I’m frustrated and sad because I don’t know how to help you with this. I don’t like to see you in pain, but I don’t know what to do.”
Sarah is now in the seventh grade, her second year of middle school, the hardest year of middle school for most girls, and almost every school day over the past three months has been a challenge. My girl has had major mood issues her whole life, anxiety that manifests as angry outbursts, and ADHD. She has had many interventions over the years, but the most effective, it seems, has been riding horses. With horses she is able to relax, to be accepted, to learn about communication, among many other things. But medication has also been necessary and something she fights every day.
School day mornings are the hardest part of my day with Sarah. Waking her up is incredibly difficult. It, in fact, is not possible without using a loud voice and touching her repeatedly, both of which she hates and ends up yelling at me to stop. At least then I know she is awake. Finding her something she will actually eat is the next hurdle as she is picky and what she was willing to eat yesterday, she is often unwilling to eat today. I have been known to resort to chocolate pudding or brownies when I am desperate. Getting her dressed is easy when she has taken a bath the night before, because, even though she is a twelve year old and almost as tall as her mom, I just have her sleep in the clean clothes she puts on after her bath for the next day. Taking her morning medication is the worst as she balks at how she doesn’t need it, how it makes her feel sick, how she is not going to take it, and so on, until finally she takes it. At which point my blood pressure usually feels high. Then we are slowly, ever so slowly, to the door and out. Whew.
On some mornings, however, the major task of getting her to school ramps up in the car. We have had many this school year. She cries, yells, tells me how much school stresses her, how difficult the social situation is, how hard the academic work is, and how much she wants, no needs, to be home schooled.
This morning was no different. As soon as we got into the car, Sarah was upset.
“Please don’t make me go Mom. Everyone hates me at school.”
“Everyone? Who hates you?” I ask. I know that Sarah doesn’t fit in, never has, but I doubt anyone hates her.
“The teachers hate me. I can feel it. The other kids hate me.”
“You’re friends don’t hate you honey. Neither do the teachers,” I try to reassure.
“Well, not my friends, but I snap at them all the time. I can’t help it. I’m so stressed out. Then I have to hear about how I’m so self centered, I ruin everything, they say. The other kids at school hate me though. And Mrs. Williams, my math teacher, she does hate me Mom. She glares at me and if anyone is talking at my table she acts like it is my fault. And if I get problems wrong on my work, or don’t do them because I don’t know how, she tells me I’m stupid.”
“Does she actually say that to you?” I know Mrs. Williams does not say that to Sarah.
“No, but she acts like it.”
And this conversation goes on and on through tears in the parking lot of the school, long after school has started. I try to be a good listener so she can get stuff off her chest. I try being firm. I try problem solving. Finally I break. I can’t take it anymore. I hate to see the suffering even though logically I know that suffering is an important, unavoidable part of life. And Sarah has had plenty of it. She begs me to homeschool her and, even though I think about it a lot, I say she can just stay home today, but there will be no screen, only homework and reading.
“Are you going to shun me like you usually do?” Sarah asks.
“What do you mean?” Sarah has missed on average 1-2 days a week since the beginning of the year, some days due to a strange medical issue she is dealing with, but many due to emotional break downs.
“You get so mad at me and don’t talk to me at home when this happens,” she says. This is the last thing I want to do, but I can see how she would see it this way.
“I am not mad at you, but I am extremely frustrated. Do you want to know why?” I was surprised when she said she did. “I’m frustrated and sad because I don’t know how to help you with this. I don’t like to see you in pain, but I don’t know what to do. You want to homeschool, but I don’t know that that would help. I worry about you continuing on here in middle school, but I worry more about letting you quit. I want you to learn that you can’t just quit things, that you have to fight through them. I don’t want you to learn to quit. That wouldn’t be good for you.”
“I wouldn’t be a quitter Mom,” the tears were flowing, “I’ve been fighting through school my whole life,” she said. “I can’t do it anymore.” Now I was tearing up.
We agreed she would come home today as we discussed. I tried to explain how I need my quiet time to focus on my writing, that I would not be shunning her in any way. What I didn’t say is that I wonder how a different mother would serve her. Would a different mother be able to administer a tough love approach and be a better parent to Sarah? Would Sarah even be able to tolerate a tough love approach? When we have tried it has simply escalated things. I have certainly felt the sting of judgement from other parents about Sarah’s behavior in the past, a judgement I don’t usually feel with parenting my older children.
I also didn’t say anything about how I wonder how to figure out when your child might have more wisdom about what they need than the parents and school officials do. Sarah has been telling me for years and years, since kindergarten, that the conventional school environment is not right for her. I have seen a child who can not function in a classroom without her ADHD medication be calm and focused in nature. I have seen a girl who has continuous social issues at school have appropriate social interactions (not always but often) when one on one outside of school. And I have watched a bright girl who was a born learner, forever curious about the world around her, come home from school and with increasing frequency say things to the effect of how pointless school of any kind is for her. I worry this will spread to her love of learning in general.
After we left school, as we were driving back toward our house, we both must have noticed a mother and a small, adorable girl holding hands as they were walking together. The girl had on stripped tights and a corduroy dress and her black hair was in two pigtails sticking straight out from her head.
“Oh, I wish I were two again,” Sarah said. “It was so great to be two. So happy and your dreams and reality all flowed together.”
“Two is a great age,” I said. I didn’t mention the tantrums and frustration at not being able to do so many things you want to do.