Charlie takes over

by Jo Barney

I tightened my arms that encircled his waist and held on. Charlie, his feet beating against my legs, stiffened and yelled, “I hate you, Jo, I hate you. Why don’t you let me go home! I want my mother!”

His screams brought a teacher to my door who peered in, shook her head, and then closed it quietly, leaving me and Charlie to battle it out.

It should never have gotten this far, I thought. I relaxed my hold as his kicking slowed and finally stopped. In a few moments, I asked if he wanted to sit on a chair instead of my lap, to color a while. I told him I was happy he was able to calm down.

He smiled a little smile and picked up the crayons. An hour later, I walked him to his first grade classroom. At the door, he looked up at me, his hand tightening on mine.

“It's going to be okay,” I said, and opened the door. One more glance back at me, and he was inside, at his desk, picking up his pencil.

School phobia. As a school counselor, I had read about it and each year had experienced it, as children appeared at my door, tears welling, hand-in-hand with worried parents or teachers.

The parents usually describe increasingly disturbing behavior: a timid but okay start of a school year, early morning reluctance to get dressed, get ready for school, amorphous complaints about teachers or other children or the work required (and when the teacher is consulted, she expresses dismay and confusion; few problems have been observed in the classroom), vague stomach aches and finally, tearful refusals to leave the house, get on the school bus, get out of the car, clinging, screaming tantrums at the classroom door.

Research literature advises us that this anxiety may have several causes. Perhaps, suggests Dr. Eric Milliner, a psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic, a bad experience at school such as teasing or bullying, or worry over academic failure are cause of the school refusal.

Often, however, the problem may not be a phobia about school, but a fear of what is happening at home. Many child experts, including Dr Alex Mabe, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Health Behavior at the Medical College of Georgia, believe that children may be afraid to leave home because they feel responsible or are preoccupied by the stress that threatens the family. Children experiencing family illness, marital discord, a new sibling, parental alcoholism or other problems may not be able to abandon their worries as they head to school. In fact, they may not be able open the front door for fear of what may happen while they are gone.

Akin to this kind of worry is separation anxiety, according to Robert Deluty, PhD, of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, in which children worry excessively when separated from their home and parents, often fearing that parents will be attacked by monsters or killed in car accidents. Children who are naturally anxiety-prone or depressive are most susceptible to separation anxiety and school phobia, researchers say.

In response to their children's fears and confusing behavior, parents often unwillingly reinforce the problem by catering to their children’s every whim, coddling and pampering them instead of encouraging them to think independently and solve their own problems, according to Bridget Murray of the APA Monitor. The goal is to get the child into the school and into the classroom, to not give in to the fearful child’s pleas to stay home lest we communicate a sense that there may be reason to be afraid or that we believe that the child is incapable of dealing with the problem.

As important, teachers and parents need to reaffirm with words and actions the idea that the child can leave home in the morning and be certain that he/she will return to find all’s well when the school day is over. When the family is being shaken by stressful transitions, the adults must reassure the child of his/her security within that family, even as it changes. And Dr. Milliner adds, “Adults often talk at children, without taking time to listen. We need to take time to help children shine a light on their innermost fears. . . and show genuine interest in the child’s point of view.”

So I give parents this advice, and they drag their sons and daughters into school, either by the arm or by an unending lasso of words, first to my room, which is quiet and safe.

“Goodbye,” I say to the parent, nodding toward the door.

“Goodbye.” The parent waves a little wave to the child and goes down the hall.

Then the two of us color or read a book or play checkers. In a while, we walk toward the classroom, our tentative steps tapping down the quiet halls. As the days go by, the time we spend together each morning shortens. After two weeks, I realize that I am missing my first bell checker game. The child is going to class and I am no longer needed.

At least, that is how the desensitivation process usually works. Charlie was tough, though. He didn't just whimper, he yelled. He didn't just push against my hands that held him back from running after his mother, he kicked and hit. He didn't just glare at me, he called me names and said he hated me. He didn’t just have bad mornings, he had bad recesses, lunches, and math, and some days were a lot worse than others. Then, he would come into my room, stand at my side, look at me, eyes brimming with tears and would say, “Jo, I don't feel so good,” and slump into his folded arms. As the weeks went by, there were times he would stay with me all morning, struggling until he was exhausted against my arms, trying to get at the phone to call his mother. Sometimes he succeeded and his mother would come to take him home.

His parents met with Charlie’s teacher and me, and put him into therapy with a behavorist who set up a point plan and began to teach him positive self-talk and coping strategies. Charlie got a sticker if he made it through the day, if he did not come to my room more than once or twice.

