Childhood Anxiety: Our Experience

As I look over my laptop I see a happy child. She is smiling and giggling. She’s being loud and obnoxious and in your face. She is just like every other eight year old girl, and that is all we ever wanted.

Looking at the title, I’m sure you can guess that things haven’t always been this way. I entered Jelly’s life at the age of 3, and I already commented then that things were a little bit off; I’d be on the phone to Jay and he’d say “sorry I took so long, I was trying to put [Jelly] to bed and she was in hysterics because [whatever item] wasn’t in the right place”. I’ve had experience with OCD and this was my first worry, and I remember telling him straight away to just be careful ‘justifying’ the anxiety she was feeling by having things exactly where she wants them.

Her life at nursery had been fine up until then, but not long after this she began being upset at having to go in. To this day she can’t hear the Postman Pat theme tune because it fills her with dread; when she was that age, the beginning of Postman Pat meant it was time to go to nursery. She would repeatedly ask her parents where they’d be while she was in there. Would they promise not to leave? Would they wait outside for her until she was finished? Where exactly would they be, who would they talk to, what would they buy? Question, question, question. To lose control of the situation was to feel that her parents didn’t care about her anymore. She couldn’t bear to be forgotten.

She moved on through the year and ended it on a high: she loved school, had a blast going in. We all had high hopes. She enjoyed most of her year in Foundation with a few minor normal separation anxiety episodes, and was looking forward to Year 1. And then right at the end of the summer holidays, her Nan died. This was the first person to have died in Jelly’s life and of course she took it incredibly hard. Jay and I had taken her to the park for the day while her Nan was in hospital, actually, and Jelly had asked us if her Nan was going to die: we said of course not, because we didn’t think she would. And that meant she learned the secret no child should ever learn: parents do not know everything. You can’t always rely on them to be right.

A month or so after her Nan’s death, she had been back in school for a few weeks, and she began to cry. “What’s wrong?” Miss Sick-of-it-all (as we called her at the time – a fun play on her name, but I won’t name and shame the witch on here. I’ll call her Miss Sick for now.) asked her. “I’m upset because I miss Nanny”, she said. “Hasn’t that been about a month now? It’s time to start getting over it.” replied Miss Sick. Jelly was distraught: she hadn’t realised there was a time limit on her grief (which there isn’t), she didn’t trust us when we told her it was okay if she felt sad at school, and she began to obsess over not being able to control her emotions while she was there, and if she would get into trouble if she accidentally cried.

The school itself is an establishment which had excellent results with Ofsted (at the time, it lowered last year) and was very focussed on good grades. However, this comes at a price. The school is regimented, detached and unemotional. Some children excel at sports or academics: these children do well at regimented schools. Jelly excels at art. She does not excel in a regimented school. This sort of regimentation made her vomit some mornings or nights, checking her bag again and again, working herself into a panic, shouting at us from bed that she was sure she MUST have forgotten something that would get her a telling off the next day.

Once, she put her hand up and asked for help. She was told they were disappointed in her for not grasping what they’d said. She was then terrified to put her hand up again, so fell behind when she didn’t understand. Once, she couldn’t finish her lunch. She was forced to eat. This made her terrified of lunchtimes, because she felt humiliated and sick. She was scared of the time in class and scared of the breaks. She told us that all she wanted was for a teacher to cuddle her if she was upset – we knew this didn’t need to be literal (although that would help), it’s that she wanted to feel that the school had compassion and could tell her that it was okay to be upset. But it wasn’t, in their eyes. They repeatedly told her to grow up, get a grip. Every time we complained the school apologised, told us this wasn’t quite what was happening and that they’d make an effort to ‘accommodate for [Jelly]’s oversensitivity’. Which they’d do for a week before telling her to grow up and get over it all over again, because they couldn’t give her special treatment.

