School Refusal and Anxiety in Children

Many parents feel helpless when their child refuses to attend or stay in school. School refusal is an anxiety disorder where your child can feel a real sense of anguish, uneasiness, fear and a sense of danger associated with school. Two to five percent of children will be hindered by this affliction, but it is most common among those aged five, six, ten and eleven. Luckily effective ways of dealing with it exist. Since prevention is usually the best line of defense we will discuss some of the common risk factors. I will also mention a few tips you can use to reverse the situation once it has started.

Personal experiences have an influence on the desire to attend school. Luckily, we can narrow down the most influential environmental factors that have been proven to contribute to this problem: homelessness/poverty, teenage pregnancy, school-violence, lack of connectedness, parental involvement and family variables. These forces do not develop in isolation; they feed off of each other. Poverty can lead to stress; the stress can come from a number of issues like unemployment and inflexible, long work hours. This can have a harmful impact on parental and family involvement. A lack of involvement, especially from the father is also associated with teenage pregnancy. Parent and family involvement helps children become resilient. Resiliency helps them develop the ability to recover from life’s inevitable setbacks. When this is not in place children are less able to take risks and overcome challenges such as violent or unsupportive environments. If a child cannot devise ways of coping with these harsh situations, he or she will naturally avoid them. It can seem like a self-defeating cycle.

Most parents have already worked hard to correct or prevent the influential factors mentioned above. I listed them to make you aware that if these conditions are present, you may have to pay a little more attention to your child’s behaviors. One important consideration is your child’s proneness to feelings of anxiety. Anxiety is at the root of why most children avoid school. Examples of what causes students anxiety are: separation from their parents, bullying and fear of not performing well in school. These negative feelings are often expressed physically through stomach aches, headaches, diarrhea and nausea. In addition, you might notice behaviors such as asking to stay home, disobedience, rigidity, tantrums, seclusion and avoidance. It is important not to minimize or get angry with your child over the symptoms that you see and hear.

This is difficult to do because it is frustrating to see your child behaving in a self-destructive way. In addition dealing with it requires time that parents very frequently had not planned for. In order to make that time effective try to remember some of the most common reasons students give for feeling anxiety over school: bullying, under-performance and separation anxiety. Furthermore, try to remember that admitting anxiety or fears is often considered a weakness and can be embarrassing to many people. Few of us are or were ever comfortable admitting anxiety or victimization. To open the lines of communication it is crucial to offer sincere help, understanding and curiosity for what your child is experiencing. Regardless of how unreasonable an explanation might be to you try to accept it and work to address it. When working with students, I keep in mind that it is extremely difficult to understand and empathize with what others are feeling especially when the source of fear is irrational to us. It is important to remember that functional adults have illogical fears too; many yell, run or scream when they see a water-bug or mouse 1/100000th their weight.

School refusal is an anxiety disorder, and as a result you have to accept that your child’s feelings truly are hindering rational thoughts and behaviors. Determining whether your son or daughter has an anxiety disorder is not your job as a parent. You should carefully observe all behaviors that seem unhealthy to you and communicate with the school regarding absences. If the problem persists for more than four weeks seek professional help from a therapist. The therapist can administer different techniques such as operant conditioning, which involves rewarding, and or exposure therapy. They might also teach relaxation techniques like breathing as well as positive thinking. The therapist can in addition conduct a comprehensive mental evaluation to determine the true cause of the problem. Depending on the therapist’s assessment, the problem could be deemed to be primarily environmental like the causes described earlier or medical.

If the problem seems to be medical, the child may be referred to a psychiatrist. He or she will assess your child further and may introduce pharmacotherapy (drug treatments). Studies have shown pharmacotherapy can be useful when the reason for school refusal is anxiety or depression. However, before taking this crucial step, there are several other tools parents can try. Here are six ideas.

  1. Take morning practice runs weeks before school starts. The hope will be that they will be trained to get up and prepared for school sooner.
  2. Talk to him or her about any fears and feeling they may have towards school. It might help if you talk about your own fears about school and now at work. If you take this approach be careful not to redirect the conversation to yourself.
  3. Help your child connect with others in the school such as teachers and students. They will be an additional source of support outside of the home.
  4. Encourage him or her to participate in extra-curricular activities such as clubs or sports.
  5. Remind your child that other kids are shy too. The shyness is something they can use to connect with other students.
  6. Help them develop friendships by teaching them how to give appropriate compliments regularly. Warn them that good friends do not keep score or tallies of deeds done. Furthermore, remind them that people want to be friends with other people who know when to apologize, forgive and be polite.

These life skills will help your child build connections with others. They will make school a more enjoyable experience, in many cases.

Perhaps most importantly work with your school counselor. The school counselor is trained to provide support in academic, career, college access, and personal/social competencies.He or she should be your liaison to the entire school. Students need to know that adults in a school care, whether or not they attend class and whether they succeed. In addition to emotional support school counselors are prepared with resources to help your child overcome fears of performance and can help him or her improve performance. If the issue is bullying, the counselors will also work with the school’s dean to address disciplinary or safety issues that need to be dealt with.

Parent involvement is probably the biggest tool you have to prevent this problem from ever appearing in the first place. Many of the parents I have worked with want me to give them ideas. Here is a short checklist of things that many successful parents do regularly:

  • Schedule a book reading night at least once a week.
  • Attend parent-teacher conferences or communicate with teachers over the phone or email often.
  • Check homework every day and ask your child to teach you what they learned. Make sure they tell you what they learned on that day not what they already knew.
  • Limit or eliminate television on school nights.
  • Monitor your child’s school attendance and lateness.

You have a great deal of information to consider. Some of you may be single parents or may work two jobs. Others may be working and going to school and still others have other children to worry about or an illness to deal with. School refusal is problematic and an additional stress to parents but it can be corrected if you consider the points in this article. Regardless of your obstacles, children usually turn out well when there is a consistent demonstration of profound tenderness, passion over success, deep affection, and personal attachment from someone in their life. These qualities alone will help your child feel like he or she can conquer the world, and they probably will. Good luck to you, stay in touch.