“I can’t! I can’t! I can’t! I WON’T!” my nine-year-old son screams, literally tossing his notebook across the room.
He’s talking about doing his homework, and I have been spending the past hour trying my best to get him to do it. He’s supposed to write two sentences on an index card. The actual work will take him five minutes, tops. He’s a proficient reader and writer. He’s capable of doing it — but, as he says, he just can’t.
It’s not the work that’s the problem here. It’s his anxiety.
Ever since he returned to in-person school after learning at home last school year, his stress and anxiety has been through the roof. Well, to be honest, it was kind of out of control before that. Ever since the first shutdown in spring of 2020, everything having to do with school has been incredibly triggering for him.
He hated “shutdown school,” as we call it, where he was trying to complete assignments on an app while both of his parents were working from home full-time. He hated Zoom school, which he participated in last fall, before we pulled him out and homeschooled him.
During the time that he was in Zoom school, he spent about 50% of the time completely zoning out, 25% of the time getting frustrated before his teacher didn’t know what he was saying or answering his questions, and 25% of the time curled in a ball on the floor, crying.
Homeschooling him, thankfully, was much better, and he spent the rest of last school year pretty happy, despite all the COVID restrictions that shaped his life at that time. He was super excited to return to in-person school this September, and the experience has definitely been positive for him. We all agree that pandemic school is much better than both “shutdown school” and Zoom school.
And yet. He is struggling with anxiety almost every day. BIG TIME.
My son has always been a bit anxious, especially when it comes to school. He’s a quiet, private kind of kid, and it takes him a while to come out of his shell when he starts the school year. He’s also always had resistance going to school in the mornings, often complaining of tummy aches or begging to stay home with me. He’s a mama’s boy at heart.
He’s also always had stress about certain aspects of school work. He’s reluctant to write, and gets enormous stress and writer’s block. He has homework stress. Throwing his notebook across the room and taking a zillion years to be willing to even start his homework is something we’ve always dealt with.
The problem is that all of it has gotten a million times worse since the pandemic hit. And now, going back to school after being home for so long has been a huge adjustment. I’ve never seen his school related anxiety—or his general anxiety—this high.
He spent two full hours yesterday crying about his homework, about his school stress, about the way I put a Bandaid on a cut he had on his finger … about literally everything. Sometimes when he’s melting down, he’ll say stuff like, “I’m the worst boy in the world. I hate myself. I hate my life.”
This absolutely breaks my heart.
Thankfully, he has a lot of support. There’s a wonderful school psychologist at his school who has known him for a while and even zoomed with him last fall when he was melting down daily during virtual school. He’s a safe place for my son to go to when he feels anxious at school.
We’ve also started him in therapy. He’s had three sessions with a Cognitive Behavioral therapist, and it seems to be going well. I’m hoping that she can offer him techniques to help him manage his anxiety. I really just want my boy to feel content, balanced, and confident.
I also know that my son isn’t the only kid going through this. Far from it. As CNN reports, there has been a huge rise in the number of children seeking mental health care since the pandemic began, with some hospitals reporting that they barely have enough staff to cover the need.
The psychologist at my son’s school told me that he’s been very busy with kids coming to see him. He’s even starting a support group for children who are struggling with their pandemic related mental health. When I called around to find a children’s therapist for my son, many of the therapy practices were totally booked, and I was told that much of this was pandemic related.
I want it to be clear that I don’t disagree with the pandemic restrictions that have been in place to keep our children safe. Yes, the isolation has taken its toll on our kids, but protecting their physical health—as well as the physical health of their family members and communities—is as important as protecting their mental health.
But I also believe that one of the casualties of the pandemic is the toll it’s taken on our children. The trauma is real, and it sucks.
I do believe things will get better for my son. He’ll adjust back to school, he’ll learn to manage his stress, and he’ll work through the trauma of the past few years as best he can. I will do my best to support him, and somehow—I think, I hope—this will end up being a good learning experience for him.
But until then, this is all so hard. Really freaking hard. And if you are in the thick of it with your kid, too, please know that you are not alone.
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