When Georgia turned 15, she started experiencing anxiety around going to school – and it quickly turned into ongoing school refusal. Her mum Angela had no idea what to do or who to turn to for help, and says the system of care needs to change to support parents and families experiencing school refusal.
This is Georgia and Angela’s experience of school refusal, and how they managed to find support and different education options.
Panic attacks in the car
Georgia was a regular, average student for most of her schooling life, and her school refusal came out of nowhere when she was in Year 10.
She began to have panic attacks in the car as we would be driving her to school each morning, and the idea of walking through the front gate would send her into a spiral of anxiety.
It got to the stage that I would wake up and immediately dread the daily morning routine – what was once a simple morning routine of eating breakfast, getting dressed, packing lunch and going to school had suddenly become fights, panic attacks, and constant tension.
“The thing is I had the support from [my parents], but I still felt alone. And I don't necessarily know what else they could have done. But still, I felt so isolated.” - Georgia
Some days she would be completely fine, and others she would be beside herself. You never knew what was about to happen, if today was going to be a good day or a bad day. Sometimes she would seem all good – but maybe she was just putting on a brave face.
But then we’d be in the car driving to school, and it was like the second we turned onto the street, there was a palpable shift in her demeanour. I could sense it. I can’t even count how many times during those years I had to turn the car around and take her home, or get the call that I had to go pick her up in the middle of day.
Feeling like there’s no options
We were both at our wit’s end: I was confused, worried and frustrated, and Georgia was frustrated at herself because she didn’t understand what was happening in her own head.
She says she “so desperately wished to be like everyone else” and be able to go to school every day. But we had no idea what to do, and where to go from here.
I quickly found out that forcing Georgia to go to school didn’t work, so we tried countless other things to resolve the situation – but nothing seemed to make any difference.
“In the beginning, they would try to force me to go to school. And when you force someone to do something they so badly don’t want to do, they’ll probably resist – and I did, and that led to so many fights.”
Georgia was seeing doctors and a psychologist regularly, and together we tried implementing different routines of half days or doing work from home to help ease her back into attending school, but her attendance never improved.
We tried talking to counsellors both at the school and outside of it, attendance support people at the school, teachers – everyone we could think of.
But there was a limit to the help we could get from the education system. Once we went through the process of all these meetings, and they hadn’t helped the situation, the options the school could provide just sort of ran out.
“Eventually we were called into a meeting and it was us, me, Mum, the principal, my homeroom teacher. Essentially that meeting was just them being like just wiping their hands of me," Georgia says. "They were just like, ‘we've done everything we can’. What can they do with you if you're just not coming to school?"
Eventually Georgia learned about this school in Victoria that specialised in helping people with school refusal.
The teachers there were skilled in school refusal, and were properly trained in various mental health issues. The classes were smaller to ensure teachers have enough time to dedicate to each student, and there was flexibility so students can participate in education in a way that works for them. There needs to be more schools like it.
What a difference that school made to Georgia! So many people said that they noticed a dramatic change in her and how happy she was as soon as she started going there.
So this shows that she actually did have the motivation and the want to go school, and that we did genuinely want to fix things, but we just didn't know how. The system just didn’t have the set up to properly help people like her.
There needs to be more support for parents, too
I wish there were better resources during those difficult years with Georgia. I was lucky to have family and friends who supported me emotionally, but I felt like there were very few resources where I could go to get practical advice and support as a parent coping with school refusal.
Looking back on it, I think I probably took out my frustration with Georgia, and I don't think I was actually angry at her specifically, I think I was just angry about the situation. You feel like there’s nowhere to go for support in that moment, so you end up feeling like you’re in a kind of free fall. I just felt completely overwhelmed.
No one gives you a manual on how to be a parent. You tend to blame yourself when things are bad, and think things like ‘What am I doing wrong as a parent?’. For years, I thought Georgia’s school refusal was my fault, and I’m sure other parents in this situation do too. But it’s not, and there needs to be more support for parents to get through it all.
Change is needed
I think that the education system needs to change to reflect the kinds of support teenagers need from their schools. There needs to be more mental health knowledge in schools – like, all teachers should have mandatory mental health, first aid and mandatory wellbeing training
The changes we need for the education system won’t happen overnight, but if we could get more of those schools (which specialise in school refusal), then they would function as an example and show the education system that it needs a massive overhaul. Clearly these schools are necessary, and Georgia is proof that what they’re doing works.
There’s more and more conversation about school refusal happening than ever, so I’m hopeful that change is coming.