Weekday mornings are when the symptoms usually appear.
You’ve woken up with a headache or stomach in knots. A doctor can’t find any physical reason for you to feel this way so often. Maybe you are excessively tired and had trouble getting to sleep the night before with nightmares disrupting your sleep.
Perhaps you feel the need to stay close to your parents, worried about being alone and needing their reassurance. Or, instead you lash out at them overwhelmed with emotion and refusing to get ready for the day.
Whatever your exact symptoms, you do know one thing: you don’t want to go to school, and this anxiety about school has become a common, almost daily occurrence.
If you’re like many high school students, this situation probably sounds familiar. You experience many anxiety-related symptoms on school days, yet these symptoms suddenly go away on weekends or school holidays.
What is School Phobia?
If you feel this way, you may be experiencing school phobia–and you should know that you’re not alone and there is something you can do about it.
School phobia, also called school refusal or school avoidance, is a type of anxiety disorder that many teenagers face. In fact, it’s estimated that between five and 28 percent of all elementary through high school students will experience school phobia at some point in their lives.
Those with school phobia feel anxiety around school, often exhibiting physical symptoms like nausea and headache. For some, school phobia results in mild anxiety that makes going to school more uncomfortable, but for others, school phobia can become a debilitating fear that drives them to refuse to go to school, to show up late for classes or to skip classes altogether.
Many high schoolers who experience school phobia have been dealing with the symptoms for years, as the average onset of school phobia comes around seven and a half. However, school phobia may not show up until later, such as during a big transition like entering high school or switching schools.
School phobia may occur alongside another disorder. For example, about 22 percent of students with school phobia have also been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, while almost 11 percent also have a generalized anxiety disorder.
About a third of all students facing school phobia have no other disorders. You can easily have school phobia even if you don’t feel overly anxious in any other life situation.
Keep in mind that school phobia is different from truancy, where students seek to avoid school not out of fear, but because they’d rather be doing something else (such as watching TV or playing with friends).
Factors Contributing to School Phobia
School phobia can have many causes, including:
- Performance anxiety, you worry that your schoolwork quality isn’t good enough or that you can’t meet standards in class
- Major life changes at home that cause stress or trauma, such as a big move or a divorce
- Fear of being bullied at school or facing ridicule from friends and classmates
- Parents’ behavior, highly anxious and/or overprotective parents can easily lead to an anxious student
Research on school phobia also suggests that some students are more likely to develop the disorder, including only children, youngest children and those with a chronic illness.
Whether you understand the cause of your school phobia or not, there are steps you can take to make the stress of school more manageable and overcome your school phobia.
5 Tips for Overcoming School Phobia
As much as it may feel better at the moment, avoiding school isn’t the best way to deal with school phobia. Instead, taking steps to deal with your anxiety head-on and to seek help from others is the best path to overcoming your school phobia.
Here are five things you can do to deal with your anxiety over school.
1. Perform relaxation exercises
Relaxation exercises such as meditation, deep breathing and visualization are excellent tools to help you deal with anxiety, whether caused by school phobia or something else.
2. Speak with your parents, a trusted teacher or a guidance counselor
Talking with someone you trust either at school or at home can help you put your fears into words. This communication can lead to a better understanding of your fears and how to overcome school phobia.
3. Focus on fixing the cause of your school phobia
Sometimes there’s a very concrete reason for school phobia, such as if you’re struggling in math class or being bullied by another student. In combination with your parents, take steps to resolve such problems, such as getting a math tutor or talking to your school’s administrator.
4. Seek out activities and situations you enjoy at school
For many students, finding a club or class that you genuinely enjoy can help resolve school phobia by giving you the opportunity to feel happy and successful at school.
5. Ask your parents to help you meet with a mental health professional
Going to counseling can be valuable in helping you face your phobia. This is particularly true if your school phobia is seriously interfering with your school performance, or if you know you have another mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.
Consider counseling with your entire family, so that you and your parents can learn how to deal with your school phobia together.
Easing Back to School with School Phobia
If your school phobia is severe and you’ve been missing a significant amount of school, you and your parents may be able to come up with a plan with your school to help ease your return.
For example, maybe you begin your first day back by only going to your favorite class, working up to attending all day.
In combination with your parents and professionals, overcoming school phobia and actually enjoying school again is within your reach.