‘School Refusal’ In Adolescents: What’s Really Bothering Them?

School Refusal In Adolescents

Takeaway: There’s always a thought pattern behind your Adolescents fear of school. And unlike younger children, we can teach adolescents to identify and replace faulty/negative thought patterns. But you’ll want to spot the problem early and step in immediately, or it can damage your child’s emotional and mental health.

‘School refusal’ describes how some adolescents try to avoid school because it makes them anxious.

Some adolescents are bored of school and skip it to do something more fun. Meanwhile, others are fed up of being told what to do, and skip school to rebel against authority. Both these types of teens find ways of avoiding school, but they’re doing it secretly without their parents knowing. ‘School refusal’ is different, though. Here, children aren’t avoiding school because they’re bored or rebellious, but because it makes them anxious. And since they’re genuinely distressed, they’re not trying to hide this from their parents or teachers. They’re refusing school because it’s the only solution they can think of.

The anxiety that fuels school refusal shows up in different ways, depending on your adolescent’s personality.

Many adolescents find the experience of schools traumatising and refuse to go – they do so by throwing tantrums, crying, or yelling. But many are less loud about it – perhaps pleading with you to let them miss school, or hiding from you in the mornings. And others might develop body pains and illnesses right before school. (Pains/illnesses that disappear if they get to stay home.) Whatever the behaviour, it’s rooted in anxiety that your adolescents experiences as fear, panic, or even sadness.

Remember, your adolescents is overwhelmed and trying to process a flood of thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions.

There’s a complex series of inner events behind your adolescents agitation. What you observe is behaviour like complaining, yelling, running away, and lying. But they are experiencing strong emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, shame, etc. – which lead to uncomfortable physical sensations like a racing heart, headaches, dizziness, hyperventilation and more. And these emotions are reinforced by limiting thoughts like, ‘I can’t handle this’ or ‘This discomfort will never go away.’ It’s such an overwhelming and confusing experience.

At the root of all these emotions is a trigger. And as parents, we need to figure out what our child’s trigger is.

School refusal usually develops after an extended break from school. And it can have all sorts of causes. For example, is your child struggling with something at school (e.g., class tests, PE, a new school routine, difficult teachers, or classroom bullies)? Or is she trying to process a change in the family ( e.g., a death, an illness, a divorce)? Or is there a personal challenge that’s bothering her (e.g., a learning difference or a mental health-related issue like ‘separation anxiety’)? Remember, school refusal simply describes a behaviour pattern. Its trigger is something deeper that you’ll need to help your adolescents uncover.

Since adolescents are more aware of their thoughts than younger children, we have more options when helping them.

With younger children, we’re limited to more behaviour-based solutions to school refusal. For example, let’s say they’re scared of school because they feel the need to be perfect all the time. Well, we might tackle this perfectionism by asking them to make a tiny mistake in their homework. They might panic about this, but since it’s such a small mistake, they’d be able to manage the panic. Next, we’d challenge them to make a bigger mistake, and deal with that slightly higher level of panic. And finally, we might ask them to give a wrong answer in class (their biggest challenge, yet). This sort of gradual ‘exposure therapy’ is perfect for younger children because they don’t have to think through anything. They just need to follow the instructions. But since adolescents are more aware of their thoughts, we can use other types of therapies, too.

For example, we can teach adolescents to recognise the automatic negative thoughts that fuel their anxiety.

Thoughts cause emotions. So, when your child is scared of school, some repetitive thought process is causing the anxiety. And the great thing about adolescents is that they’re old enough to recognise and negotiate with these dysfunctional thoughts. For instance, say your adolescent’s automatic negative thought is, ‘I’m stupid and will always be slower than my classmates.’ Through therapy, we can teach her to recognise the thought, see why it’s wrong, and replace it with something more accurate, like, ‘I did badly in the last test, but that’s because I didn’t study properly. With enough effort, I can do just as well as my classmates.’ This type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your adolescents develop a growth mindset and face her anxieties head-on.

Whatever the therapy, it’s vital that we step in early.

A teenager refusing to go to school is just as big a deal as an adult refusing to go to work. So, if you’ve noticed your child has been trying to avoid school for more than a few days, step in and take action immediately. The longer she’s away from school, the harder it’ll be to return, the more anxious she’ll become, and the more socially isolated she’ll feel. Also, there might be an underlying mental health issue (e.g., depression, separation anxiety, specific phobia, etc.) that needs to be diagnosed and addressed.

And remember, you’re not alone in this. So, feel free to ask other caregivers, teachers, and specialists for help.

The other adults in your child’s life can help you piece together what’s happening. And the right child psychologist can help with this, too. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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