Third grade dropout?
November 26, 2012 5:49 AM   Subscribe

Should I take my eight (almost nine) year old out of school midyear to alleviate her anxiety?

My eight year old daughter is suffering extreme anxiety and or depression centered on school, and extending to other social situations. She has always been shy: in preschool hiding from other children on the playground and feeling rejected when her siblings (we have triplets, two girls and one boy) and friends forgot to explicitly invite her to play.

However, she seemed to be progressing well socially (and super well academically--she is a great reader, halfway through Harry Potter series) through first, second and even half of third grade. We have the triplets in separate classes, but now they do see each other when the classes break apart into levels for reading and math, and on the playground. This last month, though, she goes into hysterics and often can't be forced to go to school. She cries and says she wants to die, and feels ill from the fears. She cites a host of fears: teachers she feels are impatient with her (but who appear, to us, to love her!), anxiety over grades (which are great!), fear of having an embarassing accident; but mostly the feeling of being friendless.

She has reported some minor incidents of unkindness, and we have backed them up with reports from her siblings. There was at least one classmate who criticized the size of her belly (perfectly healthy according to the doctor). She reports being ignored by the "popular" girls she wants to be liked by. She is begging us to home-school her. Should we give in and try to make that arrangement or push her to stay in school? Or, since we plan on getting professional counseling, should we wait for that advice, and what about school in the meantime? Home-schooling would be possible via an online academy, but difficult due to our schedule and the likely jealousy of her siblings!
posted by TreeRooster to Human Relations (47 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I have no qualifications to back up my thoughts here - but I would think working this out now in third grade would be much easier than doing it when she is older. Keeping her home would just increase her isolation in my opinion. Perhaps help her understand that being home won't get her any of the things she is describing that she wants.

Talk to her teachers. She is certainly not the first student to have these kinds of feelings, hopefully they can work with you to help make school a better place for her.
posted by NoDef at 5:58 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Taking her out of school might help short-term but long term, she will be better served by getting the professional help she needs and continuing to interact with her peers. Can you push up your counseling appointment to get coping strategies sooner? I would also fear that her anxieties would just follow her home, and she wouldn't even have a safe place to hide anymore.
posted by fermezporte at 5:59 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

How does she get along wih her sister? Can you enlist her sister in helping pull her along in games?
posted by discopolo at 6:02 AM on November 26, 2012

Or, since we plan on getting professional counseling, should we wait for that advice, and what about school in the meantime?

You need to expedite this. No planning, do whatever you need to do now. Meanwhile, keep her in because her fear about returning is likely to grow worse if you remove her. The things she's experiencing anxiety about - popularity and social issues - are likely to grow worse not better as her cohort ages, so she basically has to develop support and coping mechanisms now.

Work with your school in the interim - they must have services on board for evaluation and some sort of -school-counselor. If home schooling is an option, that implies high parental availability. Can you go in and have lunch with her perhaps? They should be able to work with you to build appropriate support for her.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:12 AM on November 26, 2012 [13 favorites]

I'd certainly seek out the help of a professional therapist who might then recommend a good psychiatrist if it seems appropriate.

I'm most struck, however, with no talk in your question of having talked to the school. Her teachers may have some pretty important insights into what is going on, and the school has undoubtedly dealt with situations like this before. Many children go through periods when they resist going to school and are anxious about it. (Google "school avoidance.") I have no doubt this is really stressful for you, as well as for your daughter, but there are lots of reasons to consider removing her from school to be a solution of last resort. There are many avenues that you haven't explored yet that might lead to a solution other than the one you're asking about.
posted by OmieWise at 6:12 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

It doesn't sound like the "problems" at school are real. However, Her fears certainly are.

Taking her out of school might reinforce the idea that school is 100% of the problem and that you validate that. I don't think that's the right call.

I would see if there is emergency mental health services in your area as it would be good if she could see someone immediately. That way you are not dismissing her concerns and feelings but you are not scapegoating school either.
posted by French Fry at 6:13 AM on November 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Have your child evaluated today. This is not something that can wait. Contact the school and ask to speak to an "Inclusion Advisor", they're the folks that can arrange this for you. Explain what you are experiencing at home, and express concern that there may be an anxiety issue that needs to be addressed.

What your daughter describes is typical school-yard stuff, and she needs to learn how to deal with it. (as opposed to bullying which is very specific to her and a completely different subject.)

Make an appointment with her pediatrician to check for any medical issues. To rule them out if nothing else.

Some kids are more anxious than others, but it sounds like your daughter is catastrophizing on a regular basis.

Talk to her teachers to understand how she's getting along socially in class. Does she have friends? Do the other children make fun of her (more than anyone else, this is third grade after all, everyone is poop-breath or watermelon-head).

Does she have friends outside of school? Do they come over to play, does she go to their houses to play?

Keeping her home is not the answer, not until you've exhausted other possibilities.

You need to sit down with her, when she's calm and rational, not throwing a fit on the way to the school bus, "Sweetie, we're concerned because you're so upset. We're going to work with you to help you in anyway we can. We're going to go to doctors and we're going to go to counselors and we're going to understand why you're so stressed out about school. We love you and want you to be happy. But the best thing for you is to learn to cope with being in school, not taking you out of school. We're your parents, we love you and we want what's best for you."

Now, you need to be super-engaged in her school life. Call her teachers for a daily report. Talk to your daughter about what's going on in school. Don't focus on grades and achievements, but on how well she's controlling her anxiety.

"So, what did you do in PE today?"
"Tell me about who you sat with at lunch."
"What songs did you sing in music?"
"What was the most interesting thing you learned today?"

Help her to understand that her fears, while feeling very real to her, are irrational. "You say Mrs. Nelson doesn't like you, but when I called her today, she said that you had done really well with your book report and that she enjoyed what you had to say about lichen. Does that sound like someone who doesn't like you?"

As for being ignored, that's real and it's life. "I know it hurts your feelings that Shelby and Ashely don't include you, but Caitlyn and Katelin both invited you to jump rope at recess. So doesn't it make sense to hang out with the kids who like you, rather than chasing the ones who don't? That's the world sweetie, not everyone's going to dig you. But you have good friends who value you, and that's what's important."

