What are the common causes behind school refusal – and how can you help your child to better adjust to school life?
School refusal is where your child experiences severe difficulty attending school due to emotional distress, constant worrying and anxiety. Children with school refusal (also called School Phobia), generally feel anxious and fearful toward school.
Common Signs of School Refusal
Children with school refusal may:
- Want to stay at home with their parents during school days;
- Experience physical symptoms;
- Exhibit behavioural symptoms including avoidance, distress and tantrums;
- Worry about the bad things that could happen at school;
- Experience symptoms of panic attack.
Here are some common anxiety signs and symptoms that children/teenagers with school refusal may experience:
- Feeling scared, apprehensive and fearful
- Physical (somatic) symptoms:
- Heart racing
- Shortness of breath
- Vomiting and nausea
- Abdominal pain
- Expecting bad things to happen
- Negative and unhelpful thoughts, for example,”People will ask me why I have been away for so long”; “I won’t be able to catch up, I have been away for too long now”; “My friends have probably forgotten about me”.
School refusal can happen at any age but is more likely to happen when a child starts primary school or high school. If the child is allowed to stay at home, the symptoms will quickly disappear only to reappear the next morning.
School refusal is an anxiety disorder that should not be mistaken with truancy. Children with school refusal are experiencing intense emotional distress about going to school, their parents are well aware of them not attending school and there is no display of anti-social behaviour. On the other hand, children with truancy do not show excessive anxiety about school, their parents are most of the time unaware of their child not attending school and there may be some anti-social behaviour.
There are plenty of potential reasons why a child/teenager may refuse to go to school. Here are some common triggers:
- No friends/peer issues;
- Transitioning to high school;
- Starting a new school, or starting school for the first time;
- Academic/learning issues;
- Difficulty in going back to school after an extensive absence due to illness, travel;
- Traumatic events (eg family event, grief);
- Moving house;
- Issues with teachers, friendships or relationships;
- Separation anxiety;
- Fear that parent may leave while the child is at school;
- Fear that the parent will not come back to pick them up.
Tips for Parents
Parents want to know how they can best handle the issue of school refusal; the following tips can help:
- Listen to your child;
- Be on time to pick your child up at the end of the day;
- Keep the communication lines open and help your child to put their feelings into words;
- Exploring with your child the positive things about school;
- Meeting with school and guidance counsellors, or seeing a psychologist.
Your child’s counsellor of psychologist will likely include the following as treatment for school refusal:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT);
- Skill building and social skills training;
- Working in collaboration with your family and school.
If your child or adolescent refuses to go to school, or feels scared or unhappy about school, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Meggy Delaunay, PG Dip Psych Practice, PG Dip Dev Psych, M Genetic Psych, B Psych, MAPS.
Meggy Delaunay is a psychologist who primarily works with children, adolescents and young adults. She is a registered Psychologist in Australia, New Zealand and France, and can provide therapy sessions in English and French.
Please call 1800 877 924 to make an appointment or find out how to book online with Meggy Delaunay now!
Please note: Meggy Delaunay is currently not practising.
Here are some websites or articles that you may find useful.
- Kearney, C.A, Chapman, G. & Cook, L.C. (2005). Moving from assessment to treatment of school refusal behavior in youth. International journal of behavioral consultation and therapy, 1(1), pp.46-51.
- Kearney, C.A. (2001). School refusal behaviour in youth: A functional approach to assessment and treatment. Washington, DC: APA.
- Wimmer, M.B. (2004). School refusal: Information for educators. National association of school psychologists. pp 83-85.