A LIST ABOUT CHILDHOOD ANXIETY

HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH, MOTHERHOOD, THOUGHT-PROVOKING, USEFUL

My earliest memory of having a panic attack is age 12 or 13, sitting on my bedroom floor doing my homework whilst listening to the charts (natch), I remember feeling like my heart was going to burst out my chest and the walls were caving in.

Now, reflecting as an adult,  the thought of a child suffering with anxiety  is utterly heart breaking. Thank you so much to Natalie Goodacre  for talking about her experience with her daughter and how they took steps to try and make life easier for her.


Four years ago we were like most parents as we waved our daughter off at the gates as she was about to begin the biggest journey of her life, school.

  • Ava was like most 4 year olds, loud, funny, bubbly, always skipping and singing. But this seemed to change overnight.

  • You expect a few tears and separation issues when your child starts school. You do not expect these issues to continue past the first half term.

  • It did for us. Ava would scream and cry, before during and after drop-off. Clinging onto me the teacher would have to prize her out of my arms and hold her whilst I snuck out of the classroom and drove to work sobbing behind the wheel. Every. Single. Morning.

  • “She’ll get used to it.” The kind teacher used to tell us.

  • Things became worse. Ava went from being such a placid little girl, to a bottle of anger almost as soon as she started school. This manifested itself at home. She would come home from school and lash out, scream until her throat became sore, throw things, tip over chairs, slam doors and sometimes she would try to kick or hit.

  • She began to withdraw and shut herself off from us. The loving relationship she had with her sister became fractious and volatile.

  • Due to both of us working full time Ava had to attend breakfast club.

  • Her behaviour became so stressful at drop off that after her first term we asked my mum to do the school run, hoping a familiar face would calm her in the mornings.

  • Ava began complaining of tummy ache and headaches every morning, my mum had to give her a dose of Calpol just to get her to leave the house.

  • It was at this point that I began to get a phone call around once a week asking if I could collect Ava because she was being sick.

  • Work became frustrated with me for constantly asking to leave early, and school became frustrated because Ava’s attendance was floundering.

  • A few times they actually kept her at the back of the classroom in the “feelings corner” with the bin until after afternoon register so that it wouldn’t affect the schools attendance figures, which started to ring alarm bells for me about their lack of support for Ava.

  • The sickness then increased in frequency, towards the end of year 1 to around to multiple times a week. Ava was vomiting several times a day, several times a week.

  • We took Ava to the GP. The diagnosis was heart-breaking, Ava was suffering from childhood anxiety and cyclic vomiting syndrome.

  • The GP said it was likely caused by school, it’s common and she’ll just have to “get used to it”.

  • I went home shocked and confused by the lack of support for our little girl. I didn’t want her to “get used to it”. I didn’t want her to spend her childhood miserable, vomiting her way through school.

  • I cuddled her for longer that bedtime. Cried a lot, then furiously researched what I could do.

  • I took a week off work, and kept her off school for a week. It was glorious. That sealed the decision for us.

  • We decided that I would quit my job, and we would home educate her. We’ve been home educating both girls for 2 years now and absolutely love it.

  • We deregistered Ava from school because we had lost her to the education system, she was a shell of herself, a little girl lost in a world of academic pressure and societal conformity.

  • At this stage, over 2 years ago, travelling around the world was a pipedream. Something Will and I would chat about late into the night. I couldn’t imagine at that time taking Ava anywhere. A scared, quiet, shy little girl with zero confidence and a whole heap of anxiety.

  • We have worked with Ava lots surrounding her anxiety, loud noises, crowds and new situations are her triggers.

  • An example of this is a recent family meal. There were 16 of our nearest and dearest gathered around the table. Ava spent the majority of her time under it, with her hands over her ears.

  • Ava’s anxiety always manifests itself in sickness. We can tell when she is anxious about something as she complains of tummy ache and in extreme cases this will still lead to vomiting.

  • This has settled greatly now. There have been two instances recently where she has vomited due to anxiety. One was during a sleepover with her friends, and another was after a play date with some new people.

  • Ava is super sensitive and highly sensory. She struggles with noise, bright flashing lights, and strong smells. We have noticed that her anxiety seems to be triggered by situations where she has to work extra hard to process these senses.

  • To help her we talk about things before the event and prepare her for it as best we can. She is happy to take her ear defenders along and use them if needed, and isn’t embarrassed or worried to do what she needs to. For example at a recent memorial service she was struggling and told me she felt sick, so we popped into an empty shop nearby away from the crowds and browsed until she felt calmer.

  • This is huge progress for Ava, she can now recognise her feelings and deal with them appropriately. This is because we have had the time to help her grow and develop her emotional literacy, and recognise the symptoms and triggers of her anxiety before they kick in.

  • Anxiety cannot ever be cured, but with help and guidance Ava will be able to manage it.

  • At the lowest point of her anxiety, Ava really struggled to play with her peers. She would always end up playing alone, sometimes through choice because it’s easier to play alone and protect your feelings than leave yourself open to risk.

  • I vividly recall a teary conversation I had with a six year old Ava. Where she told me how she wandered around the playground alone everyday because the girls said she couldn’t play with them once and she didn’t want to go through the heartache of asking them again.