You may have to talk her through her anxieties, and it will get old. But it's the best thing to do, for you and for her.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:15 AM on November 26, 2012 [22 favorites]

I see no good that can come from forcing your daughter to exist all day in an environment that makes her miserable. Some kids are just not going to thrive in school. Other kids do awesome there. Some kids thrive homeschooling. Other kids don't. If you daughter is miserable in school I don't see any harm to exploring your options. Kids are flexible. She may decide school looks a lot better after trying homeschooling. Or she may thrive on her own and want to stick with it.

Disclaimer - we homeschooled two kids K-12, one of whom is a college freshman now and the other is taking the SAT this weekend. It worked for us.
posted by COD at 6:15 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

It sounds like your daughter has an anxiety problem, not a school problem. Removing the school stress might give some temporary relief, but will do nothing for the underlying problem and might make things significantly worse for a child who already has a lot of difficulty with social situations.

Definitely therapy...within the week if possible.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:22 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd have a serious talk with your pediatrician today to ask for advice and also get a referral to a child psychiatrist. I'd then request a meeting with her school that includes her teachers and the school psychologist (at a minimum). You need way more eyes on her in the school environment to help figure out if there are specific situations that are triggers for your daughter's discomfort.

My instinct is that being in school and learning to deal with her peers and manage her anxiety is better in the long-term for your daughter. BUT, you might want to pull her out for a limited period while you try and get a handle on this. I'll defer to the teachers but it seems like December wouldn't be the worst time to miss some school.

You'll also probably want to familiarize yourself with the anti-anxiety/anti-depression drugs that are available for this age group. Your pediatrician will have some info (since they are often used for kids on the spectrum) but I think that the child psychiatrist will have an even better working knowledge of all that's available.

In the end, you need to do what you think is best for keeping your daughter safe but the school has MANY resources to help you so you should make sure to involve them before you decide to remove her from school permanently. Good luck.
posted by victoriab at 6:22 AM on November 26, 2012

Keeping her home would just increase her isolation

Speaking as a homeschooler -- quite likely the reverse will be true, though admittedly that does depend a lot on your schedules.

Does your area have a "Yourcity-homeschool"-type mailing list? Facebook group? Sign up, check out what resources exist -- there is a lot more out there for homeschoolers now than on-line school-at-home stuff. We participate in a co-op (many classes, many families, one day a week when in session), there are swimming classes and skating sessions etc for homeschooled kids... I think homeschooling is a great idea and it seems like the e-mail lists field a terrific amount of "my kid is suffering in school, how can I pull her" inquiries and those stories tend to have happy endings (which do sometimes involve transitioning back to school after a good stint at home), but I would not recommend it to anybody without the time to do it.

Perhaps help her understand that being home won't get her any of the things she is describing that she wants.

...? Sounds like it would suit her quite well. This article may be of interest. Our experience with other homeschooled kids has been that they are largely free of the burdens of cliques and bullying and the usual primary school hassles. When a boy started crying, seemingly out of nowhere, in a music class at our co-op the other week every kid in the room was concerned; nobody scoffed. When my daughter was the youngest, older kids were happy to help her -- they didn't feel the need to distance themselves lest they be associated with the 'baby,' etc. The child dynamics that exist in homeschool circles are different from the ones in schools.

Do talk to homeschooling parents and read up a bit on the day-to-day realities of it, as it's not clear that it's something your family can easily and happily take on, but if you can make it work it is definitely a good option -- with the exception of COD I think you are so far mostly getting advice from people with zero experience with opting out of schools; take that into consideration. While I have dealt with nothing but enthusiasm from others, one does hear anecdotes about others' kids visiting a specialist of some sort and the specialist having no clue about homeschooling and some difficult interactions arising out of that; I would not expect the counselor to be able to say "Yes, homeschool" or "No, don't" with much objectivity unless s/he is uniquely well-informed there.
posted by kmennie at 6:23 AM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm a parent of a 9 and 12 year-old kids. I wouldn't pull her out. See the counselor and stay positive. I think it's better for her to stay in school and learn that there will be some unkindnesses. There will always be people who do not like us but that should not make the entire school experience bad.

On one hand, it's important to be sensitive to your child's feelings, on the other hand I think it's good for them to be exposed to reality (not bullying of course, but normal school stuff). If my kid was upset that the popular kids didn't like him, I would approach this topic with sensitivity and talk it out. If he continued to cry about it, and I was confident that there was not bullying, I would get tougher. We can't always get what we want. Instead of crying about the popular kids not liking you, how about finding a kid who doesn't seem to have many friends and make friends, or enjoy and be grateful for the friends she has? Address her individual anxieties and talk to her about what is true and factual. Ask her what makes her think her teachers are impatient? Maybe they are, maybe they are not. It's not a reason to quit.

I think it's important to share with her what you feared as a kid. You had fears, you got over them, and this is how it turned out fine. Empower her. If you pull her out I think it would damage her resilience even further.
posted by Fairchild at 6:32 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was an anxious kid, and now I'm an anxious adult. I'm going through the ropes to learn better coping mechanisms now, but lord do I ever wish my parents had made any effort to help me with this when I was a kid. I think they just figured I'd grow out of it. I didn't.

She's going to have all these same anxieties about the workforce, best to confront this all head on while she's young. It doesn't get easier as an adult, I assure you. I've been working from home the past few years and, while I have less anxiety during the day, it hasn't addressed the underlying problems. The regular channels of therapy and self-work have been helping, but having to undo decades of bad habits and twisted coping mechanisms just makes it harder.

If you do decide to homeschool, don't use that as a reason to avoid getting her help. Anxiety has deep roots, this will all keep repeating itself for her if only the visible parts are dealt with.
posted by Dynex at 6:37 AM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

One other thought that might help to supplement any counseling or other strategies - does she have any other social group apart from her school peers? One of our daughters found herself in a class which was very clique-y and she struggled with that at around your daughter's age. We tried out various things but eventually she really hit it off with the local stage school group and having a different peer group who liked her really helped to give her a perspective that her school social group was not the whole world.
posted by crocomancer at 6:38 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

What's different for her this year than last year? Because it sounds like something's shifted in the environment that she's struggling to deal with. (Above and beyond the anxiety, that is.)

