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School Refusal in Teens

One problem that counselors see often are teenagers refusing to go to school. This problem is so frustrating and upsetting for parents that they often don’t know which way is up. It can be embarrassing and it can make them feel like the bad guy for asking them to go.

The teen may say their anxiety is the reason they can’t go. Of course, if the teen misses school their anxiety will go up due to missed assignments and tests. They also don’t want to be asked by their peers, “Where were you?” So the anxiety goes up even more!

You may wonder, “Is their anxiety really that bad?”

I tried to put together some suggestions from past clients and their parents who were eventually able to solve this problem.

  1. Make sure your child isn’t being bullied by a peer, a teacher, or someone else in their school environment. Is there someone bothering them on the bus? In the hallway? If there is, get the help of the school counselor or administrators to address this problem.
  2. Does your child have an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend in a class they are avoiding? Could their schedule be changed?
  3. If they say noise is the issue, ask the administration if they can leave class two minutes early to get a head start in the hallways before the masses get there. See if they can enter and leave the building through a side door in the mornings or afternoons. Get them some headphones for the halls to replace the noise with music.
  4. Make sure your child isn’t trying to punish you for something else. Do they want quality time with you and you’ve been busy with a new job or friendship? Can you address this need? Have you been more distracted? Are they acting out some other hurt they’ve experienced? Could you get the help of a counselor to figure this out?
  5. Make sure your child isn’t using their anxiety as a manipulation. Kids will use anything to try to stay in control of the climate in the home. They will say they are too depressed, too nervous, can’t stop crying, might vomit in the hallways, or can’t handle hearing people talk about certain things. But avoiding school makes the issue get way worse so this is one tactic you can’t not address. Of course deal the issues listed above first, but don’t back down when it comes to school attendance or a mountain will grow from a molehill.
  6. One child I worked with would damage property to keep from going to school. The parent felt like she’d lost control. She eventually brought in a neighbor to stand with her in the morning when she was insisting the teen get ready. The neighbor served as emotional support and the teen didn’t like to look crazy in front of the neighbor. Sometimes finding a creative solution like this helps. If you are able to stop the behavior for even three days, it stops the cycle from continuing and then you no longer need to neighbor.
  7. Does your child go to a small school where they can’t get away from negative peers? I’ve had a few clients with this issue and they ended up changing schools and going to a larger public school. Small schools are great until they are not. Cliques can and do form which make the environment toxic.
  8. Does your child need medication to bring down nausea or anxious feelings? Sometimes teens throw up in the early morning hours. I’ve heard over and over again. Parents have gotten help from anti-nausea medications (tiny doses) or anti-depressants to be used as an anti-anxiety medicine. Psychiatrists, family doctors or nurse practitioners can help! Reach out if you need names.

Lastly, just know there are ways to help with school refusal. Individual and family therapy can help get to the bottom of what is going on. Don’t give up on this one because this is a problem that builds on itself. No one should have to feel this powerless and frustrated for very long.

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Free Clear Mind Therapy provides in-person therapy in Fishers & Indianapolis and online therapy across Indiana. Specializing in anxiety therapy for teens, adults, and kids.

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