Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Shortly after school starts every year, I receive calls from concerned parents of teens and tweens indicating that their child simply refuses to go to school.
These are not kids demanding mental health days. “School refusing” kids do not refuse for just a day or two, but for weeks, months, sometimes semesters on end.
One child I work with refused to attend school due to profound social anxiety, fearful that other kids would ignore him, make fun of him, or bully him. Another teen was deeply depressed about her appearance and could not stand the idea of peers seeing her and potentially judging her. And a high school sophomore client fell far behind in tests and assignments, and feared facing his teachers, so he refused to attend school for the remainder of the semester. Many school refusing kids suffer a combination of these stressors.
With the increase in adolescent depression and anxiety over the past several years, I see this problem getting worse every year – and I fear this school year may be the worst yet. The pandemic disrupted the spring 2020 semester and the entire 2020-2021 school year. Many kids I’ve worked with relished being at home when classes were conducted online, a reprieve from many of the issues driving their anxiety and depression.
Getting back into classrooms full-time will prove to be a struggle for many who are used to the comfort and solitude of their bedrooms and screens. And for the first time this summer, I’ve already received calls from concerned parents looking to address this concern before the school year even starts.
Here’s what to know in case your child refuses to go back to school.
School refusal is resistant to change
What’s school refusal? Though not currently considered a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), it is listed as a symptom of various anxiety disorders, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
This phenomenon can throw family life into chaos. Daily arguments, typically starting in the groggy early mornings, about the importance of getting up and getting to school, often prove entirely fruitless for parents.
They tend to be baffled by their child’s sudden lack of reasoning and resilience. Their ability to reason with their formerly reasonable child leaves parents feeling disoriented, disheartened and helpless. To remedy the problem, parents try bribery, reasoning, guilt and, in the extreme, force. None of these strategies work.
Once a child stops attending school, I find getting them back in the building is a mighty task requiring a team of adults, including parents, teachers, social workers, nurses and counselors. Even then, kids who refuse for a period of time are those most likely to repeat the pattern. The draw to avoid the weight of the feelings of anxiety and depression is often too enticing to return for long.
Kids tell me they cannot be reasoned out of school refusal. This is not a practical matter for them, but an emotional one, based in crippling fear and sometimes sadness.
Psychological treatment for any marked anxiety or depression
If your child has been isolating, expressing fears about being in public places or opting out of engaging in activities with friends and peers, take note. School refusal is a fairly severe symptom and tends to be combined with other indicators of anxiety and depression. And if any of these symptoms seems to be interfering in your child’s day-to-day life, consider having them work with a therapist, at least briefly.
Some parents fear therapy may be an overreaction, but I assure you it is not. In the best-case scenario, your child is doing fine, but is taking a break from activity to recharge or relax. In any other case, work with a therapist familiar with school refusal can be instrumental in avoiding the pattern in the first place. Either way, the right therapy will bolster your child for the challenges of the coming school year. The idea is to address not just the school refusing behavior, but also the underlying anxiety or depression.
Gradual re-entry into school
Once school refusal sets in, however, gradual re-entry into the school day is a most effective method for getting kids back to class. If you can get them into school for just a period or two a day to start, they will quickly discover that being in the building, among their peers and teachers, may be uncomfortable but is not catastrophic (a fear typically expressed by school-refusing kids). And once kids are in the building, they are far more likely to stay, often for another period or two, sometimes for the entire day.
The support of school staff can also help ease the re-entry period. Some kids have described the shortness of breath and other symptoms affiliated with the onset of a panic attack during a class. If allowed to visit a social worker or school nurse, these symptoms often tend to abate quickly.
If bullying is part of the issue, a planning meeting with school staff on managing the issue is imperative. Working closely with teachers and making use of re-entry classes or on-campus tutors, will prove helpful if academic struggles are driving the avoidant behavior.
This is not a test
Your child is not being obstinate when he or she consistently refuses to go to school. Their behavior is not a test of your parenting, and shaming them, blaming them or bribing them will not solve the problem. Sit them down and ask about what they’re going through emotionally. Through understanding and support, create a sense of teamwork and collaboration.
In the end, the goal of any of these interventions is to remind your child that he or she possesses the competence and resilience to make it through the school day. Once this is achieved, it is likely that some of their other symptoms of anxiety and depression may begin to dissipate as well.
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Worried your child may not want to go back to school? Keep in mind that these techniques all work best when addressed before they become issues, when your child initially expresses school-related hesitation. In many school districts, there’s still time for families to address that hesitation before school starts.
To address any hesitation, try a walk through the halls of the empty school before the semester begins, or after the school day ends. Sit in a classroom together and show your child that it’s safe.
Here’s to hoping we all have a decent school year.