My nine-year-old son doesn’t like school and this time of year, after he’s enjoyed summer, he starts to get very anxious about returning. He has missed a lot of school already. What can I do?
This is a complex issue and the longer it continues the more layers it develops.
Obviously, you must be worried that this is going to affect his academic outcome and have an impact on his emotional development too. It sounds to me like his behaviour has also set up a response in you that creates a cycle of dreaded expectation each morning. I think your son is showing signs of school phobia and if this isn’t addressed now, it will become increasingly difficult to turn around.
School phobia can develop because the child experiences something called separation anxiety. This means that at some point, usually during their early-school experiences, they’ve felt real anxiety about being separated from their parent. This then sets up a connection between that desperate feeling of fear and school.
It’s worth thinking back to when your son first encountered school. Was he excessively clingy and if so, how did you respond? Often parents’ own anxieties about a child starting school are subconsciously picked up on by the child, who then sees school as a place to fear.
Alternatively, there may be something specific about school that your son finds difficult to deal with. This could be a subject or it could be an issue with the social side. Some children find mixing with peer groups very challenging. It could be that they’ve social anxiety, or it could be an undiagnosed issue with their ability to interact with others. I’d urge you to try and get to the bottom of the issue first, and that way you will have a solid understanding of how to begin to make changes.
I suggest that you arrange a meeting with the school to formally share your concerns and ask them to support you with this.
In the meantime, there are a number of approaches you could take to help him prepare for the return. First, sit down and talk to him about how he feels. Listening to him, no matter what you feel about what he tells you, is really important.
Do this in a relaxed environment and try to ask open non-judgemental questions that’ll allow him to explain his feelings in greater detail. Try not to show your own anxiety as you do this and make it a pleasant experience rather than an interrogation. Ask him to tell you what he thinks could help him – when you allow a young person to take ownership of the problem, they can come up with solutions they feel invested in rather than feeling they have been imposed upon them.
Keep a diary over the first month of his return to school as this will allow you to see the patterns forming more objectively. And finally, it’s vital not to give into allowing him to stay home, unless he is genuinely ill. The more he is allowed to do this, the more fearful of school he’ll become. So stand firm and keep your cool. Have a plan beforehand that you are going to stick to if he begins to get upset, and share this with the school so they are aware that you are doing your best to tackle the issue and can be supportive.