I had a lot of trouble my 3rd grade year too: I was a reasonably social and bright kid, but my previous elementary school shut down, and half of us ended up at the other nearby school - which was a different kind of building, tended to enforce discipline with loud whistles (at lunch, recess, etc.) and was restrictive in ways that didn't make sense to me at the time. (And boring, too.) I could deal with some of that, but not all of it, and not every day.

Adult-me realises that there were totally logical reasons for a bunch of their choices, and no one was *trying* to make me miserable, but kid-me was still miserable.

In the end, my parents started bringing me home at lunch instead (my father was a professor and my mother didn't work at the time) but if that hadn't worked, something like permission to go read quietly in the library might have helped a lot. (They open-enrolled me in a different elementary school in town the next year, which I loved.)

As other commenters have said: I found having social groups that were not connected to school very helpful. (At that age, I was doing a variety of after school activities, and my parents encouraged things like sleep-overs and so on when they worked out. One on one or three-four people at a time rather than 'lots' worked a lot better for me.) I wonder, reading your question, if it's possible her preferred style of making friends is very different than her siblings, and that's part of what's causing the anxiety?
posted by modernhypatia at 6:41 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's important not to make this question about the value of home schooling. Lots of families home school with great success. It takes time and dedication and should be a well informed decision of the parent - not a reaction to a specific incident or situation.

The question describes a child which was thriving in the public school system until "This last month". The first option should be to understand why things have changed and assess the potential for counseling and her teachers to help. After they understand the situation better and have an informed understanding (both child and parent) about the realities of home schooling should one undertake such a large step...
posted by NoDef at 6:43 AM on November 26, 2012 [8 favorites]

Just a nod to homeschooling - My fiance's got a friend whose whole family (five kids) were/are homeschooled - not because of anxiety but because they're very catholic and wanted that control over their education. I thought it was kind of weird because "what about the socializing?" and all that. But apparently there's regularly scheduled activities for that purpose, meeting up with other homeschoolers. We've met this friend's whole family, they're all great people, very friendly and well-adapted. Unusually confident, if anything. Yes part of it's their personalities and general familial attitudes.

I'm not someone who would immediately leap towards homeschooling my own future kids, but this family has made me reconsider it as an option. If circumstances for my kid were such, I'd consider it. It doesn't have to be forever either, if the kid improves, perhaps sending them to a normal high school would be doable.

I'm someone who had a terrible time in elementary school from grades 2 - 7, but that manifested as apathy towards being there, my grades went from stellar to failing. It got better for me, I changed schools and made friends, highschool was fine. But knowing how crippling depression and anxiety is like, I can't imagine imposing that on a little kid. Apathy is one thing, anxiety is another.
posted by ergo at 6:45 AM on November 26, 2012

I am so sorry you're going through this. It's exhausting and stressful and fraught for everyone involved. Our slightly-older daughter is of the same ilk, and we have been going through this anxiety for years, though it ebbs and flows. This article from Today's Parent is one I've sent around recently or have showed to questioning friends and family, because it perfectly explains what we were going through for years. We are lucky to be having a better time of it lately, but we've been working on it. An answer I've given previously also touches on this.

This, much as I've learned since asking my own question, (which I can't even really look at because it reminds me of the panic attack I was having) is something she and you all can't think through on your own. It's time for professional help.

This isn't about what's happening at school at all - it's about how her mind is processing it, and it's a type of disordered thinking. It can be helped, really and truly. You could start with your GP for referrals, but it turns out our school's Social Worker has been a great resource too. My daughter's been working on a program similar to "Taming Worry Dragons" and it's made a noticeable difference in a very short time.

Please MeMail me if you'd like to know more about what's helped us, or if you'd like to commiserate. But start making phone calls today. It doesn't have to come down to taking her out of school.
posted by peagood at 6:46 AM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

From a child's perspective, 20 years later: public school can be an awful, awful place full of meanness and hatred and spite and lord of the flies style culture, with indifferent and ignorant adults everywhere. If she's being socially targeted, do something about it now.

I begged my parents for years to pull me out of the school I was in and to do something about the bullying I was experiencing and they simply didn't believe that it was a real problem outside of my head.

I would never willingly put a human being through the experience I was put through as a child. It was emotional torture, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible. I was tortured. I left high school with severely stunted social skills. I didn't have a single friend until college. I've spent my entire adulthood to date trying to deal with the ramifications of my parents decisions and the fact that they didn't seem to care enough to help me when I couldn't defend myself.

Try to understand that just because she can't articulate well what's going on that it's all in her head. Being rejected by peers at every turn destroys a person, and you're really the only people with the power to stop it.
posted by zug at 6:48 AM on November 26, 2012 [10 favorites]

I had nearly-debilitating anxiety and depression in early elementary school years. It's almost funny now to look back on my school pictures from those years, as I have obviously been crying in every single one. I think I probably cried every day at school during that time.

Despite how hard this time was, I am very thankful my parents kept me in school. Instead, I saw a psychiatrist regularly and eventually added anti-depressants. In own opinion and in my experience, pulling me out of school would not have been doing me any favors; removing me from school would have removed the "triggers" of my anxiety at that time, but not addressed my underlying issues.

I would strongly recommend starting therapy ASAP and giving that some time before making any decisions about withdrawing her from her current school. In the mean time, perhaps you could work with the school to arrange a time during the day that she can see and spend time with her siblings. One thing that helped me immensely during the beginning of therapy, before I really got better, was making arrangements to see my good friend at another class half way through the school day. Also, my mom stayed at home and was able to do more volunteering at the school during that time. While she purposely tried to not be too close to me or in my close too often, just knowing that she was around school made me feel less lonely and more secure.
posted by hefeweizen at 6:53 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Help her to understand that her fears, while feeling very real to her, are irrational. "You say Mrs. Nelson doesn't like you, but when I called her today, she said that you had done really well with your book report and that she enjoyed what you had to say about lichen. Does that sound like someone who doesn't like you?"

