My anxious child was so traumatised by PE, I let him drop it

"My son is now 16 but he was 13 when I realised PE really wasn't for him."
"My son is now 16 but he was 13 when I realised PE really wasn't for him." Photo: iStock

I grew up a sporty kid.

Physical Education (PE) was my favourite subject at school, and I was always in several sporting teams at the same time throughout my school years, meaning my mother spent her weekends driving me all across town from softball to netball to athletics meets.

So when I had a child who hated PE, I found it baffling to say the least.

My son is now 16 but he was 13 when I realised PE really wasn't for him. And not just in that way that he didn't really like sport.

I'm talking genuine anxiety and distress at the idea of having to front up three times a week. Sometimes it resulted in a low mood that day, other times it would escalate into a full-blown panic attack.

He was "sick" on PE days with suspicious regularity.

We were seeing a psychologist anyway, because my son was suffering from anxiety and depression. When I mentioned to her that he hated PE, she made sympathetic noises and suggested it may be to do with the unpredictable nature of PE. 

"Other classes, you know what to expect when you turn up each day," she said. "The teacher will tell you to open your text book, or get you to write something. With PE, you could be doing almost anything."

My son agreed he found the unpredictability stressful, but he also had some serious issues with body image. I wanted him to work through them and stick with it, but eventually, after speaking to his school counsellor, I conceded defeat. PE was finished.

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My son was ecstatic, and his sickies immediately ended.

Why Carolyn Tate let her anxious child drop PE

Photo: Carolyn Tate

Sports psychologist Dr Jo Lukins is the author of In The Grandstands, a book about navigating the tears and triumphs through your child's sporting journey. She says it's not unusual for teenagers to find PE tough going.

"One of the challenges of PE versus organised sport is that the activities are set, and if not suited to a child's preferences or capabilities it can be a challenging place for tweens and teens to find themselves in," she says. 

"When placed within a PE class there are children with a high variability in skills and developmental differences, so children can feel highly self-conscious when subjected to the self-comparison that inevitably happens with their peers. 

"That self-comparison can lead to impacts on confidence, self-esteem, and increases in negative self-talk. Children can start to dread those lessons. We know the fundamental reason that children seek out and continue to engage in sport is because it is fun."

What advice is their for parents in a similar situation? 

So how to parents know when PE has crossed the line and become damaging for their child? 

Dr Lukins says it's important to talk to your child about what's going on.

"Keeping communication open with your child is incredibly important through this time," she says. 

"It can feel a very difficult decision to balance for parents as we understand the importance of physical activity and 'sticking with' an activity but there is no point in pursuing an activity if your child is miserable throughout it and it potentially causes significant distress and ongoing problems for the child with physical activity."

If you think PE is doing more harm than good to your child, Dr Lukins suggests making an appointment with the school to discuss the situation.

"I would request a meeting with the school, meet with the PE teacher, and perhaps the year level coordinator to discuss," she says. "See what options and support the school can offer."

Dr Lukins also says it's important to remember that PE isn't the only place a child can learn about the importance of physical activity. 

"Wherever you can emphasise the importance of physical activity as an important lifestyle factor for your child, [you should]," she says. 

"If your child does not participate in any organised sport I would recommend (where possible) that your child still participates in the same amount of time per week in some sort of physical activity. 

"I would be overt with that and teach it to your child as a substitute to PE, if your child is not continuing in PE. So for example, if their class are doing 2 x 40min per week of PE, then your child could go for a 30-minute walk, 2 x 10 minutes jumping on the trampoline in the backyard and 30 minutes helping in the garden per week. 

"Being physically active is an important life skill wherever possible, it doesn't have to be in the structure of a traditional PE class."