EMOTIONALLY based school avoidance (EBSA) has impacted not only Eliza Fricker’s personal life, but her professional life too, having watched her daughter struggle within the bounds of mainstream education throughout nursery and primary school.

From a young age Eliza’s daughter struggled with transitions at the beginning and end of the school day, and, as the years went on, she became increasingly distressed and dysregulated by the school environment.

Even after she was diagnosed autistic at the age of seven, and subsequently secured an EHCP, Eliza’s daughter continued to mask her feelings at school – until, at the age of 11, she had what Eliza describes as a “catastrophic breakdown”, resulting in her being home tutored for two years, before moving into a more suitable, trauma-informed education provision.

As part of our Everyday Equality: Health campaign, Eliza is opening up about the experience and how it impacted her daughter’s health and wellbeing, as well as the mental toll it took on her as a mother.

“It probably started as young as when she was at nursery, but when you’ve got a crying toddler you’re told ‘It’s fine, they will learn to get on with it’,” Eliza explains. “Then, as she got older, the level of distress we were seeing at home became unmanageable and it was very much linked to the school day.” 

Despite school staff doing their best to offer solutions for Eliza’s daughter, due to masking and a lack of understanding around neurodivergence, the extent of her distress went largely unnoticed.

“It was something that professionals found really difficult to understand,” Eliza says.

We were told a lot of the time that she was seemingly fine at school because there wasn’t any ‘behaviour’ that would be considered impactful.

Then, after just one day at secondary school, things reached breaking point and Eliza made the decision to take her 11-year-old daughter out of mainstream education and explore alternative options which focused more on her daughter’s needs and her recovery. 

“We had a long time at home to heal,” Eliza adds. “It was a real period of hunkering down, it was ground zero, we started from scratch. You know I would say to her ‘I’m going to have a shower now, I’ll be 10 minutes, do you want to come with me or do you want to stay there?’ and I would be 10 minutes and then come back to her. 

For us it was about getting that connection back that was lost when she was so poorly and distressed. And while it was a really difficult time, it was really lovely to have had that time to be with her.

And Eliza says that the impact this can have on the mental health of parents is often overlooked when it comes to dealing with emotionally-based school avoidance, adding: “When you’re talking to the schools about those difficulties and the distress that you’re witnessing, that actually takes a lot to do that. As parents, we don’t want to be sharing that stuff, it’s not pleasant and it’s quite a vulnerable place to be.”

One of the reasons Eliza is so open about her personal situation is the desire to help others who may be experiencing something similar, as she says it would have helped her at the time to know that she wasn’t alone.

“If at that time someone had said, ‘We’ve seen this before … this is quite common’. What that would have changed was that isolation, because when you’re a parent and you’re talking to teachers and professionals and you feel like you’re the only one going through it, that is very isolating and that isolation is very, very impactful on your mental health.”

A talented author and illustrator, Eliza channelled her own experiences into her work and established a blog, titled Missing the Mark, before going on to write Sunday Times bestseller Can’t Not Won’t which documented the difficulties many parents face when their children experience EBSA.

She also offers coaching and consultations for individuals and families, as well as hosting regular online courses and delivering training and presentations around the topics of parenting, PDA,anxiety and demand avoidance. 

Asked for her advice for other parents who may be dealing with EBSA, Eliza says: “Just focus on your child and meet them where they are at. 

“And have a really nice time as a family … don’t lose that stuff when you’re dealing with all of the nonsense that goes on because it can be really empowering to know that as a family you can still have a nice time and do nice things.”

All illustrations used above are credited to Eliza Fricker.

Find out more about the campaign