Speaking as a former anxious kid, this particular script sounds a bit gaslight-y. This is what my parents did the few times I would tell them about things, and that only taught me to stop confiding in them "because they're not just going to believe me anyway".

Instead, I would try: "You say Mrs. Nelson doesn't like you, but when I called her today, she said that you had done really well with your book report and that she enjoyed what you had to say about lichen. So I want to understand what's going on - can you tell me what she's saying or doing that is making you suspect she doesn't like you?" Maybe Mrs. Nelson is talking in a really loud voice and her ears hurt. Maybe Mrs. Nelson chats with the other girls, but is only polite and reserved with her. Maybe Mrs. Nelson fed you a line of bullshit about the lichen report. Maybe Mrs. Nelson just snapped at the class as a whole one day because she was in a bad mood. Who knows.

But that's the thing - to US her fears are irrational, but to your child, they are very real. Let her be the one to figure out they're irrational first. Here's what I mean:
"So I want to understand what's going on - can you tell me what she's saying or doing that is making you suspect she doesn't like you?"

"She made me clean the chalkboards before going out to recess!"

"Huh. Is that something she only does for kids she doesn't like?"

"...No, it's something we all have to take turns doing."

"I see. Was it your turn?"

"....Yes....but I had something I wanted to do at recess REAL BAD and she wouldn't let me!"

"Hmm. Did she let you go out to recess after or did she keep you in?"

"No, she let me go out....oh, yeah, she even let me stop cleaning things early."

"Really? That was nice of her."

"Yeah, it was. Hey, wait, she never let any of the other kids stop cleaning the blackboards early!"

"Wow, she only did that for you?"

"Yeah. ...Hey, maybe she really does like me after all!"

"So what about making you clean the chalkboard before recess? Was that maybe just because it was your turn and she was trying to be fair?"

"Yeah, I guess. But she let me go early, so she must really like me..."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:57 AM on November 26, 2012 [20 favorites]

I would nth the suggestion about getting your child professional help today, but not pulling her out of school, which I think would make the problem worse. It does sound like her anxiety is exacerbated by her siblings, so you might want to seek family therapy as well.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:05 AM on November 26, 2012

Sorry - didn't see that she already sees her siblings and they might exacerbate the situation. Still, finding a time for her to see someone she trusts might be helpful for her in the short term. (I was convinced my first grade teacher hated me, so on bad days, I would sometimes visit my kindergarten teacher - who I loved - during recess.)
Also, "in my close too often" should obviously be "in my class too often."
posted by hefeweizen at 7:18 AM on November 26, 2012

So she seemed to be progressing and then all of a sudden, just in the last month, things have been going downhill?

Talk to the school. Today. Send an email to her primary teacher, the school counselor, the vice principal and the principal. Get the ball rolling. In the email, lay out for them exactly what you laid out for us, minus the taking her out of school part. Let them know that normally you would have gone through the regular channels (initially just the teacher and then ramping up from there) but you feel like your daughter is in crisis so you wanted to bring everyone aboard right away.

If they don't take your concerns seriously, at least you know you have a problem at the school level. Something is happening at school, I would almost guarantee it, for this problem to have been exacerbated so much in the last month.
posted by cooker girl at 7:18 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Based on a talk I recently attended, it's not totally strange that this is happening in 3rd grade when she was doing okay in 2nd. According to the speaker (a therapist), there is a big leap in "development" in the 3rd grade. Kids starts comparing themselves with others and are much less tolerant and forgiving of their peers and/or differences. Cliques begin to form and so now kids start to feel excluded. This continues through 4th and 5th grade until things get totally "Lord of the Flies" in middle school.
posted by victoriab at 7:19 AM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Third graders should not want to die. I know because I was this third grader. Some really terrible things were happening to me that I did not tell my parents about, even when they explicitly asked. I don't say this to scare you; I say this to motivate you to do something today. Right now. This second. Do not wait. This is not about whether homeschooling would be better; it's about helping your daughter alleviate her suffering, no matter the cause.
posted by xyzzy at 7:28 AM on November 26, 2012 [20 favorites]

AskMe has a pretty strong pro-homeschooling (or at least anti-schoolhouse) bias, so keep in mind there's going to be a bit of an "if all you have is a hammer..." thing going on here.

Either something has gone horribly wrong at school that she is not telling you details of, she has developed some kind of anxiety disorder, or she simply lacks coping skills and needs to develop them. None of these possibilities indicate that you should resort to homeschooling yet.

Rather, the most important thing is to find and understand the underlying source of her anxiety, whether it is coming from her school environment or whether it is psychological. It's not just going to "go away" if you pull her out of school. Find out what is going on, first.
posted by deanc at 7:30 AM on November 26, 2012

Get in touch with the school social worker, and get a referral to a therapist. There may be a school she can transfer to, but it sounds like the issues are generic and not very severe. Other stresses may be at play, and a therapist can help you make better choices, as well as helping her cope with/ resolve her issues.
posted by theora55 at 7:36 AM on November 26, 2012

Just to clarify, I'm pro-home-schooling. I think it's a great option for kids who need more enrichment, kids who don't do well in the environments provided (from those who need more structure to those who thrive in none), and kids who need more academic help than a public school can provide. I'm even supportive of families who wish to home school because of religious beliefs.

But I'm not a fan of home-schooling as the first stop for fearful children. The kind of anxiety being described sounds like it needs medical and psychological evaluation, and that school may well not be the primary problem but a symptom of an underlying condition. Anxiety disorders can manifest in the very young. They are solved by treating and not by avoiding.

Additionally, home schooling managed well is not an isolation tank. If this child is begging to be taught at home simply to avoid non-sibling peers and teachers who are not mommy, you're going to end up with a kid who is just as miserable about home-schooling done really well or happy with home schooling done really poorly.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:40 AM on November 26, 2012 [7 favorites]

If you decide to homeschool your child, it should be because you decided to do it, not because she begged you; otherwise you are teaching her that running away from your problems is acceptable, and that she can exert control over your decision-making by throwing tantrums and stressing out.

