Nico was a solid “A” student until 10th grade when he started getting sick frequently. Just before Christmas a bad stomach bug kept him out of school for a week, he fell behind on assignments and his grades started to suffer. He was afraid of getting sick to his stomach in class and started to resist going to school. Then he refused going altogether.
If you’re a parent who’s experienced school refusal, you know it’s not your child’s simple unwillingness to go to school. It’s not the garden variety resistance we all get from our kids about getting ready and out the door on time.
When we pressed, assuring Nico that his stomach flu was gone, he’d argue with us using a string of “what if’s”:
“What if I feel like throwing up during gym?”.
“What if I missed so much Biology that I can’t even take the mid-term?”.
“What if everyone avoids me because they think I might barf on them?”.
We were at a loss as to how to convince him that he was fine and forcing him to go when he was so upset felt insensitive and downright mean.
Flat out refusal to attend school is often an indication that something more serious is going on. When we looked more deeply into Nico’s situation we discovered that his avoidance of school was more complicated than we thought and that he was experiencing a lot of anxiety.
Sometimes depression, anxiety or a mood disorder is the root cause of school refusal. It can also be part of the upheaval of puberty, or the result of a disruption or family crisis — a move, divorce, illness, or death in the family. Bullying can also be a factor. But, in many cases, school refusal behavior has no obvious trigger.
Feeling anxious is scary. Instead of learning to mitigate it with a reality check — there are no monsters under the bed, snakes hanging from the trees, and you’re not going to barf on anyone — unchecked anxiety can take on a life of its own. Because it often brings on physical symptoms like panic, headache and stomach distress, kids can start to fear feeling anxious. For Nico, the idea of school was producing a level of fear that was immobilizing and the whole thing became a vicious cycle.
What can you do about school refusal?
- Take school refusal seriously. The longer your child stays out of school, the harder it’s going to be for him to go back.
- Try not to minimize or downplay your child’s concerns. Let her know you hear what she’s saying and are there to help.
- Get a comprehensive evaluation from a mental health professional to determine the best way forward.
- Help your child learn to identify, and manage his anxiety. Create an action plan that includes talking with him about his feelings.
- Help her establish a support system. Ask practitioners, teachers and school administrators to work with you to create structure and consistency.
Below are some resources you may find helpful:
- Great Schools “School refusal: when kids say no to school“
- UNLV School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “School Refusal“