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When School Gave My Daughter Anxiety Attacks

Her school anxiety had gotten so bad, she was barely able to eat dinner. How one mom coped with stress and workload for children with ADHD.

I was eating dinner with my daughter, and I watched her push around the rice on her plate and pick at her chicken.

“What’s wrong, Lee?”

“My stomach. It hurts.”


“Yes!” Red spots rose up in her cheeks as her words tumbled out, “Mr. Peters gave me too much work again in class. I couldn’t finish it on time. He acted like I was making an excuse.”

“Did you tell him you were feeling overwhelmed?”

“Yes. I told him my mind felt like it was exploding. But he told me it wouldn’t be fair to the other students if he gave me less.”

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

I pushed my plate away and thought, If I had a dollar for every time a teacher said that to my daughter.

“But I’m not like his other students,” Lee said. “It’s torture — all that work is like a big mountain I have to climb. My teacher says, ‘Just do it. Just start doing your work,’ and I want to cry.”

Lee had done the right thing by self-advocating, but I thought I knew where the teacher was coming from, too. I’d been a high school teacher with nearly 40 kids in a class, and I heard all kinds of excuses when students couldn’t complete work: “I’m too tired from last night’s soccer practice” or “I need more time to think” or “I have a headache.” What sounded like a dismissal of Lee’s feelings could be, instead, the teacher jumping to a conclusion that Lee was making an excuse.

As the mother of a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and learning disabilities, I also knew when I heard a cry for help. The fact that Lee couldn’t do all of her classwork, and that it was giving her anxiety attacks, was an honest explanation, not an excuse. Mr. Peters needed more explanation, this time from me. Lee’s anxiety was getting worse in his class, and I was getting worried.

[Free Resource: Is It More Than Just ADHD?]

I’d gone to a conference and learned that girls with ADHD and anxiety or depression are much more likely to be overlooked in the classroom because they exhibit symptoms in a different way. Unlike boys who also had ADHD, the girls suffered silently, their self-esteem sinking as they fell through the cracks. No wonder Lee’s teachers insisted self-advocacy was top priority in tenth grade. And it made my blood chill to hear that girls were also at a higher risk for self-injurious behavior, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.

Pushing my fears away, I e-mailed Mr. Peters saying that I wanted to discuss Lee’s problems in his class. He responded that he thought Lee might need a new accommodation for reducing her workload, and he suggested setting up an IEP meeting. So he had heard her, after all. Maybe he hadn’t wanted to offer false promises until they could be signed into action.

The IEP team met the following week, and we agreed that a reduction in her workload should be part of her IEP. That night, I gave Lee the good news as we sat down to dinner. She dug into her pasta and salad, eating more than she had for a week.

“Seconds?” I asked.

She nodded her head. The explanation was loud and clear.

[Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Is An Everyday Occasion]