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Scare Tactics - When a Child Doesn't Want to Go to School

By Sally Collings - 7th June 2010

Ten minutes before we’re due to leave for school, my seven-year-old tells me, ‘I’ve got a sore tummy. I feel sick.’ Just a minute earlier she was running up and down the hallway with her little sister, giggling fit to bust. Now she’s clutching her belly and looking pale.

So I ask her all the usual questions: where does it hurt, is it inside or outside, maybe you should sit on the toilet and see if you need to do something there, have a little drink of water to see if it goes away. No good – Bethany still says her tummy hurts. She looks a bit dodgy, so even though it came on suspiciously suddenly, I decide to give her the day at home.

Around lunch time, after a quiet morning in bed, the truth comes out. Bethany says she was scared to go to school because of the ‘mud game’ the boys play. She explains that every lunch time, some of the boys in her class pick someone and pretend to throw them in the mud puddle on the oval.

Later in the afternoon, we talked to her about some different strategies she could try. We explained that maybe the boys weren’t being deliberately mean – sometimes kids just think a game is funny and they don’t realise it’s scary for other children. Were other children scared too? Bethany said a couple of her friends wouldn’t go into the playground at lunchtime because they didn’t like the mud game. Could Bethany tell her teacher about the mud game? She said she already had. Robert promised to talk to her teacher the next morning about the game.

Bethany went back to school the next day – a bit nervous, but at pick-up time she was all smiles again. No one had tried to push her in the mud, and the mud game was no more.

It’s a small story about a small worry for a small child. But it is the starting point for Bethany discovering how to deal with some bigger issues: how do I say ‘no’ if I don’t want to do something? When should I call in the authorities? Should I protect someone else who is scared or worried, or let them sort out their own problems?

If you’re looking for ways to help your child deal with their fears, here are some of my ideas...

Brainstorm – like we did, sit down with your child and talk through different ways they can tackle a problem. Especially with playground conflict, there’s usually more than one solution that might work. Explain to them that they might need to try a couple of different things to find what works this time, in this situation, with these people.

Breathing – if your child gets tense before a big event – maybe a sports carnival, a concert or an important test – remind them to breathe. Most of us hold our breath when we’re anxious, and just directing your attention to your breathing can help dissolve the fear.

Charm – not the sheer charm of their personality (though that can help too), but a talisman of some sort can be a real comfort. Let your child choose something that has meaning for them – a Buddha figurine, a Jesus badge, a little angel, a special stone or shell. Let them carry their talisman wherever they need it; make sure it’s something they can easily slip in their bag or pocket, or under their pillow at night. We are physical creatures, and sometimes a tangible object is what we need to reclaim our serenity.

Prayer or Affirmation– offering up concerns to a God or affirming one's own personal power can help children as well as adults. If prayer is not part of your family’s day, you can also keep it simple. At bedtime, just take a moment with your child to name a good thing and a bad thing that happened during the day.

Knowledge – if your child is scared of something specific like thunder or dogs, equip them with some facts. It can be very empowering for them to know why something happens – you might even find their fear is transformed into pleasure once they know a bit more about how the world works.

Pretending – for very young children, role play can dissolve their worries. Encourage them to become what they fear: an ogre, a dentist, a grumpy shopkeeper or a very big dog.

Gatekeeping – watching the evening news, seeing a scary movie or hearing a parent describe their boss in graphic terms can be distressing for young people. Be aware of the influences around your child: try to foster positive ones rather than ones likely to cause anxiety.

Comments (5)

YvetteVignando's picture

Agree - Other Kids Still Learning

Sarah, I also say similar things to our children (who of course are not 'perfect' either) about other children "still learning" how to behave or solve a problem. I am still saying it even after preschool, into primary school, and even in high school. I know our kids are each still learning things about their own behaviour but I think it's very helpful to use the words you are using because it does two things: takes away the judgemental approach and helps our own children feel less personally targeted in some cases. Loved your thoughtful comments, thank you.

SarahLiebetrau's picture

Yes great tips, thank you. I

Yes great tips, thank you.

I also have a little boy with a sensitive temperament so I have a feeling we are going to have a few of these "I feel sick" days when he heads off to school next year. At the moment he tells me he just doesn't want to go, and after a while I am able to coax the reason out of him - kids laughing at him or hurting him at pre-school.

I have used the strategy of talking him through various scenarios and the options available to him to counteract the behaviour. I also found it useful to explain that sometimes other kids are still 'learning' the correct behaviour and that they are acting out of their own frustration, to help him understand that it's not necessarily about him. And similar to the 'that's your opinion' comment by Jodie, I have encouraged him to think about whose opinions he really values when he feels upset by names a child is calling him. I asked him whether what that child says is really important to him, compared to what I (or other friends whose opinion he values) say, and he agreed that it's not important. I tried to reiterate that it's ok to feel upset about it, just remember that it's not too important.

It's tricky with very young children to not over-do it to the point where they become confused, but I am pretty sure it reassured him. He asked me why children like this one boy are constantly doing things to hurt others, and I replied that maybe he has just not learnt how to control his feelings just yet, but that doesn't mean that you have to put up with it. Doing something about it in a constructive way helps the child process their fears and act assertively without retaliating or becoming a helpless victim. It's worth perservering with this valuable lesson.

SallyCollings's picture

Playground nerves

Jodie, that's such a great response to things people say that hurt you - 'that's your opinion.' Nice and calm, and it's not a put-down. (I know lots of grownups who would benefit from that approach!)

Abby, I like that approach to role playing - it's probably a really effective way to externalise the worry.

Jodie at Mummy Mayhem's picture

Some great tips here,

Some great tips here, Sally!

Our 8yo went through a difficult period last year at school. He is quite an emotional child, and if people upset him, he gets quite worked up about it. The kids at school cottoned on to this, so they used to rev him up a little, because they found it funny. We had to sit down and tell him that if they said something to him to make him angry (eg, your writing is really messy), most of the time, he could probably get away with saying, "That's your opinion." I told him to just shrug it off.

Eventually, it got better, and he's ok now.

Role Playing

We've also been trying role playing in which a puppet or doll actually plays the worry itself. It was suggested in an anxiety book and, though I'm not sure whether or not it works in the long term, it's a great way to get the conversation going.

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