School refusal, or what anxiety does when it smells blood in the water

This morning Lei woke up and blew her nose about 20 times. A mountain of tissue accumulated on the bed next to her and she looked at me miserably.

“Mom,” she moaned, “I don’t feel well.”

I could see that, and my heart went out to her. I told her to ask her dad – when he got out of the shower – if he thought she was sick enough to stay home.

As she waited about five minutes for her dad, Lei became more and more miserable. She groaned and held her head, blew her nose another score of times, and ran to the toilet to throw up a bit of bile.

By the time my husband got out of the shower, Lei was a complete mess. Fat tears rolled down her cheeks as she told him how terrible she felt and that she really couldn’t go to school today.

But I had watched her emotional state escalate from “I feel cruddy” to “Going to school will kill me dead.” I could see what had happened: she smelled blood in the water. 

Almost three weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of being schooled by some of my husband’s esteemed colleagues (people I really do respect a lot) on the importance of attendance for my daughter’s education.

I wanted to scream at them. I wanted to jump up and growl at them “DON’T YOU THINK I KNOW THAT?” Because what did they think I do every morning when my daughter has terrible pains in her stomach, headaches that make her cry out in pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting? I plead. I harangue. I medicate. I push, pull and wrangle. But I was having precious little success.

I felt like a public failure at the most important thing in my life. I took a much-needed break from the meeting. My husband and I walked out into the hall, but ultimately I had to go into the bathroom to cry for a few minutes, then splash cold water on my face and get myself together.

Back in the meeting, it was the school psych’s turn. She introduced herself and clarified that in addition to being an educational psychologist, she is a licensed clinical psychologist.

“Lei has school phobia,” she said. “And for every single child who has school phobia, it is always worst on Mondays.” She explained about the cognitive-behavioral therapy approach she is taking with Lei, but added, “Of course, Monday is my service day. So if she’s not here, we can’t work together.”

It took me a couple of days to clear my head about that meeting. But once I was ready, I turned to my friendly search engine and entered “school phobia.” I found that it is also called school refusal.

Children with school refusal may complain of physical symptoms shortly before it is time to leave for school or repeatedly ask to visit the school nurse. If the child is allowed to stay home, the symptoms quickly disappear, only to reappear the next morning. In some cases a child may refuse to leave the house.

Common physical symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or diarrhea. But tantrums, inflexibility, separation anxiety, avoidance, and defiance may show up, too.

They should have just posted a picture of my daughter.

So after that I told Lei that unless she has a fever, she is going to school. I may have also mentioned in passing that a wound gushing blood would justify missing school, but I didn’t belabor that point because I don’t want to feed that image to her active imagination.

Every school day since that meeting I’ve given Lei the choice: get dressed at home, or drive to school in her pajamas with dad and change there.

And even with the Thanksgiving holiday, she has been showing a little less resistance to going to school. It isn’t magically resolved, but slow progress is being made.

However, this morning when she sensed that there was a possibility, however faint, of staying home, I watched her anxiety about going to school kick into high gear: the tears, the vomiting, the escalation of her pain. She wasn’t faking. She did have a bad cold and her body was in panic mode.

So I took her hand and said, as gently as I could, “I realize that you’re feeling sick. But on top of that, your anxiety is telling you that you can’t go to school, that you can’t handle it, that it’s going to be awful.” I kissed her forehead and said, “You don’t have a fever, so you have to go to school.”

What happened next astounded me. Within a few minutes she was calmly getting dressed. She didn’t throw a fit about having to brush and style her hair in the car. I gave her tissues, hand sanitizer and a hug, and she left for school, just like that.

Here’s the thing: when she’s in the grip of her anxiety, it doesn’t feel like anxiety to her. She says she doesn’t feel anxious. It’s just that her body is flipping the hell out. So for a long time I’ve been worried that she had something really wrong with her digestions, when I was missing all the signs of anxiety.

And naturally now I’m working on getting her more professional help (not knocking the school psych – she’s great, but I feel like more would be good right now) . I’ve only been waiting two weeks for a call back from the pediatric psychiatry department at Lei’s medical home. That’s not at all frustrating.

But for better or worse, I’m used to having less support than I should probably have to be Lei’s mom. So we’re figuring things out as best we can, and trusting that more help will come eventually.

This morning’s “A-ha!” moment (sadly not accompanied by Take On Me on the kitchen radio) was that Lei’s anxiety is looking for the slightest opening. It is a shark that swims within her, always hunting, ready to attack at the slightest scent of blood in the water. And my job, every school day morning, is to patiently starve it to a slow, even painful death.


5 thoughts on “School refusal, or what anxiety does when it smells blood in the water

  1. Yes. I will say, as someone who also suffers anxiety and has done since I was a child, one of the most valuable things my mother taught me was that as much as I could convince myself that I was sick, life was horrible, I was going to die, etc., I could also convince myself of the opposite. I recall a number of specific times (yes, I remember what I was upset about 30 years ago), and she explained the positive statements I could tell myself instead of telling myself that I was going to throw up, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved hearing how you used soothing words to get her off to school. It is a good reminder to me not to “flip out” with my kids when they are anxious, but to be the calm in the storm. Way to go!


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