“His fears are reality for him,” his father said. “Something must be happening here at school. What are you doing to him?” The teacher and I had no answers, but we wondered the same thing about Charlie's home.

And for a month or two, Charlie managed to cut back on the number of minutes he spent in my room, did not cry as much in the classroom, reduced the intensity of his pleading with his mother not to leave the classroom door, described the phrases he was using to tell himself to not be afraid. But his demeanor was that of a child carrying a sleeping monster on his thin shoulders. He walked and spoke very carefully. Only the promise of a sticker and a tightly organized routine seemed to keep that monster quiet.

Then one weekend Charlie went with his mother and seven friends to his seventh birthday party movie. He began to cry before the lights went down. By the time the film started, he was screaming that he wanted to go home, and they all left. After that, he would not accept invitations to play at his friends’ homes. His anxiety was spreading, like a plague, throughout his life.

One day Charlie asked me, “Will I ever get over this?” Something in his voice, a kind of shame or responsibility, made me say, “Maybe it’s not you, Charlie, who is having the problem.”

Neither Charlie nor I knew what I meant, exactly, but later I gave my hunch its head. Here was a quiet seven-year-old boy who somehow had gained control over at least six important adults in his life – teacher counselor, therapist, two parents, a special education chairman, and a principal – pulling them into a net of unceasing worry, training each of these grown-up persons to respond to the slightest quiver of his lips, most discrete drop of his eyelids. What frightening power, I began to understand, for someone so small, so inexperienced. Of course, he was afraid. He was overwhelmed by the obligation to keep the monster stirring on his back under control.

Children innately know that for their own safety and peace of mind the adults in their lives should be in charge. Somehow, Charlie’s adults, myself included, had turned things up side down, had abdicated our roles.

I decided to remove myself from the burden Charlie was carrying and to give permission to others to do the same.

I asked his mother to not hang around his classroom door, watching to see if he was going to settle down or burst into tears, whispering at noon with the teacher about how the morning went, waiting in the hall ten minutes before the dismissal bell at the end of the day. I told her that she also appeared to suffering from the separation anxiety that was a part of her son’s phobic reaction and she needed to deal with it, perhaps with the therapist working with Charlie.

I advised his teacher to ‘not notice’ him when he came in from my room, to not tell him what had missed while he was away, to not stand at her classroom door talking with Charlie’s mother while her other students waited for class to start.

I informed his therapist that I would not join the family in their stifling concern and therefore would not send home daily notes or make phone calls telling them how he did that day. Ask Charlie, I suggested.

I told Charlie that I had other children to take care of, too, and that he was welcome to take a break in my room, but that he would probably find me busy talking with them. If he’d like, we could make appointments to talk like the other students did because I really liked talking to him, too.

And then I listened as his father accused me, in a staff consultation with Charlie’s therapist, of not caring about his child and of being unprofessional in my duties, and I kept my mouth shut, except to say that despite his perception, I loved Charlie and I, for one, believed that he was strong enough to leave home and face the first grade.

It didn’t happen overnight. Charlie’s mother was angry that I suggested Charlie’s fears might be an outgrowth of her own inability to let him go, but she was as frustrated by the tears and pleadings as I was, maybe more so, so she began to say goodbye and quickly leave. Charlie’s teacher was relieved to know she could stop focusing on his every whimper and begin to pay attention to the rest of the class.

When he came to my room, unscheduled, I gave Charlie a hug and an animal cracker if he wanted it and then turned back to the child sitting next to me, and his visits soon became sweet touchdowns on the way to the playground and regular weekly game times with other children. The therapist called and said he was sorry he hadn’t helped more in the confrontation with Charlie’s father but he was caught in the middle, and I accepted his apology because I have been there, too. I told him that the affirmations he had taught Charlie seemed to be helpful, and suggested, as professionally correctly as I could manage, that maybe Mom needed them too.

Not unexpectedly, I never again spoke to Charlie’s father.

By the end of the school year, Charlie’s teacher reported that while she was still handing out stickers for good days, their importance had diminished, and sometimes both she and Charlie forgot the ritual since most of his days were good ones. Charlie announced to his class that he was planning on going to summer day camp with a friend to learn more about computers. On the last day of school, he presented me with a jar of strawberry jam he had made with his mother the weekend before.

“Thank you,” his note said. “You are a good friend.”

I am glad he thinks so. That is just what I think about him, too. I am not sure what Charlie’s next year will bring to him. I only know that it will depend on more folks than just Charlie.


© Jo Barney

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

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* Gloria Steinem