Every week I hear from parents of high school aged kids (11 years old +) who are at the end of their tether. Their child has developed anxiety around going to school. In the most extreme cases, their child never makes it back to school.
Don't take my word for it, this article in the Guardian from 2021 shows how much of an issue it has become
It's a problem that has reached almost pandemic levels. In the UK CAHMS are supposed to help. This is the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service run by the NHS. It's a free service so it's natural for a parent to choose that. Many don't even have a choice because they can't afford a private therapist like me. The problem is that the waiting list to see CAHMS is many months long, and even then, you have to be deemed to be critical to be on the list. Even if you are one of the lucky few to get to see CAHMS, it may not help. The service is under a huge amount of pressure and severely under-resourced. Most of the kids I've seen have actually had help from many agencies already, and they still are not able to get back to school.
Anxiety is a primitive emotional and physiological response. Primitive because it comes from the caveman days where in order to survive an encounter with a sabre-toothed tiger you needed to instantly adjust so that you could either run away (Flight), have an adrenaline surge big enough to fight and not notice pain (Fight) or stay hidden and very still until the tiger has wandered off (Freeze). From a state of constant alert, one of these states can be triggered instantly, giving you the best chance of survival.
So when was the last time you saw a tiger wandering down the high street? Or even any other sort of predator? Probably never right? But I bet you can think of the last time you felt, nervous or anxious or scared. This is why I call it a primitive response. It is designed to protect us from something that is no longer a threat.
The problem is, it is an instinctive response. It is critical for survival that you don't take time to think. If you are being attacked by a tiger, and stop to measure up if you've brought the right spear, or if you have the right footwear for running across the terrain, then it will be eating you before you react. You don't get a chance. Your brain switches off and you are reacting before it's too late. Then, when the moment has passed and your brain is switched back on, you beat yourself up for the way you reacted.
This is normal. We all do this all through the day. And remarkably, we generally get on fine.
When a child (or an adult!) gets anxious it's because their subconscious has perceived a risk of getting hurt and is taking them into an automatic fight, flight or freeze response (usually freeze).
But there are no tigers, so what on earth could be causing such a severe reaction?
To understand why your child is anxious, you first need to understand the way a child brain develops.
To understand why your child is getting anxious, and also why they respond the way they do to you when you try and help, we need to first understand the way the brain develops from birth.
The first thing to develop is your emotional response. We can feel emotions as soon as we are born. It's our ability to make sense of what those emotions mean that takes a little longer. Around 7 years old we start developing the grey matter in the brain that allows us to stored and recall what things mean. By the time a child reaches adolescence this has filled up and the brain starts a clearout process, getting rid of unnecessary stored memories.
The brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. This is when we are fully capable of making logical leaps and predicting consequences, even if we haven't experienced something similar. Prior to that a child learns from experience. This is why when you put hot food in front of a young child and say "Don't touch it, it's hot", the first thing they do is stick their finger in it! We can't learn from what someone else tells us until our brains are developed enough to understand consequences.
Now you might be arguing with me at this point as it's quite clear we learn loads of stuff growing up. When I say 'learn' in this context I'm talking about life experiences. These are the experiences used by your subconscious for the rest of your life to decide if there is a risk of being hurt. These experiences become your invisible tigers. This means that it's not what happens in childhood that matters, it's what your brain chooses to learn from it - the meaning in the event. All through childhood your brain is learning and locking in those experiences that it can use to keep you safe once you are an adult and no longer have anyone looking out for you.
Did you spot the problem?
Your brain has locked all these 'invisible tiger' experiences in by the time you are 16, but your brain is not capable of fully understanding your experiences until your mid 20s! This means something you learn at 3 years old is treated as just as severe as at 8 years old or 14 years old. They can all trigger a flight, fight or freeze response.