If you can home-school, then presumably you have the time, and so you have the time to volunteer at her school, and to become partners with faculty and staff to help her in-school. Start there.
posted by davejay at 7:53 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your daughter was getting so *physically* ill every day that she was spending all her mornings sobbing because of it, would you still be "planning on" taking her to the doctor or would you have had her at the doctor yesterday?

This is serious. She needs help right away. Can you get her in to see someone this week?

I have written here before about having had an anxiety disorder as a child (in my case, I was two years older than your daughter when it emerged.) My parents forced me to do the things I was anxious about, and I got way, way worse as a result. It actually did end up having physical health consequences to me. I'm not saying this is necessarily what will happen with your daughter if you keep her in school, I am just saying that forcing her could make things worse.
posted by cairdeas at 8:14 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Wow, just Consider every answer favorited and marked as best. (I might be able to go back and pick 5 or ten to mark as I read over them.) Thanks so much for the fast and awesome response. I don't know how much of our deep concern came through in my phrasing of the question but you all are clearly feeling it and I had to stop reading in order to keep from having a bit of the red eye syndrome when I went to teach my first course this morning.

Lots of your answers confirm my instincts--we had already talked to the school counselor, who suggested self-esteem building activities (and the prospect of learning guitar seemed to help my daughter for a couple of days), and in fact we may be able to do a patient switch and get my daughter in to see a great therapist this afternoon. I am really hopeful that she'll be able to help find out what my daughter needs, including whether there are secrets that she doesn't want to divulge (I know there is already anti-snitching sentiment, and I understand that if she wants to keep open the chance to make friends with someone who has been hurting her feelings she wouldn't want them to find out she told on them.) Or maybe it is really an early symptom of hormonal and brain development, or an anxiety disorder...

It turns out that one factor I hadn't considered was the fact that recently Mrs. TreeRooster stopped volunteering on a weekly basis at the school--not by choice; she had been reading to classes in the library but the new librarian this year didn't want volunteer help. We might need to try something else to fill that void. I also think the suggestions for alternative social group interaction are good...we are thinking about a swim team or maybe some extracurricular musical activity.

But overall your response (did I mention my gratitude!) lets me feel like it was a good idea (although painful) to tell her that we weren't ready to say home-schooling was the answer yet; that we needed to have her talk to our friend the lady who helps children with fears first and see what we can learn together. I'll keep reading now and let you know how it turns out.
posted by TreeRooster at 8:19 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does she have one good friend at school? If she could make one it would be all the difference in the world as she wouldn't feel so alone.
I have always been an anxious person, in fact, I had to drop out of kindergarten as I had the same feelings your daughter has - the teachers didn't like me (I saw them talking about me and pointing) I had no friends and everyone else seemed to know each other and they weren't friendly at all - kids can be like that. "I've got my friend(s) - go away (creep!!)"
In one room we had to visit for "playtime" they had a big slide and it wasn't anchored to the floor as it was in the outside playground. This was very scary to me as when I got to the top of the steps to slide down- it would wobble and I was like 6' off the ground. I used to cry and would turn around and have to go back down the steps which annoyed all the kids behind me as they had to get off, too.
I used to go home and cry and cry and suffer so much that my mom just took me out. It was a good thing. I don't know what I would have done if my own mom hadn't helped me!!
Ironically, I seemed to grow out of my misery as soon a I got away from that kindergarten as I associated it with all my problems. I was very thrilled I never had to go back there and that my mom backed me up proved that SHE loved me if they didn't.
I went on to go through all 8 years at a strict Catholic grammar school a mile from my house and had no problems as I made a good friend there and got to know other kids on the long walk to school.
Unfortunately, the angst came back when I started high school where I was all alone again. Some how or other I made myself go back every day and eventually I was able to make a "best friend" and that was all the difference for me.
Some people will always have a bad problem with anxiety but, for me, if I feel safe, and friends and loving family members make me feel safe, then I can get along ok without medication and I can live a pretty good life.
Good luck with your daughter.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 8:33 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Definitely talk to the school ASAP, and insist on starting the IEP process (if you're in the U.S.) if necessary (if you can see the psychiatrist first, wait until after that). Part of the responsibility of the administrators here is to create an environment where your child feels safe and can thrive, and they should be willing to work with you and your daughter as a team to ensure that happens. (It may require going through the IEP (special ed) process, but EVERYTHING non-standard goes through IEP these days, don't worry about it.)

One really important thing in making a plan to help a child feel comfortable at school is that the child be part of the process and have some ownership of the process. She needs to be part of making the plan and approving the plan, and feel some sort of responsibility and ownership. More and more schools do this as a matter of course, but insist upon it -- she is old enough to be there for at least parts of the meetings, and to participate in planning her own strategies. Having her know that the adults in her life are helping her make a plan to succeed, but that it is HER plan that she gets to help create, approve, and help implement will give her a lot of confidence that adults hear her and are there to help her, even if there are some bumps in the road.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:36 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I happen to have homeschooled both my sons for a long time. Because of that fact, my remarks in discussions like this one are routinely misinterpreted as "rabidly anti public school, pro homeschool". So let's be clear: I am not hear to advocate a particular choice in that regard.

What I am here to say is that third grade was a bad year for both my kids and we did pull them both out to homeschool the year my youngest was in third grade. I was a full time homemaker and volunteered a lot at school. K-2 were a lot less academically rigorous. Third grade had less recess, fewer parties, more academics. Both my sons are twice exceptional (2xE) -- gifted and also learning disabled -- and the additional emphasis on academics was part of why third grade was so hard for both of them.

2xE kids often read as "neurotic". They find some things inexplicably easy and some things mind boggling difficult. They frequently get no sympathy and no help for the things they find hard. My youngest son was qualified for the gifted program, so his third grade teacher refused to meet with me or work with him on his writing. Her professional opinion: He is bright, therefore he needs no help. He is merely being lazy.

The strengths of a 2xE kid tend to mask their weaknesses and their weaknesses may also mask their strengths. I had one son who made straight A's on every report card. My other made one A, one C and the rest B's on most report cards. When assessed, they had remarkably similar patterns of strengths and weaknesses (though not identical), however the B student was both more gifted and more disabled than his brother who made straight A's.

