School refusal, which we used to call school phobia, affects about one in five children at some point in their school life, and Max* was one of them. A bright, sporty 13 year old boy with plenty of friends he was perhaps the last person you would expect to start avoiding school.
Max’s school refusal had started as frequent stomach aches and headaches that had kept him from school. Then they started to see him sent home, or staying in the Learning Support Unit rather than going to his lessons. The doctor couldn’t find anything physical that was causing Max’s symptoms and had suggested that his mum contact the school to see if the cause was there.
The school were already worried about Max’s attendance, and he was adamant that he wasn’t being bullied or excluded by the other children. He’d adjusted quickly when he’d moved up to the much bigger secondary school. He’d been doing well academically and was on the school football team. However as his school refusal had got worse his work had dropped behind, and he’d lost his place on the team.
The school had agreed to Max going in late or leaving early, and spending most of his time in the Learning Support Unit. Despite this Max was now going to school only two or three times a week at best. The rest of his time he spent at home, either in his room or with his mum, only starting to feel better as the week drew to a close, and his anxiety returning as Sunday evening approached.
That’s what had prompted his mum to contact me – could I help him with what seemed to be a school phobia? That’s why I was now talking to Max about his friends, and his love of sport and PlayStation games. I noticed as we spoke that he kept looking to his mum for approval or reassurance, and as we spoke the reason for his school refusal came out at last.
Max had set himself very high standards at secondary school. One of the brightest children in his primary school, he’d worried about keeping up with the work and doing well. He’d applied himself and got high marks, but the longer this went on the more he worried that he couldn’t keep it up. That’s when the anxiety had started to make him avoid school, avoidance which had affected his work, which reinforced the anxiety that kept him away from school.
Getting Max back to school was about teaching him to be more self-confident and resilient. It meant helping him to tackle those thoughts about perfectionism, and to see how the way he tried to cope with anxiety was actually the cause of a lot of it. It also meant doing some work with Max’s mum about not transmitting her own, understandable, anxieties to him.
* Max’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.
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