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Fear of School: Why Your Teen Is Scared and How To Help 

For many teens, going to school is a normal part of their routine. But for some, the very idea triggers stress and anxiety because they have a fear of school.  

If your teen worries about heading to class, learn why they may be anxious as well as how to help them navigate their concerns in a healthy way and overcome school phobia.   

What Is the Fear of School?  

The fear of school, also called school phobia, is when the thought of going to school — including interacting with classmates or teachers, doing homework, or engaging in sports on campus — feels far too difficult or overwhelming to your teenager.  

 As noted in a Harvard Medical School article, fear of going to school can show up in a few ways, including: 

  • Attendance issues, such as skipping class, going to school late, or leaving early. 
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and stomachaches. 

If your teen is struggling with a fear of going to school, they also might procrastinate on homework or avoid studying for a test. 

Why Your Child Is Scared To Go To School  

There are many reasons why you might have a nervous student on your hands. 

Fear of homework or homework anxiety  

Homework anxiety and the fear of schoolwork are closely associated with a teen’s stress about grades and exams.  

“I have a lot of teens who have significant anxiety about their performance,” said Russ Yost, a licensed marriage and family therapist and licensed professional counselor at Doorways, an outpatient center in Arizona. “They want to get good grades. They might be in honors classes. Some teenagers think to themselves, ‘If I don’t get good grades, I won’t get into a good college, and I’ll be a failure.'” 

Fear of school shootings  

It’s not unusual for teens to have a fear of school shootings, particularly soon after one happens. For example, shortly after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting where 17 people were killed, nearly 6 out of 10 teenagers ages 13-17 were worried about potential campus shootings, according to a Pew Research Center survey.  

So far in 2022, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day, according to the Washington Post.  

Fear of teachers  

There are multiple reasons a teenager could have a fear of teachers, also known as teacher phobia. For some, it may be due to social anxiety.  

“Maybe the big public schools are just too much for them,” Yost said, adding that some teens are anxious about interacting with teachers because they’ve been learning remotely during the pandemic.  

There may also be cases where a fear of teachers happens because a teenager’s personality doesn’t match a certain instruction style. For example, according to a study published in PLOS One, strict teachers with controlling teaching styles are associated with a higher rate of fear of failure. 

Separation anxiety  

Separation anxiety is often behind a teen refusing to go to or stay in class, as they’re reluctant to leave home or engage in independent activity, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The academy shared school avoidance can also happen after a change at school, such as going from middle school to high school, or a significant change at home, such as a divorce, illness, or death in the family.  

Childhood trauma 

Childhood trauma presents multiple challenges for children, such as negative thinking, difficulty learning, and hypervigilance (being overly alert to danger), according to the Child Mind Institute. All of this can make school feel especially stressful. In fact, the Child Mind Institute noted that chronic trauma can cause serious issues not only with learning but also with behavior.  

School bullying  

Fear of school and school avoidance are common responses to school bullying, which affects younger and older teens. According to the most recent School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, in 2019, about 22% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied on campus during the school year. The two most frequent methods were being the subject of rumors and being made fun of, called names, or insulted.  

Low self-esteem  

The American Psychological Association has reported that a lack of confidence or low self-esteem can cause your teen to doubt their ability to succeed. This can cause them to avoid school tasks. For instance, a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found an association between poor self-esteem and school refusal behavior. 

History of mental health issues  

Anxiety was the most common mental health concern for children ages 3-17 from 2018 to 2019, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. The survey also reported that 13.2% of youths in that age group — just over 8 million — had a mental or behavioral health condition.  

According to a study published in The Lancet, anxiety and other common mental health issues such as depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are associated with school absenteeism.  

9 Ways Parents Can Help With the Fear of School 

If your teenager has a fear of school and avoids going to class, it can create a harmful cycle. For example, a student with performance anxiety who skips classes will fall further behind academically, exacerbating a phobia of school.  

Yost recommended nine ways parents can help teens with their fear of school. These strategies give your son or daughter the mental health tools for overcoming school phobia and learning to cope with their anxiety.  

  1. Discuss school worries. Yost suggested a collaborative approach since teens are learning independence and rarely want to be told what to do. “Teens have to buy in,” he said, “so you could say, ‘I’d love to sit down with you and understand what you’re thinking about school.’ Don’t make it a grill session — take your time, and make the conversation pleasant and playful.” 
  2. Offer “rest days.” An occasional rest day — a brief respite from the stress and anxiety of school, peers, and social performance — gives your teen’s nervous system a chance to reset and calm down. These rest days can include proactive activities that promote rejuvenation and connection, such as going for a walk or spending one-on-one time with a parent. 
  3. Ask for help from teachers and school staff. Advocate for your teen’s mental health. For example, if your child is having a hard time getting to — and staying on — campus each day, you could request gradual re-entry into school. If your son or daughter is being bullied, you can ask about anti-bullying initiatives to see how they can help. You can also explore the school’s mental health resources, which could include a counselor or social worker who provides emotional support through services such as individual or group counseling sessions.  
  4. Practice positive reinforcement with your child. “Parents can be very critical, the kid gives up, and now you have parents who are angry and kids who are unmotivated,” Yost said. “As a parent, you need to have unconditional acceptance and have expectations that they can do well. You could say, ‘If you fail a class, I still love you. You’re still my precious kid, and I know you can succeed.'” 
  5. Model positive behavior. Yost said many students, especially those who are anxious about academic performance and success, pick that up after comparing themselves to their parents. Observe your actions and how you communicate, and try to connect your teen’s value and success to effort and hard work — not simply earning good grades or getting into college. 
  6. Don’t reinforce the fear of school. Teach your child to overcome and face their fears of school. For example, you could encourage them to practice stress management techniques and collaborative brainstorming. “Maybe they simply need a different school setting, or a smaller class, or an online environment,” Yost said.  
  7. Talk to your teen about nutrition as self-care. Yost said some students struggle to eat well, and the importance of diet on school phobia and anxiety is often ignored. A Harvard medical school article that explored how food affects the way people feel had several recommendations for a healthier gut and improved mood, including eating whole foods, fiber, seafoods, lean poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  
  8. Exercise. Exercise has a positive impact on mental health, including anxiety and depression, as noted by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America and in a Mental Health and Physical Activity journal review of studies. The journal’s review also noted that physical activity can improve a youth’s self-concept, which is how they perceive themself. Encourage your teen to go for a walk at school during their lunch break, stay active on the weekends, or take part in school sports if they don’t have social anxiety. 
  9. Reach out to a mental health professional for help. “If you’re not getting anywhere, see a family therapist,” Yost said. “The therapist will make sure everyone is heard and understood and the feelings underneath are looked at.” To find a mental health professional who fits your needs and situation, you can use the Psychology Today search tool

Your Child’s Fear of School: One More Thought on Talking To a Professional 

Communication is important to truly understanding why your teen is experiencing stress and anxiety around school, but healthy communication between a parent and teenager can be notoriously tough. Yost said it’s OK to contact a mental health professional for help if needed. 

“You’re doing the best you can, parent,” Yost said. “We all struggle with talking to our teens, and that’s what a family therapist can focus on.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.