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School Refusal: What It Is And How To Help Your Teen

School Refusal: What It Is And How To Help Your Teen

How much do you remember about your school days? A few things stand out as universal grade school experiences: a lot of homework, a lot of tests, teachers who don’t always get it, and immense pressure to figure out who you are and try to fit in with your peers. 

It is easy as an adult, a parent or guardian, to forget how stressful school was as a teen. To us, those may have been the easy years. But to your teen, who doesn’t yet know the stress of adulthood, this is the most intense pressure they have been under so far.

Every teenager handles the stress of school in different ways, some healthier than others. But if you have been noticing that your teen has been feeling sick a lot more often, or calling out of class more often, or not wanting to leave your company, they may be showing signs of school refusal.

What Is School Refusal?

School refusal is the anxiety a child has and their refusal to go to school. It is also known as school avoidance and school phobia. Some tell-tale signs that your child is experiencing school refusal is that they are feeling sick more often. 

Many teens will say they experience symptoms of an illness like a headache, stomach ache, and nausea right before it is time to leave for school, or they will take frequent trips to the nurse during school hours to be sent home. You may notice that their symptoms disappear once they are home and reappear the next morning when it’s time to leave.

Something to keep in mind is that even though the symptoms may come and go, your teen might really be experiencing physical discomfort. As an anxiety disorder, school refusal can manifest as real stomach aches, real headaches, and real nausea, even if the cause of the illness is purely psychological. The best thing to do is find out the cause of the anxiety so you can help your child feel comfortable with the idea of going to school.

What Causes School Refusal?

There are a lot of things that can trigger school refusal such as moving to a new school, being bullied, divorce, etc. Any stressful life event or traumatic event can cause school refusal.  For some kids, they fear what will happen if they do go to school: they might get bad grades, fail a test, have to interact with another student, sometimes they fear something will happen to their parents or family while they’re away at school. For your child, something about going to school or being at school is making them feel unsafe, insecure, or out of control. 

Ways To Help Your Teen

The first way to help your teen is by understanding that school refusal is different than skipping school or truancy.  School refusal comes from a fear or anxiety about going to school, not just a need to rebel or desire to do something else.

Consider school refusal to be more of a phobia. Be empathetic to the fear your child has and try not to force them to face their fears before they’re ready. 

Most children and teens who experience school refusal will need to talk to a counselor or mental health expert in order to get to the bottom of what is causing their fear. Setting up a meeting with a school counselor is an effective first step to helping your child. School counselors will advise you and your child about how to attend to their fears without forgoing an education.

Oftentimes there are individualized education plans that can address your child’s specific educational needs or help your child slowly reintegrate into the school system.

It is also a good idea to have your child talk to a mental health expert like a therapist or psychologist to get to the root of the problem. Programs such as the ones offered at Viewpoint Center are specifically made for children 12-17 to create plans for their mental health. They offer assessments for your teen and create programs based on their specific needs.

There are also steps you can take as a parent outside of giving your child professional assistance. Actively listening to your child’s problems and being a person they feel comfortable talking to about what is concerning them is very important for a teen who doesn’t feel safe at school. You should also make sure that when your child comes to you about wanting to miss school, that you are empathetic and supportive and don’t shame them for missing class. 

You can also find out if there is anything they do like about school such as friends or sports or certain teachers that make going worth it to them. Positive reinforcement that rewards your child for going to school has shown to be an effective way of combating school phobia. 

Final Thoughts And Resources

Being a teenager is stressful enough as it is: you’re fighting with your changing body, trying to make friends, and trying to succeed in school. The best thing you can do as a parent is to be an empathetic support system for your child in whatever they are going through. Here are some additional resources for you and your child.

Viewpoint Center

Psychology Today

Utah Education Network