Editor’s Note: The author is publishing anonymously to protect her son’s identity.
As a work-at-home mom of three, the first day of school has always been one of my favorite holidays.
But when that late August day arrived this year, my 8-year-old refused to go to school. At first, I chalked it up to first-day jitters; I was sure he would quickly adjust. But after a few weeks, the situation only grew worse. His reluctance to attend school turned into full-blown, toddler-type tantrums that lasted for hours, from home to school, from the school office to the hallway, from the hallway to the classroom. Frustrated and tired, I assumed he was just being difficult.
My son complained of stomach aches every morning before school and every night before bed. “He’s just trying to get out of school,” I would tell myself.
After months of this behavior, however, I knew it was more than defiance and more than just “not wanting to go to school.” My son was scared. I could see it in his eyes and in his frantic behavior. A team comprised of the school counselor, a psychologist and behavioral therapist determined he was suffering from separation anxiety and “school refusal.” He was afraid that something bad would happen to me while he was at school. Though they tried to help, my son’s anxiety had become so severe that he did not respond to any of their professional techniques. The principal told me my son was just being manipulative. He even confronted him more than once in the hallway and told him, “You’re too old for this behavior. The other kids are going to make fun of you. You just need to go to class.”
It was a moment of realization for me. I looked at my little boy, cowering in the corner of the hallway, and knew I was letting him down. It was my job to protect him, and I was doing an awful job of it. I withdrew him from school that day and decided to temporarily homeschool him. I had never seen my son so full of relief and gratitude.
Like millions of children in the U.S., my son suffers from anxiety. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 7.1 percent of children ages 3 to 17 (4.4 million) have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Of course, all children experience anxiety, but children with an anxiety disorder are often paralyzed with fear, unable to perform normal, everyday tasks, like walking into a school building or separating from their parents.
A new documentary called “Angst” is now being screened at schools across the country. This film includes interviews with kids, educators, experts and parents. It was created to help break the stigma of anxiety disorders and provide resources and tools for those who suffer from it. It also helps explain the physiological symptoms that often accompany anxiety – such as stomach aches and headaches.
I recently attended a screening of this movie at my son’s new school. (After a brief stint as a homeschool mom, I realized that teaching my son was an insurmountable task that could only be accomplished by those superheroes we call teachers.) The staff members at this new school have embraced my son. They have not attempted to shove him into the classroom and make him act like a “normal” kid. They have accepted him for who he is. They are doing extensive research on anxiety disorders to help all the kids who suffer. Because of this, the other children are more aware and accepting of children trying to cope with anxiety. Instead of making fun of my son for crying in the hallway, they offer him friendship.
“Angst” is a powerful film that brings awareness to a previously frowned upon disorder that affects millions of children. For those of us with loved ones battling anxiety, it’s an honest look at what it feels like to live with this disorder. For those who suffer from anxiety themselves, the film might make you realize you’re not alone. My 8-year-old son watched this film intently, and I think it made him feel a little better knowing that his feelings are “normal.”
WHERE TO FIND HELP
Connecting for Kids: comprehensive list of resources, including organizations, books and websites that provide information and help for those suffering from anxiety
Blissful Kids: kid-friendly site with mindfulness activities
Teen Mental Health: teen-specific information
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24-Hour Suicide Prevention Hotline
FEATURE IMAGE: Courtesy of “Angst” film/IndieFlix