School refusal is a growing problem for the parents of teenagers. Katie Henderson tells us how her son started to miss school, and how, with help, they got him back …
School was never a problem for Alan. Until it was. First it was just a few days of not attending, then weeks, then months. He couldn’t/wouldn’t go to school. No amount of cajoling, encouraging, being firm worked. By the time the Leaving Cert was on the horizon, he had stopped going altogether. We were at our wit’s end. Alan was always a bit of a street angel/house devil. In school he was quiet and cooperative. He played with the other kids, did what he was told. He had no problems with the schoolwork, managing to do well in tests without too much effort. Invitations to playdates came and no-one ever alluded to any difficulties. He transitioned well from playschool to primary, though sometimes he would come home with stories of how it wasn’t fair, other boys wouldn’t let him be the leader, wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t do things the way he wanted. But his teacher said there was no issue, just boys naturally figuring out how to share, how to play together, how to take turns. All important lessons in growing up.
But at home things were difficult. He frequently flew off the handle, had tantrums. He was definitely a glass half-empty child. He’d nearly count the beans on his plate, quibbling if his sister or brother got one or two more than him. He’d claim, despite evidence to the contrary, that they always got more biscuits than him, more cake, more ice-cream. I even took to buying three separate packets of Toffeepops and putting their initials on each, so he could have control over his own. We tried everything with him: encouraging, explaining, praising. And sometimes he showed his softer side, standing up for a friend who was bullied, or supporting a friend with special needs.
Then in First Class, an astute teacher called us in for a chat. She was worried about him. She described him as an unhappy child. Little seemed to bring him joy. He was no trouble, she said, he just seemed to always see the negative in things. But he was young, and still learning.
However, it continued, and as he grew, he became more restless, fidgety, anxious. He had difficulty keeping his temper in check, sometimes resorting to pushing and shoving. Looking back now, I figure a lot of those behaviours stemmed from an unspecified anxiety, probably subconscious. Therapists have suggested he most probably would have been impacted by the death of a baby sister, when he was just four years old. But he couldn’t express any of this at the time.
The doctor recommended we bring him to Lucena Clinic in Dublin (a psychological service for young people) but they found nothing amiss. However, they did keep him on the books which would be helpful later when his aggression and anxiety started to spiral out of control.
By sixth class he was beginning to act out, being aggressive in the school yard, challenging and violent at home. He became obsessed with the “controls” for the Xbox, and could break the TV if thwarted. Yet other times he could be sweet and thoughtful and kind.
Things took a turn for the worse when some of the boys in his class worked out that they could easily get a rise out of him, and they started to pick on him. They deliberately and very obviously left him out of games, laughed at him and made him feel excluded. He found this very distressing, as did we.
Once, after a particularly traumatic meltdown at home, he barricaded himself into his bedroom, saying he wished he didn’t exist. This is when we got him into the Lucena Clinic in Dublin, where they diagnosed ADHD and prescribed Ritalin, hoping that might take the edge off his aggression and anxiety, and it helped somewhat.
The bullying continued that summer, and unlike most of the other children in the area, he spent it indoors, acutely self-conscious and convinced that his “friends” were laughing at him, mocking him. My heart went out to him. I hated seeing him so alone and unhappy and indoors that long, sunny summer.
September came and with it a new start in secondary school. He was both nervous and excited and seemed to settle in well. He played rugby and enjoyed togging out for the school team. I loved seeing him running out onto the pitch with his team-mates. But come home-time, he shied away from seeing friends. He spent a lot of time at home alone in his room or playing video games.
First and second year went fine. His reports were good. Midway through Third Year, he started complaining of pains in his tummy, saying he couldn’t go into school. He wasn’t feeling well enough. He’d have a headache, a sore throat. If we pushed too hard he’d say we didn’t care about him. He’d stay at home for a few days, then go back in, stay at home, go back in. At first we thought he just needed a bit of space, some time out, away from the stresses of people and exams. We talked to him, encouraging him to just go in and listen, to leave and go to the year head or chaplain if he needed a break. We tried to figure out if the bullying had started up again, if he were afraid of certain teachers, anxious about doing PE. Were there things he was afraid to tell us? We probed gently but were often shut down. He did tell us though that he’d been excluded by all of his peers on social media because of a misunderstood comment, and this hit him hard. It was so difficult to know what to do. And everyone had a view, had their take on how we should be handling things. Just force him in. Don’t give in. You’re being too lenient. None of that helped. We had reached a point where we knew that his mental health was the most important thing. Education could come later if necessary. We just had to get him through this right here and now.
But with his self-esteem low and his staying at home all day doing nothing, engaging with nothing or no one, we were really concerned for his mental health. It was especially difficult if I was out and he rang looking for me, because he was feeling low. I feared the worst and often had a vision of seeing him hanging somewhere – it was terrifying. My heart would jump when I’d see his name on the incoming call. What did he need right now? Would I get home on time? Frantic phone calls, reassuring words, trying to keep the lines of communication open.