As part of your approach to resolving this, please get your child assessed. 2xE kids who are not identified and thus getting no accommodation tend to be pretty miserable. Once you have a clearer idea of what is going on, it will be easier to decide how best to handle this.
posted by Michele in California at 8:39 AM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

One more thing - I feel that if I had more confidence in myself I wouldn't have been so dependent on what others thought about me. I do wish my mom had pushed me to learn a musical instrument, or taken karate or ballet or something that I showed interest in that could have been nourished.
Not that it would lead to a career on the stage or anything great but just some talent I could have worked on and developed some expertise in and that would have led to getting some confidence in myself.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 8:45 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

My own two older kids are 8 and 11 and homeschooled. Homeschooling has allowed them to be the introverts they are while also enjoying social and group activities at an appropriate level for them. When younger, for instance, my oldest would simply fall to pieces if we did more than a couple of large-group activities a week. He still prefers learning one-on-one to group classes, but he's involved in an Odyssey of the Mind team this year and has a pretty big social circle that keeps him busy. You'll still see him head into his room for a quiet day after a few days in a row with his friends, but it doesn't make him fall to pieces. He has really blossomed in the last couple of years into a very socially adept young person--his social skills are so good that adults who encounter him often comment on it to me. As other homeschoolers above have said, he's also really good with younger kids and enjoys them, as well as being friends with some older boys. Homeschooling removed enough of his burden of anxiety that, although he still deals with it, he has been able to really blossom in ways that make me so happy to see.

Anecdotally, a friend's 12-year-old who also has anxiety and who has been in school except for half of one year has continued to have bigger and bigger problems coping. It's very hard to watch, and his parents struggle with it since long-term homeschooling hasn't been an option for them.

Therapists can be tricky. My own therapist was very anti-homeschooling 5 or 6 years ago (she once told me that gifted kids in public school needed to just "learn to deal with boredom") but now she favors it in some situations, including ours. She wouldn't have been a good advisor to me when my kids were younger.

I don't worry about my kids' future in the workforce, and I reject arguments like, "they might as well get used to it now because they'll have to deal with it someday." My kids have asynchronous development; they are way ahead in some areas, and behind in some areas, especially in emotional regulation. I expect that by the time they're in the workforce, their maturity will allow them to deal better with the stressed they'll encounter. They might also choose their work based on social elements of it--their dad, for instance, works as a software engineer in a setting that is not highly social.

If you've got a precocious reader on your hands, you may be dealing with one of the many kids for whom giftedness and anxiety co-exist; this is the case with my own two older kids, and I was helped the most by meeting with a therapist who specializes in working with gifted, anxious kids, even though I had to drive 2 1/2 hours to see her. You might find an organization called Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) useful. There are a number of good books on the subject, too. Most of them haven't helped much in the day-to-day management of my kids' anxieties, but they have helped a lot in the sense of reassuring me that my kids' patterns and processes are a known quantity.

Just read Michele in California and she said much of what I'm saying. People do often dismiss homeschoolers as starry-eyed ideologues who don't face reality, so, to cement my own credentials as a more-or-less rational person I'll add that my youngest child, a high-energy extrovert with absolutely no anxiety problems, is in public school and thriving there. But homeschooling can let you structure your life with your kid so that she is being appropriately challenged, neither overly protected nor thrown into the deep end in an environment that expects more from her than she can handle.

Seconding getting in touch with local homeschoolers, too. Seeing other families thrive can help you feel confident and give you ideas on how you want to homeschool. You might even get ideas for how to deal more effectively with the school, since many homeschoolers have been through that, or still have some kids in school, or are getting services through the schools.
posted by not that girl at 9:16 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Gifted Homeschoolers' Forum recently published a book called "Making the Choice," about deciding whether to homeschool your child. I haven't read it but have read good things about it. They have several useful books on parenting and educating gifted kids.
posted by not that girl at 9:20 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't worry about my kids' future in the workforce, and I reject arguments like, "they might as well get used to it now because they'll have to deal with it someday." My kids have asynchronous development; they are way ahead in some areas, and behind in some areas, especially in emotional regulation. I expect that by the time they're in the workforce, their maturity will allow them to deal better with the stressed they'll encounter..

The idea isn't that they "get used to it", it's that you give them the tools to deal with it. My parents chose to ignore it as they felt it would eventually solve itself and they didn't know how to deal with it anyway. It was the wrong choice, and I was too young to be my own advocate.

As for sitting back and waiting for their maturity levels to give them those tools, my anxiety is not a symptom of poor maturity. Simply growing older has not solved my anxiety. Now that I'm able to help myself, I've been developing better tools and ways of dealing with it, but I do still wish my parents had been able to in some way help me back when I was a child.
posted by Dynex at 10:07 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I expect that by the time they're in the workforce, their maturity will allow them to deal better with the stressed they'll encounter. They might also choose their work based on social elements of it--their dad, for instance, works as a software engineer in a setting that is not highly social.

First, life skills are "skills", and they are things that are taught. Like school subjects, some people might pick up these skills easily, and some might need more work.

And it doesn't seem very pleasant to be forced to choose a job because it is the only thing that your delicate personality can handle, if there are other professional/personal/financial goals you want to accomplish that can only be achieved in another field.

I think the best advice to the OP is "don't ignore it and hope it just goes away". There's something important going on here that needs to be dealt with.
posted by deanc at 10:23 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Anecdote: I was a very bright and extremely socially awkward kid. I did not experience a lot of straight-up bullying (physical violence, people stealing my stuff, etc), but there was teasing and a lot of isolation. My teachers loved me but I was tremendously anxious about pleasing them because they were literally the only source of positive attention while I was there. I was pretty miserable all of the time and in third grade I started to play sick and beg to stay home.

My parents were considerably less understanding than you and pretty much berated and gaslighted me and forced me to go. I'm sure it came off like I was faking or anxious over nothing because I was getting good grades and they'd hear good feedback from teachers. I'll say though, if they'd tried to get me to explain exactly what was wrong I'd have had a tremendously difficult time putting my misery into words.

