Big Day Masthead
unhappy child feature

‘My child has anxiety’

Maria Guest

“I don’t want to go to school!”

This is the common cry of a pre-teen child. Totally normal, as she hides in the kingdom of her loft bed, under Disney Frozen sheets.

Unless, of course, it’s not normal. My bright and bubbly Miss Ten has had problems with school before but she’s doing ok at the moment.

I leave her in her bed, while I prepare the other three children for school. My computer-like brain scanning in the background for answers. Library bag – check. Lunch box – check. School notes….

The answer springs to the surface of my brain like a pop-up box. Miss Ten is just like me. Me, the bubbly life-of-any-party, the girl with one million friends, me – a person who had such severe depression she moved in with her parents and stayed there on the lounge for three whole months.

My daughter has always been an anxious person. When she was three, she became a handful.

Throwing toys, demanding her version of justice, and starting to out-logic me with her high intellect. But by that stage I had two more babies so my husband and I dealt with her behaviour as best as we could.

My poor Miss Ten had lived through my depression years. A clever toddler, watching wide-eyed behind my bedroom door. Trying to puzzle out why Mummy couldn’t get out of bed, and why Mummy couldn’t stop crying.

First came her separation anxiety. She didn’t want to leave Mummy’s side to go off to Pre-School and Kindergarten. We tried many strategies. At Pre-School, the teachers put up yellow (her favourite colour) cellophane on one of the windows.

That was the waving goodbye to Mummy window.

In Kindergarten the assistance teacher would meet us in the car-park and take her away. But this is normal parenting stuff? Right? I’ve read countless books and online advice about just giving kid’s space to grow and separate in their own time.

Year Four spelled disaster. She had always been carefully placed in her class as a child who emotionally needed a little more assistance than other children.

She had had such a fantastic Year Three that the school labelled her ‘mainstream’ and threw her name into the random whatever-teacher-you-get-will-be-fine generator. As a result the then Miss Nine had a teacher fresh out of University – unprepared for the emotional, probably manipulative behaviour of my daughter.

I don’t know what exactly happened in the classroom but by the end of the year my daughter was so worked up, so certain that this teacher was in to get her, that we pulled her out of school a few weeks before Christmas break.

I don’t blame the teacher – I actually think both my daughter and the teacher had a lot in common. They were too similar to like each other.

That was when I choose to seek help. Every week, my daughter and I would have an appointment with a psychologist.

I sat in with her, because that was what my daughter wanted. We talked about fear. Real, mind-numbing fear. How my daughter had always been prone to outbursts. Breaking things, hitting others – which the psychologist explained was her only way to know how to deal with such stomach hurting, muscle aching fear.

We taught her other ways. Breathing was a big focus. We followed the rules of Helping Your Anxious Child By Ronald M Rapee. I borrowed it from the library. We wrote a ‘step-ladder’ goal: for her to use a lift.

We had avoided lifts for years, due to her fear.

Then the school offered the same course, under the name ‘Cool Little Kids’ (which you can assess through ACT Child Health). It was the best thing I ever did.

I was in a room full of mothers, mothers I had seen every day at the school drop-offs and pick-ups. Mothers who were also dealing with this horrible anxiety monster eating at their beautiful children. Mothers who I had passed off as normal.

I had assumed that they were women who wouldn’t understand the pain and the torment of having a child flip-out in a store. Of going somewhere and then, at the last minute, the child refusing to leave the car.

A group of woman who knew what I was going through because they were going through it too. The course was good, but to find a group of women facing similar difficulties to me was amazing.

Then we moved inter-state. We had to. We left our home in Canberra and moved for sunnier pastures. This was a huge concept for Miss Ten to grasp.

We had been in Canberra for five years, this was her home, and this was where she felt safe. Now we had to pack up and go.

I didn’t find her a psychologist when we moved. She was doing so well. She was over the hurdle, had done months of therapy. Her new school was more demanding, so I didn’t want to pull her out for appointments – I guess I should have.

Because here we are, again. With a ten year old with anxiety that has become depression. I think she is somewhat home sick for Canberra, but really, it’s just a black dog on her back.

There’s no real reason or rhyme to why she is depressed. She just is. When I had depression and she was but a toddler on my knee I couldn’t tell you why I was sad, it was everything and nothing, all at once. Now, she faces the same hard depression road so many of us have travelled.

Day one of not wanting to go to school, I took her to the GP. We got a mental health plan, which makes treatment more affordable.

The GP got Miss Ten to practice breathing and we came up with a code word. A word she could use to tell me if she wanted to hurt or harm herself.

The GP explained that was very hard to tell someone that you want to hurt yourself, so the code word just made it easier.

I sat in the chair in the GP’s office and pretended I was an adult. That I knew about code words and breathing and I was coping just fine. I held back the tears until we were home and Miss Ten was watching a movie. Then I sat in my room and cried my eyes out.

I should have asked the GP what I was supposed to do if Miss Ten used that code word. What if it was the middle of the night? Or we were travelling somewhere? But I couldn’t ask because then my daughter would see me for totally hopelessly lost person that I am.

We went to book in the psychologist and was told we would be put on a waiting list and should hear form the office within two weeks.

Two weeks? My daughter needed help now.

Day two. I rang the school and immediately burst into tears. “I can’t get her to go to school. I can’t get her out of bed.”

“Bring her in” The kind Deputy Principal informed me.

“She refuses to wear her uniform.”

“Bring it with you.”

We sat in the Deputy Principal’s office and had our own little counselling session. After a suitable time I left the two of them talking, and headed home for more crying.

Later the DP rang me and told me, Miss Ten had gone to class and worn her uniform. She came home happy. She was back to her old self. We had the weekend and headed to the beach. It was wonderful, we were sun soaked and tired, but happy.

Day three. Miss Ten could not be coaxed – threatened or otherwise – out of bed. I ended up climbing the loft bed and wresting her out of it. She jumped down and ran to our backyard.

I chased her around the backyard, both of us advoiding dog droppings, while our dogs enjoyed our unexpected game.

Eventually, I said I would call the school and get the DP to come to the house to collect Miss Ten. Only then, still in her PJ’s with no shoes on, would she agree to go to school.

Sitting in the DP’s office again (today, day three). Waiting for the DP to finish a meeting. Waiting for someone to convince my daughter that she has to go to school.

I twitch and wiggle and check my phone for some sort of distraction. I watch Miss Ten sit, still and straight-backed. Her angry eyes are set straight ahead. I almost see the angry black dog sitting on her shoulders.

I almost catch its feeling, its aura – but the truth is, I can’t. I can’t see it, and I can’t feel it. All I can do is sit with her through it. Just like a child having chemo, or being operated on.

I can just sit next to her, even while she hates me, even while she’s lost. It’s all I can do.

Maria Guest

Maria Guest is a mother of four children. She used to dream of long walks on the beach and a good book to read; now she wants to rent a hospital room for a whole week with an IV drip and a catheter. This will mean she doesn’t even need to wake for food or toilet trips. As a stay-at-home-mum, she dreams of becoming rich and hiring a cleaner, a nanny, a tutor, a gardener and a cook. She makes do in her life with humour, wine and good food. More about the Author

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