It was heartbreaking to see his world shrink. No-one called at the door looking for him. He never asked to go out. We’d hear other parents talking about their kids heading out, worrying if their sons and daughters might be exposed to alcohol. We couldn’t even get him to go to the Lucena Clinic. We were completely worn out, managing his and our anxiety, going to parenting courses, collaborating with the school, while also giving attention to our other two children, as well as holding down two demanding jobs. We felt powerless, with Alan becoming more resentful and oppositional.
We were all at breaking point, caught in a relentless cycle of encouraging, arguing, pleading. He was clearly hurting, sabotaging his own life and impacting the whole family.
Finally we were put in touch with Tara Kelly at Tusla and from that moment on, our lives and Alan’s life began to change. Up to this we had been looking for someone to fix our problem son. She helped us see the situation from his point of view and taught us techniques that would de-escalate violent situations. Tara runs a programme called “New Authority” which supports parents in finding a way to restore their authority in a way that is supportive and respectful of the child, to reduce the conflict that has become so established and to build a better and stronger relationships.
Tara says she often hears parents say they are “treading on eggshells” with their child. Their son or daughter is “ruling the roost”. They are afraid to challenge their child and instead give in to demands for more money, different meals, access to WiFi etc. If the demands are not met, then “all hell breaks loose”. Brothers and sisters are often put in to second place by the aggressive child, just to keep the peace and to prevent him or her from “kicking off”. This was exactly what had been happening in our house and we were so relieved to hear that we were not alone. Because we had felt alone. Alone and ashamed of our son’s behaviour. Ashamed that we couldn’t get him to go to school. Ashamed of our seeming inability to help him out of this miserable place. Hearing that many other parents were going through the same scenarios helped alleviate some of that isolation for the very first time.
She showed us how to institute the Meitheal plan, an old Irish term used to describe the coming together of people to help each other. We issued a statement at home that we were no longer accepting violent behaviour in the home and that we had enlisted the help of an uncle and an aunt to help us keep the home violence-free. We handed a printed copy to each of the children in turn and it was followed up by a text from the aunt and uncle. Then we changed the subject, asked who would like pizza, and continued with our evening, assuming this was how it would be from then on. And miraculously it seemed to work. We still had uncooperative behaviour but they were isolated episodes rather than ongoing.
As well as setting up this aggression-free zone, Tara encouraged us to rebuild Alan’s confidence by constantly encouraging, offering unconditional love/interest/support in all other areas. Would he like a sandwich? Would he like to go to the cinema? Would he like to play a game? So that even if he was ensconced in his room all day, he’d hear he was loved and wanted.
Tara helped us to work as a team, so if one of us was having a bad day, then the other was there to take up the slack. She also spoke to the school about the severity of Alan’s anxiety and together they worked out a plan for getting him back on track. And thankfully they listened and took all this on board. The year head would send a friendly supportive text. Something simple like: “We miss you. We’d just love to see you. Call in sometime. No pressure”. A teacher might call to the house to let him know they were all thinking of him, would he like to come in for a morning, not to worry about work done or not done. And he began to respond. He began to try getting up and going in for a visit but his anxiety levels were through the roof. He had missed half of Third Year, all of Fourth year, most of Fifth.
First, he tried just putting on the uniform and going round the house in it. But he couldn’t get past the front door. We talked a lot about it. We asked if he’d like to change schools but, no, he liked the school. He just couldn’t go in. Not yet. The next day he made it to our front gate, the following day down the road, then the gate of the school, the entrance hall. Often he’d say he would go in but I’d come home from work and find the alarm not on, so
I’d know he hadn’t left the house. It was so disappointing but we kept faith, kept encouraging, kept talking to Tara. And soon he went in for a morning, when he had Art
maybe, or an afternoon he had PE. No one questioned. No one scolded. No one hassled him about books or homework. They just all acted delighted to see him until his confidence began to re-emerge.
Over that summer between Fifth and Sixth Year, he taught himself how to fix mobile phones and put it out there that he would hold a phone clinic in the house one afternoon a week. Soon boys from the school that he never hung around with started knocking on the door. There’d be a gang of them in the front room and I would hear laughter and banter and chats, while I prepared dinner in the kitchen. This made my heart sing. It was the first time we had experienced anything like this. And for him, with each new caller looking for his help, his confidence in everything else grew. He asked to take driving lessons, passed the theory test, then the actual driving test. He met girls, began to have a social life, something we never saw coming. By the time September came, he was ready to go back to school. We held our breath.
September 1 he got up, put on his uniform and off he went. Most days. We acknowledged his bravery, praised his determination. Yes, he still had bad days but for the most part he succeeded. We applied for an exemption from Irish and also applied for DARE for college, as school refusal and anxiety are criteria they consider. In June he sat the Leaving Cert. He passed and got a place in college.
We are so proud of him for overcoming his fears and finally graduating from school. I struggled to hold back my tears of pride and love at his graduation. We’re not completely out of the woods. He will always need help and support but he has made it this far and we are over the moon.
In conversation with Justine Carbery
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