Every year, shortly after the start of school, I get calls from worried parents who are concerned about their teen or tween who say that their child refuses to attend school.
These aren’t kids asking for mental health days. These kids are not refusing to go to school for a few days or weeks. They will continue to attend school for weeks, months, and even semesters.
One of the children I work with refused school because he was afraid that his peers would make fun of or bully him. One teen was very unhappy about her appearance, and couldn’t stand the thought of her peers seeing her and possibly judging her. A high school sophomore client was unable to keep up with his assignments and tests and was afraid of facing his teachers. He refused to go to school the rest of the semester. These stressors are common in school refusals.
The increase in anxiety and depression among adolescents over the last several years has made this problem worse. I am afraid that this school year will be the worst. The entire 2020-2021 school calendar was disrupted by the pandemic. Many of the children I worked with loved being at home and taking classes online. It was a relief from their anxiety and depression.
Many who have grown up in the solitude and comfort of their homes and screens will find it difficult to get back to school full-time. Concerned parents have called me several times this summer asking for help before school starts.
Refusal to Change at School
What is school refusal? Although it is not considered a diagnosis in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-V), this condition is recognized as a symptom of several anxiety disorders, major depression and post-traumatic Stress Disorders.
This can cause chaos in a family’s life. Parents often find themselves in a rut when daily arguments about how important it is to get up and go to school, which usually start in the early morning, prove futile.
Parents are often confused by the child’s sudden loss of resilience and reasoning. Parents feel disoriented, helpless and disheartened by their inability to reason with their once rational child. Parents resort to bribery and guilt, as well as force, in an attempt to solve the problem. None of these strategies work.
After a child leaves school, it is difficult to get them back into the building. This requires a team of adults including teachers, counselors, parents, and social workers. Even then, children who refuse to attend school for a time are more likely to do so again. It is tempting to stay away from the anxiety and depression that can lead to depression and anxiety.
My children tell me that they can’t understand why school refuses to accept them. They say this isn’t a practical issue, but an emotional one based in crippling fear, and sometimes sadness.
Any depression or anxiety that is severe will be treated with psychotherapy
Take note if your child is becoming more isolated, afraid of being in public places, or refusing to participate in activities with peers and friends. This is a very serious symptom that can be combined with other signs of anxiety or depression. If any of these symptoms seem to be interfering with your child’s daily life, you might consider getting them to see a therapist.
Parents worry that therapy might be too much. I can assure you, it is not. Your child may be doing well, but your child needs to take a break from activities to recharge and relax. If your child is refusing school, a therapist who is familiar with the issue can help you avoid it. The right therapy can help your child prepare for the next school year. It is important to address the behavior of the school, as well as the anxiety or depression.
Gradual re-entry to school
However, if they refuse to go to school, gradual re-entry into school is the best way to get them back in class. They will soon discover that even though it is uncomfortable for them to be in school with their teachers and peers, it is not a terrible experience. This fear is often expressed by students who refuse school. Once they have been in the school, they will be more inclined to stay for another period or even the whole day.
Support from school staff can help to ease the re-entry process. Some children have reported feeling short of breath or other symptoms that can be associated with panic attacks during class. These symptoms can often be quickly cured if you visit a school nurse or social worker.
A meeting with school staff is necessary if bullying is a problem. If academic difficulties are the reason for avoidance, it is worth working closely with teachers or making use of on-campus tutors or re-entry classes.
This is not a testing situation.
If your child refuses to attend school every day, it is not because he or she is being stubborn. Your parenting skills are not tested by their behavior. They will not be able to stop refusing to go to school. Ask them about their emotional state. You can help your child understand and support them by providing guidance and support. It is possible that their anxiety and depression will start to fade once this has been achieved.
Are you concerned that your child might not want to return to school? These techniques work best if they are addressed early on, before your child expresses any school-related hesitation. There is still time for parents to address this hesitation in many school districts before school begins.
If you are unsure, take a walk around the school’s halls before or after the semester starts. Assemble with your child in a classroom and let them know that it is safe.