Circle of Security

By Anglican Family Care | Posted: Monday November 20, 2023

This is Michelle’s story; a mum raising two boys on her own, who was facing challenges with her youngest son’s resistance towards attending school.

An inspirational client story about how our rural team in Wanaka supported her to help her son overcome his anxiety, allowing him to return to school, despite the uncertainties of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated Michelle’s youngest son's anxiety, making it even more difficult for him to cope with the changes brought about by school closures and lockdowns. Seeking help, she reached out to the school, and they referred her to Anglican Family Care (AFC) in Wanaka.

Michelle told us; “In 2018, I first came into contact with AFC when I sought their support through their office in Alexandra. Knowing that they now provided services in Wanaka was reassuring, as it meant that there were local professionals who understood our community and the school environments.

I’m so proud that I had the courage to reach out to the school to inquire if other students were experiencing similar distress, and that they listened to my concerns and referred me to Anglican Family Care. The local connection with the community was essential for me, making me feel that I could relate to the support being offered.

I was assigned my Social Worker Stacey from Home-based Family Support who suggested the Circle of Security programme to help me. Initially, I didn't realise how impactful it would be, but gradually, I began implementing the strategies I learned. By the next school term, Ethan started going to school regularly, and the morning meltdowns became a thing of the past. The programme was tailored to our pace, which I greatly appreciated.”

Social Worker Stacey, explains. "Michelle’s referral was based on Ethan’s attendance at school. As Michelle had a previous positive experience with our service, she very quickly engaged, which meant I was able to suggest and start Circle of Security soon into our engagement. Through the lens of attachment, we were able to look at how this could help Michelle, look at what was stopping Ethan going to school, and what was happening within their relationship."

“Ethan struggled with separation anxiety, which was further amplified by the fear of contracting COVID-19 due to his underlying health condition with asthma. The thought of him getting sick and potentially ending up in Dunedin Hospital was terrifying for both of us. As a point of reference, when we did contract COVID-19, it took us three weeks to recover fully, compounding Ethan's anxiety,” said Michelle.

Michelle describes a typical morning. “Ethan would display resistance, crying, and expressing his reluctance to go to school. He often mentioned feeling sick, reciting COVID symptoms, to convince me to let him stay home.

Although he enjoyed home-based learning through online programmes like Steps, he struggled with the thought of being safe in the school environment. Even when I managed to get him to school, he would become anxious if we were running late, often shouting, ‘Don't abandon me, Mum!’ His real fear of abandonment was distressing, and it broke my heart.”

Stacey explained that Michelle picked up on the concept of Circle really well, was able to take the bits that she really connected with and put them in to place at home – building on it every week and embedding it at home – where she could see an improvement.

Having a full week at school was initially a rarity for Ethan, by the end of the facilitation he was attending school every day, and both Michelle and Ethan now have the opportunity to reach their full potentials. This has lessened the stress from Michelle and has meant that they can both go through their day and not be continually impacted by each other’s anxieties.

Summing up her experience, Michelle reflects. “Getting the right support is my advice for any parent, and to recognise it is the right support for your situation. The Circle of Security programme provided me with invaluable strategies to handle Ethan's emotions and address them in a non-emotional manner. It taught me how to reassure him that going to school was safe and okay. Even now, I frequently refer back to the Circle of Security resources.

The most significant change for me was learning to remove the emotional element from the situation. Instead of assuming his behaviour was intentional, I realised that as an eight-year-old, he was unintentionally expressing his feelings through difficult behaviour, because he couldn't verbalise them effectively.

The programme has taught me there is a better way to react, which I was more comfortable with. It may take longer, and others might perceive it as me being too soft, but it has helped Ethan attend school calmly, without heightened anxiety and emotions. With AFC's support, my parenting style has become more confident, and I feel reassured that he is in a safe environment at school.”

* Client names and images have been changed