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Mental health and the school playground

Tuesday, 20 January 2015 Naomi

Naomi is a Mum of two and juggler of many roles who blogs about her parenting experiences, thoughts and mental health hiccups at She blogs about coping with mental health problems as a parent in the school playground.

As a kid the school playground had many different meanings for me: escapism, play, friends, enemies, strict dinner ladies and scraped knees. Later it became a place to practise invisibility, watching the kids that seemed to fit in and trying to keep my quirky personality hidden.

As a parent of two I hadn’t considered the playground etiquette, politics and stresses until my son started preschool and the drop-offs and pickups dominated my days. I was lucky and made two good friends but when I had my breakdown I wasn’t surprised, I’d felt myself disintegrating with each day. 

I eventually explained to my friends that I had up and down days, that some days I wouldn’t talk much. That meant that on days I would stand silently they understood.

But then primary school seemed even worse, a bigger audience, less structure and my eldest wanted friends home.

Early on in art therapy, someone mentioned the school playground and all the parents resoundingly agreed it was a common ground of angst and potential embarrassment; not because of our unpredictable children, horrid teachers or bullies but because of the jungle of social interactions and potential social exposure twice a day and we survive it knowing we’ll be back there tomorrow or even later the next day.

Each time I step onto the playground anxiety paralyses me, I can’t follow what people say over my internal voices telling me I am going to be ‘found out’ to be crazy and ruin my son’s life. I feel sure everyone is watching me, all able to see my panic, fear and ineptness along with a sign of my diagnoses hanging over my head. Everywhere there are groups of parents who all chat easily, whilst I struggle to speak. 

Once the teacher asked to speak to me and I couldn’t understand what she was saying; it was English but what it meant I didn’t know, when she paused for me to speak I just stared at her.

School found out about my mental health difficulties when social services got involved. At the time I was humiliated and my mental health deteriorated but the school was amazing - without their gentle kindness and support my mental health would have remained unmanageable. They asked me how they could help and did all they could to reduce my anxiety and stress. They helped me meet with the local parenting programme where we sat with our knees against the tiny infant table. They agreed I could drop off and pick up ten minutes early. It made a huge difference to my anxiety and with that reduced I began thinking more clearly and began working on different ways to manage the playground situation and began making connections with other parents.


The things I find helpful

  • After school clubs so pick up is with less people around.
  • Knowing that the school wants the best for my children, and sometimes I need help to be the best for my children, so asking for support isn’t selfish or out of place.
  • We have a strong routine so there’s less likelihood of meltdowns, from me, or my children.
  • I used to time it so we entered as the whistle went.
  • Sunglasses are essential, even in the rain!
  • I force myself to say something to as many parents as I possible, nothing more than a ‘morning’ or ‘hi’ with a fixed smile so hopefully no-one can see how I feel inside.
  • If a teacher wants to speak to me and I may say I’m badly parked and ask to discuss it tomorrow.
  • I avoid cliques but smile at individuals.
  • At times our childminder does pick up when I’m unable to.

Over time I’m hoping the school playground will become less difficult for me; it is a necessary evil/event but if there is a friendly member of staff I’ve learnt to ask for some minor adjustments to be made.

Like my mental health journey, the school journey fluctuates; at times it is never ending with new challenges each week in the form of sports day, nativities and parent evenings, but in the end it is my wonderful but often painful privilege to be part of my children’s school lives.

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