Q: My 13-year-old son has developed overwhelming anxiety about going to school. This began a year ago, but has gotten steadily worse since then. At this point, he fights me every morning about going to school, and even if I can persuade him to get in the car, he won’t get out. If I try to force him, he becomes nearly hysterical. I’m a stay-at-home mom, so there have been many days this year when I’ve simply taken him back home. His principal and everyone at the school say he’s fine once he’s in the building. He’s a straight-A student and doesn’t have any social issues. When I ask him to explain his fears, he just says he feels scared but can’t identify why. The principal says he should see a therapist. What do you think?
A: It sounds to me — but this is by no means a diagnosis — that your son is having panic attacks. If so, that’s not the same, really, as school phobia. Having experienced several panic attacks in my younger days, I can attest that they are paralyzing and kick in a strong “flight” response. They come on suddenly, are overwhelming, and usually end as quickly as they start; thus the report that your son is fine once he’s in the school building. That would not be the case if this was school phobia. Your son’s inability to explain his fear is also typical. Your description further indicates that other than this isolated issue, your son is well-adjusted.
Generally speaking, a school’s internal resources are inadequate to deal with a situation of this sort; therefore, the recommendation that your son see a therapist. I’m in no position to comment on that advice, but I will say that I’m very cautious and conservative when it comes to recommending therapy for a child or adolescent, no matter the nature of the problem. There are some therapists who have very good track records with kids, and there are some who do not. Furthermore, a therapist who would probe for underlying emotional issues might spend a good amount of your money barking up the wrong tree. If in fact your son is a well-adjusted kid who’s simply having inexplicable and very situation-specific panic attacks, then it might make more sense for him to see someone who could train him in relaxation techniques.
Let me make something very clear: I am not saying that your son should not see a therapist. Without doing an evaluation that would include talking to you, your son, his principal and his teachers, I’m unable to give a yea or nay on that. I’m simply saying that should you decide to go in that direction, you should do so with eyes wide open.
I do know this: Panic attacks and other problems with overwhelming anxiety are not uncommon to tweens and young teens, even otherwise socially and mentally healthy teens. Furthermore, problems of this sort with kids this age often disappear as quickly as they appeared. They are not discipline problems, and treating them as such can make matters worse.
Since you’re a stay-at-home mom, homeschooling may be a viable temporary solution. Given that your son is managing to keep up with his schoolwork and make excellent grades, he is effectively already homeschooling himself. Since he’s obviously a self-starter, homeschooling should not require much time or involvement on your part. It would give him time to get a grip on his anxieties, which he’s only going to do if he’s under no pressure.
If you’re willing to consider this, contact your state homeschool association and plug yourself into a local homeschool parents group. Who knows? You and your son might decide to make the arrangement permanent.