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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

School Refusal

If you are not familiar with school refusal, count your lucky, shiny stars. Because it sucks. We’re talking big time suckage.

According to Wikipedia, “School Refusal” is defined as the refusal to attend school due to emotional distress. It is different from truancy because children with school refusal feel anxiety or fear towards school, whereas truant children generally have no feelings of fear towards school, often feeling angry or bored with it instead. “School refusal and anxiety affect 25% of children, and it often occurs between the ages of 5 to 6, and then again between 10 and 11. Children who refuse to go to school are often bright, with a history of excelling at school.” (Psychology Today, “Understanding School Refusal, 9/11/17)

Our 12 year old boy hasn’t been to school in almost a month. He has struggled with school for the past seven years, but when I asked for help, it either fell on deaf ears or the interventions he received weren’t enough to actually make a difference for our boy. 

This year, we’ve been through absolute hell. Our boy tanked when he hit sixth grade. He has always had severe school anxiety, but he used to be little enough that I could physically lift my crying boy onto the bus, the bus driver would hold his arm across the seats to hold my boy in, slam the bus door closed and drive off. My boy found ways to avoid school, things like going to the bathroom for 30 minutes at a time. Feeling sick. Calling me from the nurse’s office to ask to come home. It’s gotten worse and worse over time. 

By about the 5th week of school this year, the team decided I should home school our boy for part of each school day, because he wasn’t able to attend school like typical kids. After 6 weeks of doing this, I found out it is illegal for the school to request that I homeschool, so we hired a lawyer and got our boy back to school full time. 

But then the hardest part hit. The school knew it was their responsibility to keep our boy at school and educate him. They didn’t let him call me anymore, they didn’t let him come home early. They did their best to handle our boy’s extreme anxiety and depression, passing him from social worker to special ed teacher to principal when necessary. Our boy couldn’t even attend class some days. He just sat in various offices and wept. When our boy realized that school couldn’t help him manage his anxiety, and school essentially trapped him, his anxiety grew even bigger and more ferocious. What used to be a difficult thing- getting our boy to school- became absolutely impossible. When I got him up in the morning, he immediately started crying or complaining of not feeling well. He had panic attacks. He had epic meltdowns. He locked himself in the bathroom or his room. His eyes turned wild with panic when it was time to walk to the bus stop. He felt like he was being sent to a certain death.

I did my best. I worked with him constantly to manage his anxiety, support him, encourage him. I explained we don’t have a choice about school— kids in America have to go because it’s against the law to quit. I promised bribes. I promised shorter days if he could just get to school for a little while. I would have promised the moon if it would have made any difference. 

The world started to close in on us. Stress and deep despair became a constant presence in my chest. What was I doing wrong? Why couldn’t I do the simplest of things- get my kid to school? Why did everyone else’s children go without a fight, and so many of mine find school impossible? What is wrong with me? What have I done to break my children?

So many many people have said things like, “What if you promise to buy him a video game?” Or “Why can’t you just MAKE him go?” Or “Don’t reward him by letting him play video games while he’s home. That will make him want to stay home even more.” Or “He must be being bullied.”

First of all, despite what some people believe, I actually do know how to parent. I have actually been doing it for quite some time, and pretty well most of the time. When I explain that this school refusal is a mental health issue, a mental illness actually, most people begin to understand the severity of what we’re dealing with. It is shocking to me how many “professionals” have made ignorant, uninformed comments about our boy’s school refusal. No reward in the universe could convince my child to go to school right now; this is a phobia. A school phobia. Just to alleviate everyone’s worry that I’m rewarding my boy for his refusal to go to school, he is not allowed to play video games all day when he’s home, but video games have absolutely nothing to do with this current level of mental illness. There is a difference between a lazy parent who doesn’t try to get their kid to school, who lets them stay home and eat Doritos and play games all day, and me- who busts my butt every single day, pulling together a team of support services, begging for help year after year, racking my brain for any forgotten nuggets of social work wisdom to fix my kid. 