This means that your child being anxious is a "brain switched off" state. Their subconscious has automatically taken over to protect them from a perceived threat. They have no choice and no control over it happening. This is why when you try and talk to them about what is wrong, they can't tell you. They literally don't know. It's not them. It's a part of them taking over. You can give them as many techniques as you want around breathing, or focussing on their surroundings, but they will lose access to them all as soon as their subsoncious perceives a threat. This is frustrating for you and for them. When their brain comes back online, they are then accountable for the behaviour they did when it was switched off. This can make them feel awful. It can also be incredibly frustrating for the parent / carer when you are desperate to help but nothing works.
As your child had no control over their anxious behaviour, when the risk has passed and they have missed school again they will feel terrible. They won't understand what happened. They will feel twice as bad if they've seen a professional who has told them what to do. Now, not only have they got the problem, but they can't even do what they need to to make the problem better. This can lead to a child feeling like they are ruining things for everyone. It can make them feel useless and a burden. They interpret your furstration as anger at them.
Because of the limited brain development things are often black and white to our kids. Everything is terrible. Nobody I likes me. I never do anything right. As a parent / carer you are worrying about the consequences to your child of not going to school. How will they do their exams? How will they get a job? It will spoil their life (not true by the way, but natural to think that way). Your child can't physically understand any of that. All they know is that when they try to go to school they can't. They don't know why or what that means, until all the adults tell them. They still can't understand it. But they can feel bad about it.
One of the things that can make your child feel terrible is the need to connect love and behaviour. When a baby animal is born if it doesn't bond with it's mother it will die. Our brains have not evolved but they have adapted. We now look to any sign of love from any responsible adult, and learn from it.
"I am loved more/less as a result of this thing I did. If I'm loved more, do more of it, if I'm loved less, do less of it"
This can be simple. You run with your mother's favourite cup and smash it. You mother gets cross. Your brain learns that your mother loves you less when you break her stuff (I know! It's stupid and primitive), so be more careful with her stuff in the future. But what do you do when it's not so obvious. Your mother gets frustrated at you because you refuse to go to school. It means she can't go to work. Everything is disrupted. Your mother must love you less because you won't go to school. But you can't change that. That's a pretty helpless situation to be in isn't it?
It's get even more crazy.
Love and behaviour are not connected. If you love your child you love them no matter what they do and no matter what you do. If you DON'T love them, you don't love them no matter what they do and no matter what you do. Love and behaviour aren't connected.
But they will learn no matter how you behave. This is often why you might hear your child say they hate themselves and they wish they would die. This is scary for parents / carers to hear. It comes from a place of feeling helpless and out of control. It also comes from primitive programming once more (pesky primitive programming).
The good news is that this is one bit of programming that you can counter easily. You just use the phrase "I love you even if..." totally randomly. Normally when we express love it is attached to specific events. After an argument, when we say goodnight etc. This reinforces in a child's brain that love and behaviour are connected. We need to break that. Say "I love you even if..." as randomly as you can. To the point where your child rolls their eyes at you!
"I love you even if you have ketchup on your top"
"I love you even if you farted and it stinks!"
"I love you even if I am singing a song you don't like"
When a child says "I hate you" say "well I love you".
When your child is sitting in their room feeling upset, and their brain tries to tell them you don't love them, it will immediately get cancelled out with "that can't be true because they said they love me whatever I do"
For all the reasons I've talked about here; limited brain development, primitive programming, the need to learn from childhood experiences, once anxious behaviour begins it often gradually gets worse and worse. It can go from reluctance to go to school to full refusal. That can lead to refusal to go to clubs and eventually even a refusal to hang out with friends.
It is not your child's fault. It is not your fault.
It can be sorted, but it needs a different approach. There is no point talking to your child and expecting them to understand. There is no point bending over backwards to change start times etc. That rarely will make enough of a difference to counter the brain switch off state.
We need to stop the brain switching off. We need to understand what the subconscious thinks the risk is. It is usually either judgement from their peers / not fitting in or a fear of failure / belief they are not good enough. This is easy to change, because as I said THERE ARE NO TIGERS! It's a miscalculation. We can reprogramme the brain so that it no longer switches off. Then all the other techniques are available to them as their thinking brain is still engaged. In the case of one client it got him from 5 months of not being able to go to school at all, to returning to school full time.
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