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How Should Parents Handle It When Their Teenager Refuses To Go to School?

When a teenager refuses to go to school, it can be challenging, especially if it becomes a recurring issue. As a parent, you may not know what to do, and you could find yourself frustrated and even angry. While it’s OK to feel that way, remember that how you respond will greatly affect your child. Yelling, threatening, and lecturing will likely increase your teen’s anxiety around school. Instead, practice curiosity and calmness, which will invite curiosity and calm from your child so you can best address the issue.

This article explores reasons why a teenager refuses to go to school — whether middle school or high school — and advice for how to best help them.

Common Reasons a Teenager Refuses To Go to School

When a teen refuses to attend class, you may be focused on judging the reasons as legitimate or fake. But if your child is avoiding the school environment, it could mean there’s a significant underlying issue. It’s important that you listen to what they’re telling you.

“Parents should be proactive to prevent these problems from becoming a crisis,” said Embark Behavioral Health Treatment Director Jake Sparks, LMFT. “They should stay connected with teachers, school counselors, and guidance counselors. It’s important that parents know how a teacher perceives the child is doing during the day while they’re at school.”

Here are a few reasons that may be why your teenager is refusing to go to school.

1. Learning problems 

If your child is dealing with a learning issue such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or memory deficits, they may feel like they’re not smart and can’t learn, resulting in internalized shame that makes it difficult to function at school, especially on test days or if they have to speak in front of the class. Their fear of being teased, ridiculed, or embarrassed can even cause anxiety. 

2. Bullying

Verbal or physical bullying can make it difficult for a teen to attend class. While many schools take a strict and hard stance against bullying, it continues to be a problem. And it’s even more difficult now than when you were young because technology makes it possible for teens to say devastating things to each other while hiding behind phones or computers. Using technology this way is known as cyberbullying.

3. Family stress or conflict

A wide variety of family-related issues can contribute to a teenager’s stress and cause them to avoid school. For example, a family member could be seriously or critically ill, or parents may have recently divorced or are splitting up.

4. Mental health disorders

The teen years are difficult to maneuver in the first place, but add mental health issues, including anxiety disorders such as social anxiety or depression, and they can be overwhelming. Your child may not feel up to interacting with peers and teachers, doing schoolwork, or participating in extracurricular activities.

5. Medical problems

Teens can be diagnosed with serious health issues that add a layer of stress to their lives, including asthma, epilepsy, cancer, diabetes, and cystic fibrosis. Going to doctor appointments, waiting for a diagnosis, or experiencing flareups in symptoms can add to your child’s stress and create a desire to not be in school.

What To Do If Your Teenager Refuses To Go to School

The most important thing you can do is remain supportive when your child is going through a hard time. They need to know you’re concerned about them and want what’s best for them. While mornings are busy, slow down and listen intently to see if you can hear or define the root of the problem. 

In some cases, your child may simply require a “rest” day. This day should be structured to include proactive activities that provide rejuvenation and connection. Sparks suggested:

  • Going for a walk.
  • Getting caught up on schoolwork.
  • Going out to lunch for some one-on-one time with a parent.
  • Exercising.
  • Seeing a therapist.
  • Cleaning their room or living space.

Sparks said while these activities may not seem restful at first glance, they ultimately lead to a decrease in symptoms and help a child be better prepared to go to school the next day.

Be in tune with your child’s needs to determine when and how often a rest day is necessary. It’s not about what you want for your teenager but rather what they need to be continuously successful.

Keep in mind, however, that mental health days aren’t meant to be an escape during the school year or a way to avoid typical responsibilities.

“Mental health days need to be proactive days to make the situation better,” Sparks said. “We all need a break from stressful situations, but you still have to address the issue behind not wanting to go to school if you’re to help the child feel better and get back to school.”

Here are additional steps Sparks recommended you take when your teen wants to stay home on a school day.

Validate their feelings

It’s important to never disregard or ignore your teenager’s feelings or fears regarding attending class. Sometimes children can literally feel sick about going.

Sparks said, “School refusal is often connected with physical conditions like stomachaches, flulike symptoms, fatigue, drowsiness, and headaches. They’re often ambiguous symptoms that could have more than one cause and can’t be proven, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. It doesn’t mean your child is lying to you. They can literally feel those things because of the distress they’re experiencing. A parent still needs to be empathetic when their child has these symptoms.”

Acknowledge how your teen feels and let them know you’re sorry they’re hurting. If it helps, put yourself in their shoes. Wouldn’t it feel good to know your parent understands you’re in pain and that going to school is difficult?

Create a plan for when your teen wants to stay home

Become familiar with coping skills that can reduce your child’s stress, such as journaling or practicing meditation or mindfulness, educate yourself and your child about them, and practice them at appropriate times. Remind your child to use these skills on hard days to see if they’ll help your child get to class.

Another way to help get your teen to attend class is to create a plan for what they can do when they do go and the school day gets tough. Give your child multiple options or, better yet, help them come up with their own ideas. Maybe they can call you during the day just to check in or go to the school nurse’s office to remove themselves from a stressful situation. 

Having a safe place to go when they feel overwhelmed will offer a sense of control in their day. It will let them collect themselves and regain their composure in a nonthreatening environment. They can use the coping skills you — or a therapist — taught them to calm down and, when they’re ready, return to class.

If your teenager is repeatedly refusing to go to school, communicate with teachers or school counselors so they know why your child is struggling to get to class and can provide extra support. For example, school staff may wish to discuss setting up a 504 plan. 504 plans include accommodations that help eligible students be successful at school, such as providing a tutor to assist with difficult subjects or allowing extra time to complete homework assignments.

If your teen is struggling with increased absences that are tied to their mental health, reach out for professional help. If they’ve never seen a mental health practitioner before, you can schedule an appointment with your child’s pediatrician or general practitioner as a starting point. They may recommend you follow up with a therapist. You can also contact a therapist directly. You can find one near you by using Psychology Today’s search tool.

If your teen is already seeing a therapist, make the therapist aware of your teen’s difficulties attending school so they can help your child work through this issue.

Be firm but patient

Once the core issues are addressed and your child has the appropriate tools and support for overcoming the root of their problem, school attendance should be expected.

Communicate your expectation and help your teen work through any concerns one step at a time. Point out the natural consequences of repeatedly not going to school, such as a negative impact on their grades and less time with friends.

Be cautious about offering rewards for school attendance, as that could lead your teen to hide their true feelings or concerns. This could make it more difficult to address the issues your child is facing.

If your teen continues to refuse to go to school, you may want to consider alternative schooling methods such as homeschooling or online learning.

Putting It All Together

A teenager who refuses to go to school will be more likely to attend class when they have supportive parents who acknowledge their feelings, are connected to school resources when needed, and can work with a mental health professional if they’re struggling with issues such as anxiety or depression.

“Kids do well when they can,” Sparks said. “We all want to do our best when we can.”

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.