It is such a privilege to be asked by Parent’s Voices in Wales to share one parent’s story about what got her and her son through the crippling anxiety that every school day would start with. It feels really timely as the consultation on the Whole School Approach closes, the review of Mind Over Matter is published and the Youth Parliament share their report, all in time for World Mental Health Day. It highlights the power of relationships and that it is the little things that make the biggest difference. As a psychologist there is so much in this I could link with the evidence around school culture – from belonging, agency, efficacy, empathy and care….but it speaks for itself so I have just highlighted the key ‘ingredients’ that stood out for me. These ingredients apply to all children, young people, parents and carers and of course, teachers too. Those who are struggling most need precisely these ingredients in even greater quantities. Huge thanks to this mum for taking the time to put it into words; and showing how it is teamwork between school, home and the young person themselves that gets the best results.
“What I wouldn’t give for a magic wand to end the tension and stress of a morning journey to school. Watching my son listless and incapable of articulating his feelings because he was overwhelmed with anticipation of the worst scenario looming in the 15 min journey – form time. There was a consolation in this whole sorry mess though – at least we had the 15 minute car journey. If we lived within walking distance to the school then I have no idea how I would even entice him out of the house.
At least when he was younger I could stop at the Spar en route and bribe him with chocolate – he always succumbed to a treat and ate the bar with a dramatic reluctance. He knew I found it difficult to buy sweet foods (especially in the morning!) so he appreciated the gesture. We both knew he was conflicted about accepting the treat because it meant he had lost the battle after that first bite. He had committed himself to attend school that day. I would try and hide my sense of triumph but after a deliberate pause give him a side smile, and he’d turn his head and grimace out of the window.
As the years passed chocolate alone wasn’t cutting it anymore and I had to think of a new distraction. It seemed obvious once we realised. The family dog. A medium sized, docile, fluffy and affectionate King Charles Cavalier who our son felt was an animal version of himself. They both had curls, both small but stocky, had gaps in their teeth and a mole in the same place on their right cheek. I couldn’t see the resemblance myself but agreed with him daily in the car, as the dog sat illegally on his lap in the front seat. On bad days the dog was surplus to requirements and was more of a nuisance than comfort as his ever increasing weight pressed on our son’s cramped stomach whilst trying to steal the chocolate. Mostly though it was a blessing to have Rio in our car especially if it meant that we could reconnect him with the Teacher who met us at school.
The Teacher was becoming a regular acquaintance of our family when our son was in the lower years of high school. He’d first met us when he visited our home and spoke to our son who was hiding under his bed in distress and refusing school. He managed to bring our son downstairs and reassure him he would support him going forward. No pressure. Just reassurance. On another occasion he drove to our house and collected our son and took him to school himself. The visit to the house was a clear message to us all: he wanted to help our child and cared very passionately that he should attend school for an education. Our boy wasn’t in trouble for struggling, but he needed support and the Teacher made it clear that he was going to get that in school. There was no doubt that this demonstration of strength and commitment to our son changed the outcomes for us all.
Some days when our son couldn’t leave the car independently and walk through the gates I would park in the corner of the school yard. I would blast through the school doors and arrive breathless with urgency at the reception desk. I’d share too much needless information about the morning while they listened, their phones ringing in the background. I would tell them where I was parked in the yard and ask if Mr X could come and get our son from the car. I would immediately feel ridiculous for arriving in such a panic, but the thought of him missing his education and falling even further behind sent me into a spin and I’d forget myself. It wasn’t until later I realised that it didn’t matter if we were late – what was important was that I modeled calm – a hard but essential skill to learn for any worried parent.
Mr X would arrive composed and smiling while I twittered on again with intensity about the morning. The same story as the previous time. He would nod and smile but his concerned eyes would flick towards my son in the footwell of the car. He’d open the door, ask about the chocolate around his mouth or the dog now sitting regally in the seat above and talking whilst patiently waiting for some interaction. He’d tell my son about the day ahead, and how they would now go to a quiet room and have a drink, read a book, calm down and then walk him to next lesson when he was ready.
My son, looking exhausted, would slowly and reluctantly move from the footwell, coat zipped, hood up, head down to hide the red eyes, making whimpering sounds in agreement. I would hug him tightly and say he was brave, amazing and that I loved him lots, and tell him to have a good day. In my peripheral vision I always noticed Mr X shifting uncomfortably when I did this. I wondered if I was doing something wrong, making the situation worse perhaps? Or maybe it was because he had never been shown the same level of affection himself? He had once told me that he remembered the footwell of the car as a child. Perhaps his level of empathy came from his own experience?
As my son progressed through school we muddled through and we occasionally bumped into Mr X. He felt like a distant family member to us, a relative that you see once in a while. I’m never quite sure if he knew how much we appreciated him through those early years of high school, and quite how much he did for both my son and I? I do know he ended up getting a dog himself so maybe we nudged that idea along. We also never needed to stop off to buy morning chocolate anymore!”
Recipe for a Whole School Approach: (Quantities vary but double up for those who need it the most)
Wanting to help
Bake in warm environment for as long as it takes….