As a therapist who works primarily with teenagers, it is not uncommon to see clients who have “school refusal.” They might be willing to go to school on occasion, but it is a huge battle for parents to get them there. School refusal has a variety of causes. Some of these include drug use, general opposition, and anxiety. Today I am going to focus on the anxiety component. I believe this is the most common reason for school refusal.
Anxiety is an overwhelmingly unpleasant feeling usually associated with a fear of some future event. Some teens are afraid of ridicule from peers, while others fear failing a test in class. If your teen strongly does not want to attend school, try and find out what they are afraid of first. There might be such a strong feeling of dread about school that a teen cannot stand the thought of attending. Every single school day is torture and feels very scary. I worked with one teen who was being pushed and cursed at by another boy each time he tried to get to his third period class. He felt helpless to defend himself because when he had asked the bully to stop, he was made fun of even more. He tried to seek help from school administrators, but then other kids started calling him a “tattle tale.” This teen’s anxiety grew to levels that were unmanageable for him, and he began to refuse school.
What can you do about school refusal as a parent? Firstly, you have to find out the reason for refusing school. We all have days where we don’t feel like going to school or work, but we don’t adamantly refuse to go. School refusal is normally caused by something much stronger than, “I don’t feel like it.” Once you’ve identified the reason for school refusal, sit down with your teen and work out a plan. If it is anxiety related, your teen needs to regain a sense of control over some situation; a plan can really help with this.
If you are unable to curtail the school refusal with talking and making a plan, it’s a good idea to call the school counselor and talk, and/or to seek outside help for your teen. Usually they can’t overcome this on their own. With anxiety, when something feels scary and then we avoid it, it feels bigger and more frightening. Because your teenager is still relatively young, most don’t know to push through scary things in order to make them more manageable. They tend to go with what feels most comforting in the moment, which is refusing to attend school.
You will face a tension as you try and help your adolescent through their school refusal. You will need to be both comforter and enforcer. It’s a really challenging line to walk. Your teenager needs compassion, but they also cannot be allowed to miss school. It will really break your heart to send them to school when you know how awful it is for them, but if you continually allow them to miss, you’re doing them a disservice.
Sometimes loving our kids well means pushing them through emotional pain, but the good thing is we can walk beside them every step of the way.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT