9, with increasing levels of difficulty for three weeks until you gradually get to level 10.
Michael Hawton is a registered Australian psychologist, trained teacher, author and a father of two. With 30 years’ experience working with children and families Michael is one of Australia’s foremost experts in tough conversations, managing child anxiety, managing teen anxiety, managing difficult behaviours in children, adolescents, and adults.
Michael Hawton’s new book, The Anxiety Coach – reducing anxiety and building resilience skills in children and tweens is now available.