A therapist would have been a good idea. But in conjunction, I think taking me out of school for at least a semester and summer would have helped tremendously with the base anxiety and allowed me to address the larger issues. That's provided the homeschooling was rigorous and a lot of time was spent in more supervised social activities designed to help me increase my social skills and help build friendships.

I'm not trying to scare you, but the end result of my parents ignoring and dismissing the issue was my first suicide attempt towards the end of third grade. This is an extreme case; I've also had depression since I was a kid and that contributed greatly. But kids often feel the awfulness in school very deeply and in ways they cannot articulate. Steps that may seem extreme to you may be just what they need.
posted by schroedinger at 10:37 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

Definitely talk to the school ASAP, and insist on starting the IEP process (if you're in the U.S.) if necessary (if you can see the psychiatrist first, wait until after that). Part of the responsibility of the administrators here is to create an environment where your child feels safe and can thrive, and they should be willing to work with you and your daughter as a team to ensure that happens. (It may require going through the IEP (special ed) process, but EVERYTHING non-standard goes through IEP these days, don't worry about it.)

I came in here to say this! If you are in a public school in the US, the school can do a lot to help you. The way you start the IEP process in most states is by sending a WRITTEN LETTER (not an email, and I would probably send it with delivery confirmation so you know for sure the day they got it) that says, "Hi, I'm Mr. TreeRooster and I am referring my daughter MiniRooster for an assessment for special education services under IDEA and for evaluation for a qualifying disability under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. I am referring MiniRooster for her anxiety over going to school. Despite her good grades, MiniRooster experiences physical symptoms of anxiety at the thought of going to school and often feels so ill that she cannot attend school."

If there is something specific going on- like a particular bully who has stepped up his or her game in the past month- then you might not end up needing the whole IEP shebang. BUT if the trigger for the new anxiety was something structural, like she's in a bigger class than last year or now she has to switch classrooms for reading or math, and that will continue for the rest of her schooling, then the IEP could really help. For instance, services she gets through the IEP could be meeting with a school counselor to develop anxiety coping strategies or joining a social skills group so she can learn how to more securely interact with peers. Or it might eventually be, "Yeah, you know what, the kid is overwhelmed by the classroom, but she's smart and she's got two same-age siblings at home and she seems to have fun at soccer. Online academy it is, we'll send her a behaviorist twice a month for working on group interactions." There are a lot of options.

A lot of parents are hesitant about the IEP process, especially with a kid who does well academically, but kids who need non-academic supports can do really well with an involved parent steering the ship through the special ed process.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:55 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've read all the answers above and I'm seeing a pattern that I wanted to chime in on and add to- it seems pretty much all of us who were anxious as kids might have benefited from home-schooling. I agree with the several posters above who say anxious kids turn into anxious adults because it's who they are. I did. I think the fact that I hated school, and had no escape, made it worse because I got used to feeling fearful, and feeling my confidence undermined all the time. Now I'm an adult who is still anxious and introverted, and my life and career choices are falling in line with that (I'm picking an introvert-friendly living situation and career) and it's such a relief to finally have the power to make that choice for myself, that I didn't have as a kid. Being forced to go to school didn't help anything except that I still feel fairly traumatized by various school-related problems I'd had during my childhood. Homeschooling probably would have lifted a huge weight off my shoulders and allowed me to be more confident and thrive instead of just getting through the days. Unfortunately, I got good grades, so my parents didn't think I had any problem.

For what it's worth, if my parents had asked me to try and explain what bothered me, I don't know that I could have. In retrospect, I think it was a combination of a few things. My sister, who was mean to me at home, was just as bad at school- worse even- because no one was watching. (We were in different grades, but passed each other enough in the halls and at recess.) I was also just really introverted- but again, I didn't know that word when I was eight and people just gave me shit for being "shy" all the time and made me feel like something was wrong with me for it. Looking back, I think I was also just smarter than most of the kids I associated with but I wouldn't have thought so back then, instead I just felt like a weirdo for having different interests. Other kids, I think, noticed it too and I became a favorite object of teasing which just got worse and worse up through middle school. Overall, I just had this distinct feeling of anxiety that made me dread school but I'd have never been able to articulate why. This is why I really agree with getting a psychiatric evaluation for your child- a trained professional may be able to tease out feelings and dynamics that hadn't even occurred to you. They would also probably give you pretty good advice regarding whether home schooling would be a good option or not.

Lastly I just wanted to suggest that, if homeschooling is an option, you tell her that. If my parents had told me something along the lines of this: "Look, we understand things are hard for you. We'd like to try some things to help you deal with school more effectively (ie the counselor/ psych) and we want to see you give it a good effort. If you still feel this way at the end of the year, we can talk about other options." Then keep the lines of communication open and monitor her progress. And by other options I mean not just homeschooling, but have you considered just switching her to another school? Maybe it's hard for her to be around her siblings all the time, or maybe she would just benefit from escaping a toxic social situation. I hate this idea that getting her out of her current school equals "teaching her to run away from problems." I'm an adult, and if I had a job where I was utterly miserable, I'd fucking quit. Of course, it would take a lot of planning- I wouldn't just up and quit. I'd identify that it wasn't working, make a plan to get out of it and into something else, and then execute the plan in as timely a fashion as possible. That's a great lesson you can teach her. That's where the "finish out the year" idea comes in. If she doesn't want to continue at her current school, fine, but then she will have to put in the work that comes with the transition. Including first, trying to make it work there. Then if it doesn't, maybe she can help you brainstorm about switching schools or starting home school, and you can keep her involved in planning for the switch. Even if she doesn't have much to contribute, I think being involved in the process will be good in reminding her that it wasn't just an easy out, and that leaving a bad situation requires thought and planning but CAN be done. That's a lesson I'd have benefited from, for sure. (See my previous Asks about the awful, crazy boyfriend it took me forever to leave, because I thought the right response to a crap situation was to suck it up and deal because I didn't deserve to be happier.)

