Are you going to school today?
School refusal is a childhood emotional disorder describing young people who are unable to attend school due to anxiety. It is believed to affect between 1 and 5% of the population. David Willows describes the year-long emotional journey of a father and a teenage son coping with this little understood condition.
April 2008: The Dilemma
Playing in London's Hyde Park on a sunny day in early Spring, we look like a perfectly normal family. Sure, I am a divorced dad, co-managing two sets of kids in two countries. But that's okay. We have got used to that now. We have our routine and that gets us through. But on this particular day, I don't feel normal. Despite my best efforts, the jigsaw pieces of my life just don't seem to fit together in the way that they used to. At least, not right now. They are all bent up and slightly torn at the edges.
Let me explain. When I had first had children, I made certain basic assumptions:
- . My children will outlive me
- . My children will sleep (eventually)
- . My children will eat their vegetables (eventually - with the exception, perhaps, of Brussel Sprouts)
- . My children will go to school
This, for most of us, is the bottom line of parenthood. Of course, we hope for much more for our kids. In my case it was twelve-hour sleep patterns from six weeks old, leading seamlessly towards a happy, successful and ethical life, cut short only by a peaceful 'passing' anytime after the age of eighty. And not to be greedy about it, I wanted my children not only to eat but actually enjoy everything I placed onto the dinner table, play a musical instrument, join a sports team, become a doctor, marry and produce three delightful grandchildren to keep me entertained during my own twilight years.
Am I alone here?
Sitting on her couch, the therapist opposite confirms my naivety in almost her first sentence: 'David, we are only just beginning this process.'
You see, Jack, my eldest boy, has not been to school in seven months. He is a 'school refuser'. Seven months ago, I did not even know kids like this existed. Kids either went to school or they 'bunked off' because they were bad kids. This, though, is different. This is a deep anxiety or phobia, akin to people who have a fear of spiders, confined spaces or flying. This is kind of serious.
I want to tell the therapist that she is wrong. I challenge her, angrily, and express that part of me that wants to simplify this situation, blaming it on some early adolescent rebellion.
It's complicated - too complicated for me to understand right now - and I don't particularly want to go into why this happened. My ex-wife fears that it was because she went out to work when he was small. The therapist half suggests that it was because I went swimming with my boy every Friday afternoon and then I got divorced. I argue with them both. Half the world's kids have mums who work and dads who live somewhere else. But half the world's kids are not school refusers.
Back in the park, we kick a ball around and enjoy each other's company. We laugh, argue, run around: the first signs of Spring do us good. But it is different to last Spring. I feel a distance between him and I that was not there a year ago. When I try to get close, he pulls away - as if it is too painful, too confusing for him to bear right now. He has become trapped in a world where he is afraid to venture out and engage - even as far as his own dad.
I want to tell him that I love him. I want to draw him close, like when he was small, and reassure him that it's going to be okay. Locked in his fortress, I want to find the key, defeat the dragon, wake him up, kiss him and rescue him from his demons.
I also want to kick him up the rear, shout at him, and tell him that he should be back at school like any normal kid.
The emotions are complicated for all of us right now. The pieces of the puzzle simply don't fit quite as well as they used to.
All I can do is get angry with the therapist.
Travelling back home on the Eurostar, I play a mental game with myself and wonder whether there is any other parent on this packed train who has to deal with this stuff? Am I really the only one? And what happens to all these kids? Are they simply forgotten?
As the train pulls into Brussels' Gare du Midi, the terrible irony of this situation hits me. In just a few hours, I will be back at my desk, telling the story of a wonderful school in Brussels that literally changes kids' lives. Like Willy Wonka himself, I will give out a few more 'golden tickets' that few kids can even dream about. And I'll take a moment to think of my boy, sitting in his room - locked in by something I still don't begin to understand.
July 2009: The Resolution
'A misty morning does not mean it will be a cloudy day.' I think a wise person said this once. Wise people always say that kind of stuff.
If I had been wiser, I would have thought of this kind of one-liner on the appropriately-misty day, just after Easter, when an email found its way into my inbox. If I had been wiser, I would have been less surprised by the contents of this particular 'sign':
I have decided that on June 1st I shall come to school in Brussels; this is the first time I have said this with confidence! Before I said I was going back after half-term and not feeling very sure, but now I'm sure!
Love u loads
PS You're the first person I told, since I thought it was to you that it was most relevant!
No big deal? Well, I guess not, unless you consider that the clouds had well and truly settled over our family these past months; unless you consider that only a week previously I had begun to resign myself to the fact that, despite all my best efforts, I was powerless to help my own son work towards a resolution of the issues that he was facing.
Like the first time I held him in my arms, moments after he was born - terrified that I would mistakenly crush his tiny limbs - I found myself almost paralyzed for fear that I would say or do something to snuff out this fragile sign of hope. Where is that wise person, with the right words to say, when you need him?
Along this long and lonely path, I had met a lot of people who informed me that they were wise. They passed around their wise words freely and, sometimes, without listening. Many were well-intentioned, but few understood.
'Smack the taste out of his mouth and deal with it!' was the line that hurt the most.
Sometimes we are all too quick to judge, I guess. Or perhaps, having run out of gold, frankincense and myrrh, some 'wise men' have less to give these days.
A couple of days ago, I even thought of writing back to this anonymous sage. I thought of explaining that I neither smacked nor 'dealt with it' particularly well, but that my beautiful boy was good to his promise and spent the month of June at his new school - the International School of Brussels; that he bravely conquered his fears, moved away from his 'home' (living now with me, instead of his mum), established himself in another school, in another country, made friends, put his head down... and got 94% in his first assessed essay.