Year Three was the worst. On top of the strict teachers, a new girl moved to the school, who was a bully. In previous years she would leave school smiling, happy to have completed another day. In Y3 she would leave school crying because she knew she had to be back tomorrow. Towards the end she would even cry on Fridays because she was so scared about Mondays. Sunday nights were full of the worst fits of anxiety. I’m not ashamed to say that every Sunday night left the parents in tears too; towards the end she was having anxiety attacks and began to verbally lash out at us, which is so out of her character. She’s the sweetest and most polite girl I know usually. We literally pushed her into school in the morning, as she screamed and grabbed at us, while the teacher grabbed her arm and pulled her inside the doors. She obsessed over ‘wave at the window’ – she’d run to the nearest window and watch us leave. God forbid we ever forgot (which we sometimes did if we were in a rush) to wave. She started to do this at home when she was dropped off at each parent’s houses too, letting her school anxiety leak in to home life. She stopped eating evening meals; her anxiety made her lose her appetite. She would be up until around 11pm in hysterics. Eventually we just couldn’t help her anymore: it didn’t matter if we told her it’d be okay or not, she didn’t believe us. We’d close the door and let her scream and throw herself around. We had to have Moo sleeping in a travel cot with us because her crying at night disturbed him and if he cried in the night and woke her it’d make her worse in the mornings. It was particularly whenever there was a special event, like a school play or an assembly: instead of being happy to spend extra time with us, she spent the time leading up to the event obsessing over the moment we’d leave and she’d have to say goodbye twice in a day. In her last week at the school, she took part in a Sport Relief event. She left school crying a week before it because she already couldn’t take her mind off the moment we’d be leaving. We told her we wouldn’t go and it made it all the worse for her. She was torn between saying goodbye twice and being the only child not to have her parents there. We knew that something was wrong, but didn’t know if it was because of the school or because of who she was. Obviously she was overly sensitive but we didn’t know how much of it was down to a terrible experience at a school that wasn’t right for her. What we did know was that the school refused to address the bullying (we were repeatedly told Jelly was mistaken and that no bullying went on at their establishment and that the bully in question is actually a very shy and polite girl who everybody gets along with – perhaps she just FEELS bullied because of how incredibly sensitive she is. ‘We know how she makes mountains out of molehills’.) and they were fed up of having to deal with the way she was. They also pulled her into the office and asked her why she THINKS she’s being bullied, then interrogated her about her home life. “Do your parents fight a lot?” “Does your Dad get very angry?” “Is your Step Mum not very nice to you?” etc – anything to pin the blame. At parents evening her teacher suggested she was probably acting up for attention because we were paying more attention to Moo. We shot down that theory pretty quickly. We spent months talking to her doctor about it and we all agreed our action plan: we would look for a new school for her. It didn’t work for our family schedule to homeschool as a long-term solution and we felt that the structure and sociability was impotrant for improving her anxiety, so we needed to find a school that would suit her needs. If the problems continued once we found the ideal school, the issue was with her and we would deal with that.

We met a bit of resistance when removing her from school, purely because the head teacher had to sign a form agreeing that it’d be in the best interests of the child to leave. We had cited our reasons as harsh teaching methods, inability to cope with emotional demands and refusal to resolve issues of bullying, as well as stating that she had anxiety issues, we felt there was damage that couldn’t be undone and that she would always associate this school with anxiety. To sign the form, the head teacher had to agree to these things – which she obviously didn’t want to do. But she did sign it. In her comments she basically said that our reasons were wrong but if we felt Jelly would do better somewhere else, that was our choice to make. I honestly think she was happy to be rid of the child who took a lot of work and the parents who were always complaining about the school! We took her out of school a month before the Easter holidays and home educated her for a while. She got more done in that month than she had in the last year, working one-on-one with us through textbooks we’d bought and we encouraged her to be independent in her research; for example we took her to a wooded area, had her list all the species she saw, then had her choose three, research them online and create a wildlife poster. She gained confidence when she realised she COULD do things, she’d just never had the chance. We took her to view schools with us because, ultimately, the choice of new school had to be with her. She chose the first school we saw. We made her see a second just to be sure but the second school only reinforced her decision.

Her new school is a local combined school, a 30 minute walk from her home with us, dedicated to supporting communities as well as positive learning. They have ‘mentors’ in place for children with emotional difficulties, which is what really lead her to choosing this school. Her last school had 800 pupils, this one has just over 200. The children are able to have the attention they need, and her learning and confidence have come in leaps and bounds. The teachers are wonderful, they all know all of the children’s names (impossible in her huge old school) and make them feel special. Occasionally she will have a bout of anxiety – the first day of term, or if a teacher has scheduled absence and a substitute that she doesn’t know comes in. But generally she is happy, is excited to get back to school, has a solid group of friends… Generally she is thriving.

The point in blogging this is two-fold. First, I am so so proud of her (and the three of us who, it has now become apparent, made the right parenting choices to get her out of this trap) for how she has come along and I want to brag about it on her behalf! She will always be a sensitive and anxious child, but we now know how to identify when something is becoming too much for her and she has learned techniques to deal with her anxiety. I’m willing to share these on the blog for anybody who needs them. And secondly, if you have read any of this and nodded along, this blog is for you. When she was going through this tough time, I scoured the blogosphere for inspiration and found nothing. I tweeted, I posted on forums – there is so much support out there for children with learning difficulties or gender confusion but almost nothing for children with mental health issues (and the help that IS there is only because it overlaps with the former). It was like a black hole in the internet, yet I know that so many parents are watching their children go through similar things.

My advice to you, if you are reading this and finally feeling like somebody knows what you’re talking about, is to have open communication between parents, and then also with your child. Stability and dependability are what your child needs. If something is all consuming and CAN be changed, change it. I do not support running away from your problems, but moving Jelly to a different school has given her the chance to learn that school can be fun and that she deserves the chance to thrive. We realised that Jelly only had one childhood, and we had to decide between letting her torment herself for the sake of teaching her to face problems head on, or move her once, give her a chance at a ‘normal’ childhood and if that doesn’t work we take her to therapy. And maybe one day we will still get her therapy: she still has control issues and she still lapses sometimes, but now it feels like she’s on a level playing 
field and we can guide her like every other child.

We’re proud of how far you’ve come, Jellybean xx