But yes, I really think seeing a psychiatrist needs to be a central part of all this, if nothing else just as a NEUTRAL confidante and validating presence to your daughter. Neutral is important, especially if part of the problem relates to the family dynamic in some way. You never know. But I recently spent some time working with a child psychiatrist and I was constantly amazed by how much it helped kids just to have him on their side. (Also, I am imagining him meeting your daughter and I'm 90% sure he'd be like, yeah, home-school her, she'd do great!) Furthermore, maybe she just doesn't feel comfortable confiding in you guys. I kept the vast majority of my problems to myself when I was a kid because I found it too embarrassing to be honest with my parents. I'd have probably been willing to talk to a neutral, encouraging professional about them, though. The fact that her anxiety seems hugely out of proportion to her problems make me wonder whether something a lot bigger is actually going on, that you just don't know about.
posted by Argyle_Sock_Puppet at 4:18 PM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks again all, I'm still reading carefully and still want to mark every answer as best.

We went to the therapist today. She really got our daughter to open up, at least enough to explain some more specific fears. Evidently some teacher(s) have been calling on students for answers in class--the classic tactic for ensuring attentive kids and punishing dunces. Our girl doesn't mind raising her hand to answer a question she knows but she has really grown to fear the surprise question directed at her. I'm sure you know the drill, it's in every literary portrayal of insensitive teachers and cruel classmates I've read (most recently in Black Swan Green--excellent book). If you stammer or admit you don't know or guess wrong you invite smirks or just get a reputation of being of low intelligence and thus undesirable as a friend.

So my wife is on the other computer now polishing up kind emails asking teachers not to continue this practice. We already got her reading teacher to move her seat away from a tease to be by a potential friend.

Our daughter also has eating issues, which are causing her trouble in the cafeteria. She has grown more and more intolerant of anything resembling a vegetable over the years, and runs into criticism from cafeteria helpers when she can't finish her healthy foods. We are thinking of various work-arounds for this.

So the therapist and school counselor and many here agree that finding ways to defeat the anxiety now would be worth the effort. Our daughter is willing to give it a try, at least for some more of this year. She is putting together a list of potential friends to have over. She is excited about learning guitar and auditioning for a magnet school in the arts that will be an option next year. I'm going to put a lot of effort into convincing her siblings to give her encouragement at school. Will keep you posted, at least once or twice more!
posted by TreeRooster at 8:14 PM on November 26, 2012

After reading your follow-up I thought it might be useful to share my experience of childhood anxiety counseling. (Not because I think your daughter's experience is or necessarily well be the same, just to provide one child's perspective, and things to maybe be aware of). When I went to a counselor about my anxiety as a ten year old, I really wanted help, but at the same time, the counselor was a stranger to me so I didn't feel like I could immediately bare these super private thoughts I was extremely ashamed of to him. I was extremely uncomfortable talking about how I felt, and I felt like the counselor could tell how uncomfortable I was but wouldn't stop pushing me to open up. (He was only doing typical counselor-ish things like asking something and then looking at me patiently and expectantly for a looooong time, or asking something in a variety of gentle ways, but I still knew it was the counselor way of pushing). So because I felt like it was the only way to put the brakes on the pushing, I just told the counselor about some minor and unimportant things that bothered me, and hid the thing I was really afraid of. The counselor seemed really pleased and the things I mentioned were really easily solved. He told my parents what I had said. My parents didn't take me back for a second session. It was very not helpful.

Now, this doesn't sound like your daughter's experience, but I just wanted to say that deeper and possibly more real things may come out as she has time to get to know the therapist more.
posted by cairdeas at 11:38 PM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Folks, I never said, "ignore it and it will resolve itself." I said, and this is what has worked really well for us, that homeschooling has let us adress the kids' introversion and anxiety in productive ways, rather than sending them every day to a setting that overloads them. It is also simply true that kids can't do things they're not developmentally ready for, and there are aspects of dealing with anxiety, like the ability to be aware of your own thought processes in a meta-cognitive way, that they may not get until later. We work with the kids in developmentally appropriate ways that schools can't generally emulate for kids with anxiety. For instance, one of my friends has a son who has struggled in school because he sometiems needs time alone to recharge. This is simply not possible in a school setting, and no school or teacher has been willing or able to give him 20 minutes during the school day to be actually alone--nor is there a room in the building where that would be possible even if the school were willing.

I don't expect my kids to grow up as delicate flowers. I expect them to grown up strong and self-aware. For us, homeschooling has helped us with that so far.
posted by not that girl at 1:29 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Update: no easy fixes yet. She had a couple of really brave evening/mornings where she worked hard at homework and tried to head to school with a positive attitude. Then tonight another breakdown with lots of tears and wailing. She eventually did get more lucid though, really liked that we told her that she could be at least a big part of the decision each day about whether to go to school, and unburdened herself of some more details.

This time she told us that the biggest problem was not the fear of rejection but rather that the classroom was too noisy and even some of the girls who pay her attention are too hyper, leaving her with frequent headaches and inability to focus. I'm really not sure what to think since she gets good grades (so far, but these absences might put an end to that). I can believe the headache story, she has had those for quite a while (but we thought that an anti-allergy program was working.) Maybe its time to see the pediatrician too.

I think she is an introvert (with a hidden gregariousness that comes out among good friends) and has an anxious personality. In a social setting she can simultaneously fear being ignored and then feel extremely uncomfortable if she is suddenly getting lots of attention. That describes most of us somewhat, I know, but it may be enough to trigger headaches and nausea for her.

We are quite open to homeschooling. I always thought it sounded better than middle school actually, I just wasn't ready this soon--she is still too little to stay home alone or teach herself from a book in some subjects. I'm also afraid that if we do home-schooling right, with lots of required study and social group interaction she may find herself just as anxious as before. Not to mention that her sister will probably demand home-schooling too when she sees the perks of home-cooked meals and relaxed testing environment and breaks etc.

We told her that home-school is possible, but that it's hard work and we really need to figure out what will make her happiest for the long term--which might mean her figuring out how to be happier, with the help of counselors, no matter where she is, and then we can focus on whether home-school is best. Unfortunately that means we are stuck for a while in limbo, where we aren't set on any one course for certain, but we still have to try our best to make school work in case that's the option that wins out.
posted by TreeRooster at 9:38 PM on November 28, 2012

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