I tried everything I could think of to get my son to school. Every single thing. I was nice and patient and kind. I was firm and unrelenting and angry. I was everything in between. I failed over and over. One day a couple weeks ago, I decided I had to be The Bad Guy. I convinced myself that everyone was right and it was my fault that my kid wouldn’t go to school and if I was just strong enough I could get him on the bus. I fought like crazy. I was so stressed and angry and frustrated that I apparently can’t even parent well enough to get my son to school. I’m ashamed to say I took it all out on him. I yelled at him. We screamed at each other. When it was time for the bus stop, I pushed my boy out the front door and locked it behind him to run and get his coat. He ran around to the garage and came in that door. I forced my boy’s arms into his coat and dragged him back out the front door. I pushed him all the way down the street to the bus stop. He screamed like I was attacking him the whole way- didn’t even care that there are other kids at our bus stop who were witnessing him acting this way. I held him in my arms while we waited for the bus, murmuring reassurances as tears pricked at my eyes. I was a terrible mother. I was failing my kid by not getting him to school, and I was failing him by trying to force him to go to school. 

The bus pulled up. My son would not get on. He’s too big to force up the steps. I had no choice but to waive the driver on and take my sobbing, wailing son back to the house. We were both in tears by this point. I sat on the floor and pulled my big boy onto my lap. He screamed that he wanted to kill himself. He screamed that his life is terrible and overwhelming and he can’t do it anymore. I cried hot tears for my boy and me. I held him in my lap and rocked him and told him that no matter how hard his life is, he can’t hurt himself because I love him so much I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I made him promise that he will never hurt himself. We sat and cried and calmed down together. We talked about his fears. We talked again about how he feels so overwhelmed at school he feels like he just can’t go. We talked about how much we love each other and what a great, smart, sensitive boy my son is. We talked about how we’ll get through this tough patch together and figure out what to do. I told him I was sorry that I had acted the way I did, and I was wrong to have done that. 

That day I let him down because I gave in to the worries of what others think of me. I gave in to their message that it is my fault I can’t get my boy to school- I’m too soft, too weak, too accommodating. The world is wrong, and I knew it, but I stuffed down my intuition that morning and did what the world keeps telling me to do. And it made my son say he wanted to kill himself. I realized that no matter what the world tells me, no matter how many meetings I sit in and am asked questions that show how ignorant people are about an anxiety disorder, no matter how many people ask why I can’t just make my son go to school…I know my boy. I know he is doing his best and I am doing my best. I know I’m right: my intuitive, thoughtful approach to my children is the best one. I know the world doesn’t always understand, but I don’t care. I was shown once again that I cannot listen to the ignorant chatter of others who don’t walk this path. I am the expert on my kids, I am the one who knows best.

Every morning for these past weeks, I’ve had to email the school about how my son wouldn’t be there that day. It’s embarrassing. What should I say? Should I make the excuse that he’s sick? I felt stupid saying that he was refusing to go to school. That’s ridiculous. What kind of parent can’t make her kid go to school? So I decided not to give any reason most days. Just- my son won’t be there today. One day I did say he was refusing to go. I didn’t know what else to say and I was tired of hiding our problems. This society isn’t supportive of families like ours that don’t thrive under conventional social norms. There’s no path paved ahead of me to help me explain what is happening to our family. I have to blaze through the forest on my own, thrashing down obstacles and forging a path by myself for my son. 

I kept in constant contact with the school so they would understand how severe the situation was. After the morning when I tried the tough love approach, I emailed the team and informed them that I was not going to do this again. I promised to try to encourage my boy every single morning to get up and face the world, but I would never ever again do the tough love thing. I was done. The school needed to step up and help me figure this out. There will never again be a situation in this home where my boy is so stressed and panicked that he wants his life to be over rather than face what is being forced his way. 

School tried a variety of interventions, but now we were in full out crisis mode. The school sent the social worker to our home a few mornings to try to help our boy overcome his anxiety, which is called “supportive attendance.” It didn’t work. Our boy knew that, despite their best efforts, his school could not help him, and he didn’t trust them enough to try to go back. 