I wanted to be the smug. But wise men don't do smug, do they? They know all too well how easy it is to say the wrong thing and how hard it is to find the words to capture and express how life really is.
For now, at least, both the mist and cloud have gone and we are enjoying those long, summer days.
To be sure, the road we have travelled has not been easy. But, as another wise man once wrote on the back of a bus, somewhere in Arizona: 'It's hard to make a comeback when you haven't been anywhere.'
February 2010: The Conversation
The silence was killing me, even as a new school year began and things seemed to have returned to 'normal'. It was not the terrifying, stone wall of silence between me and my son of a year ago, when things seemed so dark and hopeless. But, still, I was very much aware that we had never had that conversation. He had never shared with me his side of the story - his tale of what it was like to be a teenager trapped in this fortress of anxiety.
Sitting on the Eurostar, travelling alone, another email arrived in my inbox. It was Jack's account. His story, finally breaking the silence between us.
"Anyone who saw me now would believe I was just a normal kid. A kid who has a family, has friends and goes to school.
But I used to sit in school, excluded from the crowd - alone, afraid and wondering to myself, How long until the end of the day? Finally, the bell would ring and with it came a feeling of utter joy, happiness and relief. I would push open the door and run, like an animal released into the wild after a period of captivity. I would run home, open the front door, go upstairs, slam my bedroom door and cried.
I could tell people were mad at me. I could tell people wanted me back at school… and now! But it wasn't going to happen. Not just like that. I could see it in their faces. Every time I went out of the house, I had to avoid certain places, avoiding people, because I was scared of what they might say. In fact, I was scared of everything.
One day off school turned into two. Two turned into a week. Suddenly, before I knew it, it was a whole school term. The longer I stayed at home, the harder I felt it would be to ever go back. I could feel it inside, it was getting worse. I was becoming more frustrated, more alone.
I felt like I would never go back to school. Ever.
During this time, I admit my relationship with my dad was not quite as strong as it had been before. I could sense in him that he couldn't understand why I wouldn't go to school. There was a period where I even dreaded the thought of him coming to visit for the weekend. I was too ashamed, embarrassed and scared. I was scared of what he might ask, what he might say, what he might do. I had no hope, and my confidence was at an all time low.
I had no trust in anyone: my parents, my friends, my therapist, and even myself. I had no trust that it was going to be alright. I thought I had gone into a dark cave and that I was never going to come out!
Then, after having probably the worst week of my life, I decided I can't live on like this. I realized that I was going to end up killing myself.
So I went and got the computer, sat down, and emailed my dad. It was time to return to school.
To cut a long story short, I did get back into school. I moved to Brussels and now I'm enjoying school more than ever! And if I have learned one thing, it would be this: You cannot live life without belief - belief in others, belief in life and most important of all belief in yourself".
If I look back on the past eighteen months, it is clear how far we have come - as individuals and as a family. Things have changed, that's for sure. We have all had to make adjustments and accept the new routines. But if I could judge the quality of Jack's life by the number of school friends he has on Facebook, his academic grades, his involvement in the school football team or simply the smile on his face when he arrives at school each day, I would dare to say he might just about be the happiest boy I know. And what more could a father want than that?
10 Facts About School Refusal
- . The term 'school phobia' was first used in 1941. Today, in the US and UK, the term 'school refusal' is preferred.
- . School refusal is an anxiety disorder related to separation anxiety.
- . School refusal usually develops after a child has been home from school for an illness or vacation. It may also follow a stressful family event, such as divorce, parental illness or injury, death of a relative, or a move to a new school.
- . Boys and girls refuse to attend school at the same rates. School refusal is highest in children between the ages of 5 -7 and 11-14 years old. School refusal is an international problem, with an estimated rate of 2.4 percent of all school-age children worldwide refusing to attend classes.
- . Some experts believe that a possible cause of school refusal is traumatic and prolonged separation from the primary caregiver in early childhood.
- . Family functioning also affects school refusal. Stressful events or a dysfunctional family can cause children to feel compelled to stay home. Older children may refuse to leave a parent who is ill or who has a substance abuse problem, in effect trying to cope for the parent.
- . It is not uncommon for secondary school students to become school refusers because they are afraid of violence either at school or on the way to school, are afraid of failing academically, have been repeatedly bullied or humiliated at school, feel they have no friends at school, or are excluded.
- . Genuine physical symptoms are common and include dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shaking or trembling, fast heart rate, chest pains, and back, joint or stomach pains. These symptoms usually improve once the child is allowed to stay home. Behavioral symptoms include temper tantrums, crying, angry outbursts, and threats to hurt themselves.
- . The most effective form of treatment is a combination of behavioral and cognitive therapy for an average period of six months. Family therapy may also be used to help resolve family issues that may be affecting the child. Depending on the diagnosis, children may also be treated with drugs to help alleviate depression, panic and anxiety, or other mental health disorders.
- . The combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy appears to produce the most successful treatment results. In one study, more than 80 percent of children receiving this combination of therapies were attending school normally one year after treatment.
David Willows is a regular writer, blogger and storyteller on issues relating to modern family life. For more information: www.davidwillows.com
Read David's book Fragments. It deals with the different strands and fragments of life. People find the book moving, funny, thought provoking and worth reading. Perhaps you will too.