After years of bullies, social-skill meltdowns, and accommodation tweaks, school-related anxiety is literally making Natalie ill. Her mom feels pretty sick about it, too.
by Kay Marner
I often wish homeschooling my daughter, Natalie, who has ADHD, was a realistic option, but I know myself well enough to know that it’s beyond my capabilities. I dearly wish that weren't the case because school is (literally) making her sick.
One day during the week of Thanksgiving I received a series of texts from Mrs. McCasland, Natalie’s special-education teacher. Nat wasn’t feeling well. She didn’t have a fever, but she had a nasty headache. She rested in the nurse's office for a while, and that’s just not like her. She didn't even feel like making a turkey out of cookies, chocolate frosting, and candy. She was crying.
Mom to the rescue. I picked her up and brought her home early. And, over the course of the next couple of hours she made a dramatic recovery. She was definitely going to return to school the next morning, I thought.
But when I woke up Nat for school the next day, she just wasn’t herself. I let her go back to sleep, and thought I’d re-evaluate later in the morning.
An hour or so later she was up for the day, and it became clear that she was perfectly healthy. Healthy enough to eat a good breakfast". To play "Mario Kart on Wii. To want Mom to entertain her. Okay, I decided, this child needs to go to school. Time to get her into the shower. That’s when the truth came out.
"I'm not sick. I'm just not going to go to school anymore. I’ve had enough of kids being mean to me. My decision is made — no discussion! I'm done. I'm not going to school."
Natalie has been having a lot of ADHD-fueled problems with social interactions at school. In fact, run-ins with various kids have been making her miserable throughout the school year, and have been the impetus behind every single incident where she’s lost her temper, had a tantrum, or somehow fallen apart at school.
A series of blow-ups both at school and during her Tae Kwon Do after-school program had reached crisis proportions just the week before. Her special education teacher actually said that she might not be able to keep her in her classroom any more. That scared me enough to realize it was time to call Nat’s psychiatrist and talk about a change in medication. We raised her dose of Risperdal. For a couple of days Nat seemed to be doing much better. Then came the day that Natalie pretended to be sick, and announced that she was done attending school.
There had been some small incident on the playground that day, which both a friend and a teacher's aide had witnessed. All reports were that Natalie had handled the situation beautifully; her teacher was proud. But even though Natalie didn’t escalate and become aggressive during the incident, it was the last straw. She’d had it. She was never going back. Well, she’d go on Thursdays for band practice and her clarinet lesson, but then she’d come home right after that.
I did manage to get her to school by about 11:00 that morning. Bribery did the trick. And the next day she got ready and went to school with no problems. But the pattern re-emerged the week before winter break. She just didn’t feel well all week. She’d call from school complaining of a sore throat, being tired, having a headache. She came home every day after school instead of going to Tae Kwon Do.
Once again, she made a miraculous recovery that lasted throughout her two-week winter break, but the mysterious illness hit again this Tuesday around lunchtime — halfway through her first day back at school. Some unknown trigger led to a 45-minute meltdown. Mrs. McCasland had to clear the other students from the room while Natalie barked, growled, and hit. In the tantrum’s aftermath, Nat felt sick all afternoon and evening, when she awakened in the middle of the night, and before school this morning. No fever, no stomachache, nothing tangible. Just "I don't feel well," repeated over and over and over again. And I believe that she really doesn’t feel well — that her anxiety over school is making her feel sick.
Both Mrs. McCasland and I made plans to reward her if she stays in school and behaves well for the rest of the week. I promised to buy her a cover for her iPod. Mrs. McCasland put aside a special prize from her prize box that Natalie can earn by having good days through Friday. Those incentives motivated her to go to school today.
But what about the long term? I don't know how to help Natalie feel more comfortable and confident at school. My maternal instinct tells me to get her out of there, but, like I said, I know I can't homeschool her.
And what if her bouts of out-of-control behavior continue? Her neighborhood elementary school isn’t equipped to handle kids with serious problem behaviors.
Like Natalie, I also feel just sick — because I don't know of any better option for Natalie — for me — or for our family.