Finally, the school decided to look at therapeutic day schools for our boy. These are schools for kids who- for whatever reason- can’t go to their own public school. The schools help kids with anxiety and depression, ADHD, learning disabilities, behavioral problems, any and all special needs. Therapy is part of the curriculum. The schools help kids learn coping skills, social skills, behavior management, all while also educating them. The trick is to find a school for our sensitive, fragile boy that won’t expose him to more trauma with children who act out aggressively. 

A friend recently called me a “Tiger Mama.” Right now I feel more like a pipsqueak mouse of a Mama. I’m worn thin. I’m tired. I’m stressed. I don’t know where this path will lead. I don’t know if our boy will even be able to attend a therapeutic school, or if that will fail too. I don’t know how to juggle my new job with this level of stress at home. There have already been times I haven’t been able to go to work because I have to be home with my boy because we feel he can’t be left alone due to his extreme depression.

Our doctor changed our boy’s anxiety medication last week, and he’s had a terrible reaction to it. His depression has magnified, although I didn’t even think that was possible. He cries all day about nothing. He feels too exhausted to do the things he used to find entertaining and relaxing. He’s having nightmares and his worries have grown. The tricky thing about meds is that you never know how someone will react to one unless you try it. Now we know this particular med is not a good match for our boy, and as of today he is going off it. But it’s still wreaking havoc on his body. It’s gut wrenching to watch your child suffer and be tortured by his brain and body, and not know how to fix it.

I may feel like a meek mouse of a mama right now, but my friend reminded me that the motions of being a Tiger Mama are muscle memory for me, and I will go through those motions until we are at the end of this crisis. I’m running on fumes, but there’s no choice but to keep walking through the challenge until we get through it. I’m worried I’ll crack under the intense pressure this situation has brought. I’m worried I’m cultivating 47 ulcers. I’m worried I’m going to lose my mind. I’m worried I’m going to have a mental break down on a tour of a therapeutic school and look like a total idiot. I’m worried nothing will fix this problem. I’m worried about the deep heaviness that has settled in my chest like the dark tendrils of choking smog that won’t lift from Mumbai. 

I’m worried. 

But there is no choice but to keep going and fighting for my boy. I tell him every day- this is temporary. This will pass. Brighter days are ahead. (I’m trying to convince myself as much as my son.) He has a million people around him who adore him and support him. His Nana and Papu sent a special heart charm that he can carry in his pocket to remember how loved he is. His friends visit him on weekends. His favorite teacher emails that she misses him. Everyone is on his side. Everyone is rooting for him. As worried as I am, I can’t let my anxiety immobilize me. I have to tap into my Tiger Mama Muscle Memory and carry on. 

I just want to explain to you that school refusal is serious. It is not due to bad parenting. It does not happen because of letting a child watch too much TV or playing too many video games. It is not due to a parent giving in to their child. It is a serious mental health issue. It can be a prominent symptom of PANDAS (strep that affects the nervous system), which my son has been diagnosed with. School refusal happens because a child’s anxiety is so extremely high that they cannot function at school. 

A child who experiences school refusal wants to please, wants to go to school, wants to do what is expected of him. The fact that he can’t makes the child feel even worse about himself than he already does. My boy doesn’t know why he feels like he can’t survive if he’s forced to go to school. Through his tears, he apologizes every single day. He worries I won’t love him because he is having this problem. He worries he will be in trouble. He worries he is no good. His self esteem is in the toilet to begin with, so having this intense, debilitating problem makes everything even worse. 

Please understand that there are good parents, good families, out there who are living through the hell of mental illness. We’re doing our best. We’re trying so hard to fit into the appropriate social norms, fit into society, fly under the radar, do the things that are expected of us. But sometimes a child’s mental health issues are so severe that they need non-traditional, unconventional help. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I’ve known that my son needed that level of help for many years, but as one therapeutic school’s website states, “Often these children fall through the cracks until they are in crisis mode.” 

Crisis mode. Welcome to my life. 

If a child experiences school refusal, they are crying out for help. This doesn’t go away on its own. This isn’t something you can punish out of them. This isn’t something you can even reward out of them. This doesn’t happen because their parents suck. This is an issue that requires swift, careful, knowledgeable help from professionals who know what they’re doing. 

Someday I hope my boy goes to school as easily as the other children on our street do. Someday, hopefully.