First, I’m going to start by telling you a few key points about Generalized Anxiety Disorder in kids. Things are different for children than for adults with GAD.
Adults with GAD usually realize that their pervasive anxiety is not an appropriate response to their actual situation. Children with GAD may not immediately recognize that their fears are exaggerated.
Children with GAD can worry about anything and everything. Always considering the “what if?,” they go through a multitude questions to try to predict every possible scenario. They need to know details about all situations, may be unable to stop themselves from eavesdropping on adult conversations because they need to know what might be happening. They will often be looking over your shoulder when you are writing a check or opening the mail. While this may seem to be a game at times, where children with GAD try hard to find out the very details that you are trying to hide from them, in truth the game is no fun. They feel they need to know this information for fear the family is in dire straits.
Imagine that. Always fearing everything. With Generalized Anxiety Disorder, our daughter lives in a constant state of fight or flight. She is always anticipating the worst. She fears so much. From her own life experiences, she does not feel safe and protected in school.
Today, she finally went back to school. She was there for a few hours. They had a visit from one of the nature centers. He brought in lots of animals for them to learn about and pet. She had a great morning. Then, things went terribly wrong. First, let me back it up a bit.
Last night, she was extremely anxious about getting breakfast at school today. I assured her that I had personally made sure that she was all set for both breakfast and lunch. This morning, she confirmed with me (easing her anxiety) that she was going to be receiving breakfast at school. I promised her that she would be getting breakfast.
Instead, the principal decided to have a chat with her at the beginning of the school day. The principal told me “I guess she missed breakfast.” No, missed breakfast would imply she got to school too late, or she was screwing around in the halls and did not make it in time. Not being given the chance to have her breakfast because a grown up chose for her to do something else instead of eating does not count as missing breakfast.
By the time she got to class, the animal guy was already into his presentation. She’d missed the chinchilla. Bummer. Now, with an empty stomach and missing part of the really cool science presentation, she was sent to gym full of the excitement of being wrapped up in a snake, petting a sloth, and tricking an armadillo into a ball. She ran, she did push ups, her hunger grew.
Lined up in the hallway, one of the other girls starts tossing around and swinging her sweatshirt. Our daughter got hit in the eye (yes, there is a scratch over her pupil). She swung and punched a girl (connected with a girl who was not the sweatshirt culprit) in the mouth. Let me pause right here and say we are not fighting our daughter’s punishment. She hit. It was a bad reaction. She needs to understand that is not acceptable. That’s when things began to meltdown even more.
She was in trouble. Being in trouble is even harder for a child with GAD. They’ve disappointed someone. It’s the end of the world. They’ve disappointed multiple someones (teacher, parents, principal, classmates, etc…). The world is coming to an end and there is no way to save it.
She starts running, tearing tape off the gym floor, and being generally destructive. Again, we don’t condone her behavior here. We are working with her on better ways to handle it. But, they keep pushing her anxiety higher and higher and things escalate worse and worse. They finally get her to the office, get me on the phone. I talk to her. I tell her we are on our way. Just stay calm, wait patiently in the office. Mommy will be there soon.
“I’m going home?” she asks me.
“Yes, sweetheart. You hit someone. That’s not okay. You’re going home.”
“What about the girl who hit me? Doesn’t she have to go home, too?”
I told her I didn’t know how to answer that. And I don’t. The consensus of the school staff is that the girl wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. Therefore, she doesn’t go home. I pointed out that she was at the very least misbehaving with her sweatshirt. Maybe she doesn’t deserve the same punishment as my daughter, but something should still be done. I get the brush off of “I might talk to the class about how to behave in the hallway.”
Our daughter didn’t mean to hurt anyone either. Her fight or flight kicked in. They set up a series of events that started with denying her breakfast. By the time the sweatshirt struck her (and scratched her eye) her anxiety was so high that she simply reacted. Having been the brat little sister who scratched my sister’s eye when I was a little girl, I personally know the permanent damage that can come from a scratched cornea.
How is it that a child who simply reacted because their disability prevents them from seeing the full situation, because their disability told them they were in danger, gets a 2 day suspension while the child who caused the final rise in anxiety gets to go back to class without even being reprimanded for something that did hurt another person?
Should our daughter be punished? Of course she should. She hurt someone. She needs to understand that she has to find a better way to handle her fear, her anger, her anxiety. We continue to work with her on that. But, just because the reaction was inappropriate doesn’t mean that the other misbehaving child should get a pass.
History Repeating Itself
It’s been our experience that our special needs children get punished. The non special needs child returns to class. And the word gets spread that they can push their buttons and get away with it. I don’t want to see this happen again. I pray that it’s not the beginning of history repeating itself again. But, here I sit. Frustrated and worried.
We’ll handle punishment here at home. There has to be consequences to her behavior. But she wants to know why the other child isn’t in trouble. What do I tell her? How do I explain to her why things are different for her? I know it was just a sweatshirt. I know that the principal was responsible for her anxiety being so high. But the only one suffering here is my little girl.