How to Deal with a Teen who Refuses to Go to School

“I don’t want to go to school” is a phrase nearly every parent has heard many times. Every child complains about going to school now and then, and even resists going to school. But when a teen refuses to attend school on a regular basis, or has problems staying in school, something more serious is likely at play. A teenager refusing to go to school due to distress and anxiety is not the same as one who wants to play hooky.

In July 2022, the Department of Education reported that 72% of public schools reported an increase in chronic absenteeism compared to a typical year before the pandemic. In April 2022, the New York Times conducted a survey of school counselors and found that 85% were seeing more chronic absenteeism than before the pandemic.

School refusal is becoming more common, but it’s important to recognize that it usually has a root cause. Yes, there are some teens who simply hate school, are defiant, or want to play hooky, but more commonly, teens are dealing with anxiety or a struggle that is driving their behavior. In these situations, trying to wait for the teen to “get over” their school refusal won’t work. The more a teen stays away from school, the more entrenched the behavior becomes. Therefore, it’s incredibly important to intervene as soon as possible to get your teen back to class, or the struggle to return to school becomes more traumatic for the teen and the family.

How to Recognize School Refusal

To tell the difference between a teenager refusing to go to school and normal resistance to school, parents can consider the following factors:

  • Length of time a teen has been avoiding school
  • Level of distress a teen feels about attending school
  • Strength of the teen’s resistance to school
  • Whether the teen is present for the entire school day, if they attend
  • Whether their resistance is disrupting the teen’s and the family’s life

Understanding the Reason behind the Refusal

When teens don’t want to go to school, many parents want to know how to force their teen to go to school. Unfortunately, this does not address the problem. As stated earlier, true school refusal has a cause, and until the reason is addressed, the teen will continue to refuse to attend. Instead, parents should try to understand why their teen doesn’t want to go to school and help them address the underlying issues. Following are the most common reasons for teens insisting on staying home:

  • Anxiety or Depression. School refusal and anxiety disorders are closely linked, and unfortunately, anxiety among youth is significantly increasing. Teens with anxiety struggle with feelings of tension, worry, and fear. They might also struggle with social anxiety which leads to fear of embarrassment or being judged.
  • Bullying. The National Education Association reports that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying. More than one in every five students reports being bullied at school. Bullying can encompass a wide variety of behaviors, such as being insulted, excluded, pushed, tripped, threatened, or having rumors spread about them.
  • Sexual Harassment. Unfortunately, many teens experience unwanted sexual advances in school. A survey conducted by the American Association of University Women discovered that 48% of middle and high school students said they were sexually harassed at least once, typically by their peers, and a third of harassed students said they did not want to return to school after the harassment occurred.
  • Trauma. Students who directly or indirectly experience difficult events, such as school shootings, bomb threats, harassment, or natural disasters, often experience feelings of intense fear, horror, and/or helplessness. Understandably, as a result, they want to avoid the location where the trauma occurred.
  • Social Rejection. Acceptance is vital to a teen’s sense of well-being. Studies have shown that teens experience social rejection in the same way as they experience physical pain. Conflicts with friend groups, being “cancelled” by peers, or experiencing severe exclusion can be a major reason for school refusal.
  • Difficult Home Situation. Some teens refuse to go to school because they’re worried about a troubling situation at home. For example, teens might want to stay home if a family member is ill or if they feel a need to protect someone in the family during the school day.
  • Academic Problems or Learning Disabilities. Teens who are struggling with a learning disability, failing a subject, or struggling academically in some way will often refuse to go to school. Getting these students the help they need to succeed can stop the refusal.
  • Teacher Conflicts. Conflicts with a teacher can also cause school refusal. If a teen feels intimidated, belittled, or harassed by a teacher, they will want to avoid their classroom.

What to Do When Your Teen Doesn’t Want to Go to School

Contact the School. You should definitely reach out to your teen’s school to obtain their perspective. They might be able to offer insight into your child’s day that sheds more light on the situation.

Contact the doctor. You should make an appointment with your teen’s family doctor or pediatrician. They can make sure that there are no physical reasons for your teen’s behavior, screen for some learning disabilities, and offer referrals to a psychologist if necessary for issues such as social anxiety.

Identify the problem. The most important step in helping a teenager refusing to go to school is to identify the root causes. Determining your teen’s motivation will help you decide how to approach the problem. Try to find out whether your teen is having problems with peers or teachers, or whether they’re trying to avoid something. Ask your teen a lot of open-ended questions and patiently listen with compassion, understanding, and no judgment. For example, ‘If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?’ You can use the list above to probe whether your student is struggling with any of the common reasons. If your teen is struggling to talk about the problem, ask them to rate each part of the school day, such as the bus ride, each class they are taking, lunch class, coming home, etc., to see if you can determine a certain part of the day that is troubling.

Offer empathy. Make sure you fully understand your teen’s point of view. You can ask, “So if I’m understanding you correctly, you don’t want to go to school because your friends are making fun of you?” Once your teen confirms that you have understood their problem, offer compassion. “That makes a lot of sense. I would feel bad, too, if my friends were doing that to me.”

Brainstorm solutions. Once a cause has been determined, tell your teen that you want to work with them to address the issue. Sit down together to brainstorm possible solutions to their concerns. Ask them how they would like to handle the challenge. Ask your teen to choose the option they believe will give them the best possible outcome. It’s important that your teen go to school while they’re getting help with the issue that has caused the school refusal. When your child goes to school, it builds their confidence and resilience and keeps them learning and interacting socially. It’s often easier for children to return to school if they haven’t been away from school for too long.

Partner with the school. Once a cause is determined, contact your teen’s school to explore solutions to the teen’s school avoidance. Explain what is going on with your teen and ask what types of support the school can offer. Your teen is not the first student to deal with this issues, and schools have a lot of experience in finding solutions that work. Many times school refusal can be solved by addressing a very specific issue. For example, a teen may need to be switched into a different class if they are struggling with the teacher or the school may need to provide additional supervision if there’s a bullying problem. Ask if there’s any support staff, such as a school counselor, or student support groups, that can help your teen. A teen with academic problems might benefit from a tutor. If anxiety or depression symptoms are behind the school avoidance, then a mental health professional should be contacted. Regardless of the solution determined, ask for regular updates on your teen’s progress.

Make home boring. Avoid accidentally rewarding a teen for not going to school. If your teen doesn’t attend school, they should not be allowed to watch TV or play video games. They should have to “turn in” their phone during school hours and work on make-up school work so they don’t fall behind.

Role model confidence. Your teen needs your love and support to get back to school. Stay calm. If your child sees that you’re worried, stressed or frustrated, it can make your child’s anxiety worse. Make a plan together for morning and evening routines. Praise any efforts your teen makes to go to school, be patient with their progress, and try to keep any frustration to yourself. Always say “When you’re at school tomorrow…” rather than “If you go to school tomorrow…” All of these efforts will help your teen build the confidence they need to get back to school regularly.

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