Over the past few months, numerous parents have expressed concerns about their children and the return to in-person learning. Though conventional wisdom seemed that kids would welcome a return to their friends, their teachers and just getting out of the house, for many, the return to face-to-face school is a struggle. I hear stories from my friends in schools, both private and public that children are missing 25 plus days or parts of days since the beginning of school. When I press these educators or parents for reasons why, the common response is that kids feel nervous, anxious, that it was hard to make friends. Interestingly, these same students do not report any negative activities such as bullying or disagreements with teachers. This pandemic has made many aspects of “normal” life a challenge for adult and child alike. Students are finding the return to in-person school hard, a main reason being a high level of anxiety.
When I was a high school administrator in charge of attendance, there were always students that refused to come to school. School refusal is not new-it has been on the rise since my time in the office in the early 2000’s. Over the past two years of the pandemic, the number has grown astronomically. The easy answer is that children got used to being at home, taking classes online. I think it is a bit more complicated than that. The pandemic is certainly a factor, but so too, is the rapid development and availability of technology. Kids now have screens that they use all day to cope when home from school, even at school. It is not just TV. No, TV alone never provided this much of a pull. There are multitudes of social media and entertainment apps at the push of a button. Children can laugh, cry, learn or have a relationship all on their phone. Data shows that this year as in-person school returned, school refusal went up.
The term school refusal to include going to school late, missing individual classes, and missing entire school days. In my time, it was called truancy. Parents and students could be issued municipal citations for it. School refusal is related to many things, but perhaps the largest factor is the increase in anxiety. Let’s talk about that anxiety and how to help.
Let’s talk about Anxiety sensitivity. According to the American Psychological Association, it is “a fear of sensations associated with anxiety because of the belief that they will have harmful consequences.” The person is convinced that sensations like a stomachache, for example, are harmful. They can start to get more and more anxious about the bodily sensation, worrying about things like, “What if it causes me to do something embarrassing like vomiting at school?” Research indicates that anxiety sensitivity is a trait like risk factor that has been linked to the development of panic attacks and panic disorder. [defined in 1985 by U.S. clinical psychologists Steven Reiss and Richard J. McNally]
How can we help as a parent?
Our children will undoubtedly call to be picked up from school at some point or another. The reasons will vary, but what message is the child receiving? When a child calls to be picked up, there could be an anxiety component. If we pick them up, remove them from the school, the child is internalizing the idea that they should not feel that feeling or emotion
Clearly, there are times when the child needs to be picked up. For example, they are physically ill. If not, it is ok to give them the message that it is okay to feel these things (fears) and that they can get through the sensations. Like emotions, the feelings in their bodies will pass too.
Another problem of picking up our child from school in these situations is that this act of “rescuing” them then reinforces the behavior of calling to be picked up because the reward of getting relief from any bodily sensations is so powerful.
Not coming to the aid of our child is counter to all that we know. We want, no, need to protect and help our children. Knowing when to come and pick them up and when it may be in their best interest to stay at school takes help. It is so important to have open and honest lines of communication with teachers, counselors or school nurses. Parent helping parent through these experiences is an equally valuable resource!
As the stigmas associated with mental illness continue to abate, it is my hope that families will continue to reach out for help. Society has done a remarkable job teaching us to “keep our dirty family laundry” in house. It does not make sense to me! In some aspects, we love to use the phrase, “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” So, why would we not want as much help as possible? I know it’s tough to be vulnerable, there is the fear of judgement, but in the end, anything worthwhile takes effort and risk. As an adult, if we think a friend or coworker’s child is missing school because of anxiety, perhaps the new norm should be to reach out and offer support. Maybe share that you have dealt with anxiety or someone in your family. The risk pales compared to the possible reward.
Peers can be equally as important in helping one another with anxiety sensitivity. Teach our children that anxiety is housed in a part of the brain called the amygdala (an almond-shaped collection of neurons in the right and left hemispheres of the brain). It might be useful for your teen to know that when they help a friend get through a flood of anxious feelings, they are aiding that friend in retraining their amygdala. Helping the friend get some space from himself or herself can be very effective. Compare the feelings to a race, “the stress area of your brain going on a sprint. This sprint will end and I’m running it with you.”