  • “I’m different mummy” she told me, “I’m not the same as them and they don’t understand”.

  • My gosh! She was so bang on! She is different and still really struggles to play in groups, you will often see her on the peripherals of a game, dipping in and out of group and solo play.

  • The difference between then and now, is that she embraces it. That is 100% down to our lovely home-ed community. No longer forced to play at set times, with only peers her age, Ava now gets to choose when and with whom she socializes.

  • A particular group that I have joyfully watched Ava interact with is toddlers. She is just gorgeous with the babies and pre-schoolers in our groups. I have the joy of watching her take tiny fingers in her hand and lead them around, telling them all she knows about the world, identifying insects and plants. Passing her knowledge as the ‘big girl’ of the group onto these little ones, who always seem in awe of her.

  • From going to a place where she was always seen as bottom of the class, and the least ‘clever’ (her words). To a safe space where she feels intelligent and her knowledge is valued highly. It has given her the roots she needed for her self-confidence to grow again.

  • Ava has also recently been diagnosed with Dyslexia. She has always had anxiety around reading and writing, refusing to try and becoming angry, this explains why.

  • She is so terrified of failing, she always goes back to a time at school when a page was ripped from her book for being messy. So she tells me she’d rather not try to write now. School really stifled Ava’s creativity. She was pushed to read far too soon and it saddens me that she has only just started to love reading again.

  • We have done lots of work to help Ava cope with her anger. Removing the catalyst is always the first step – in this case that was school.

  • We never, ever punished Ava for being angry. All feelings are valid, even the bad ones. We created an ‘angry bag’. It was basically a bag containing some things to help her when she felt those angry feelings coming on.

  • Inside the bag there was a book about anger, a squishy stress ball, a cuddly toy, a mini figure of the character ‘sadness’ from the Inside Out movie (to help her understand that angry feelings usually come from a place of sadness and these two emotions are interchangeable), and because Ava is a very sensory person she chose a bottle of Oregano (no idea why this particular herb). She said that the smell made her feel calm.

  • Whenever she felt angry, or we could see the tell-tale signs of anger, we reminded Ava to grab her ‘angry bag’ and take herself someplace quiet to calm down. When she felt calm she would then come and talk to us (usually daddy) about the reason she felt angry.

  • Ava now recognises her anger before it escalates and is able to tell us she feels angry or take herself off to calm down some place quiet. She no longer needs her ‘angry bag’ and is happy just cuddling her hippo or one of her (many) dinosaurs. It has taken lots of patience, and reminding her, and everyone else, that she likes to be alone to process these angry feelings.

  • It has been so long since she last had an outburst of anger that I cannot actually remember when the last one was.

  • Ava loves to play. She spends hours deeply engrossed in the fantastical made up small worlds, lost in her imagination. She needs to play, it is how she processes and deals with everything.

  • And I am not ashamed to say that we have spent the majority of the last 2 years just playing, all day every day.

  • The result of all this fun is an 8 ½ year old little girls who still adores toys, has a wicked sense of humour, vivid imagination and, unlike some nearly 9 year old girls, she still retains all of that yummy childhood innocence.

  • Ava likes to wear her wooly hat, it is her comfort blanket and is one of the tools that helps her feel less anxious in social situations.

  • She told me it makes her feel hidden, and she wears it from the minute she wakes until the moment she sleeps. It is almost an extension of her being.

  • But, my goodness, the amount of times people comment on it, touch it, pull it off her head, mock her for wearing it. It is always done in a light hearted manner, in jest. But it really hurts Ava and is an invasion of her space. You would never approach an adult, pull off an article of clothing and laugh about it. How weird and inappropriate would that be?

  • It saddens me that people treat children this way without even realising how wrong it is. Children have the same complex emotions as adults, but often adults forget that children are people too.

  • I am so very proud of the girl she has grown into. A vivacious, funny, daring individual. A passionate feminist who has a wicked sense of style and strong world views.

  • Knowing the girl she was then, and the girl she has become, I know that this growth would not have happened had she continued attending school.

  • It actually terrifies me to think about who she would be now had she stayed, how it would have shaped (damaged) her personality and stagnated her growth. I hand on heart believe this personal growth is down to one thing; Freedom.

  • There have been times along this path that I have faltered and doubted our decisions. It is extremely hard to break away from the traditional route in life. Being with our children 24 hours a day, often solo with no breather is incredibly intense and full-on. But it’s so worth it for the sake of our daughters mental wellbeing.

  • She still suffers terrible anxiety, and the sensitive soul that she is, will continue to for the rest of her life.

  • We are so fortunate to be able to unschool her and give her the tools she needs to cope in the big wide world.

  • We cannot wait to watch her curious, creative little brain flourish on our worldschooling adventure.

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1 Comment

  • Reply E. Goode December 18, 2018 at 11:47 am

    Being a sufferer of Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder all of your daughters feelings that you have listed resonate so well with me. I struggled with the school system and the dread of going in everyday and the continuous fear of failure. Some 30 odd years on and I still struggle with anxiety, fear and dread but am more able to put it into context. How lucky your daughter is to have such supportive parents.

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