Parents of preschoolers might expect their children to feel scared about going to school, but parents of teenagers would probably be surprised to see their teens battle similar fears.
Yet, many teens have chronic anxiety about going to school, which can create a difficult and confusing struggle for both the teen and their parents.
But parents should know that there is a way to gain clarity and help their teens overcome their anxiety.
What Is School Phobia?
School phobia, also called school refusal or school avoidance, is a form of severe anxiety associated with going to school. These anxieties and deep-seated fears are chronic, and they can incite extreme panic, stress, and worry.
School phobia isn’t just a phase that will pass; it is a real problem that persists for several weeks or more. It interferes with teens’ ability to participate in normal life. They might have trouble engaging in school, forming meaningful relationships, and living with a sense of purpose.
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.
Many high schoolers who face 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.
Often, school phobia occurs alongside a larger mental health issue, such as separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, or depression.
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 about any other life situation.
If an adolescent is demonstrating severe anxiety about going to school, it’s important to recognize this as a sign of school phobia and not truancy.
A student with school phobia will usually demonstrate physiological symptoms, such as vomiting, headaches, or diarrhea. They are also commonly smart and academically responsible.
Truant students, on the other hand, don’t fear school; instead, they show little interest in doing well in school and often sneak away to do something fun during school hours.
Factors Contributing to School Phobia
The causes of school phobia vary. Younger children might deeply crave the security of time spent with caregivers and suffer from separation anxiety. Adolescents might also suffer from separation anxiety.
A number of other factors could contribute to teens’ development of school phobia, such as:
- Distressing events happening in school, such as bullying or shame
- Death in the family
- Divorce or marital struggles between parents
- Re-entry into school after a long break or time off
- Move or change in school
- Problems socializing in school
- Fear of imperfection (performance anxiety)
School phobia commonly grows into school refusal, in which students’ anxieties and fears are so severe, that they refuse to attend school. The prospect of going to school might make students feel dizzy, sense back pains, or cry uncontrollably.
Anxieties can become so severe that they experience panic attacks or inflict harm upon themselves.
Frequent absences due to school refusal can damage their academic record, which can only complicate the problem more.
6 Tips to Overcome School Phobia
Treating school phobia as a mental health issue and not a passing phase is important to overcome it. Forcing adolescents to go to school or insisting that they “get over it” won’t help; in fact, it could make things worse.
Parents can implement strategies at home and talk with a mental health professional to help their teens create a plan that works best for them.
Here are some tips to begin:
- Have a non-threatening conversation
An honest conversation can reveal things going on in school or other stressors that are causing severe anxieties. You should refrain from judging, and instead share your own experiences and sympathy, and discuss ways to deal with the issue.
- Practice relaxation exercises
Meditation, deep breathing and visualization are excellent tools to reduce anxiety. Help your teenager find music, books, or guided meditations that they can listen to every day before school or even during school.
- Establish a routine
Just like when they were little, teens also appreciate structure and routine. Encourage your teenager to get enough rest by determining a nightly bedtime, and establish a morning routine that will help them prepare for the school day.
- Keep teens involved in activities
Many teens who struggle with school phobia end up withdrawing from socializing. Encourage them to stay involved in their weekly church groups, club sports teams, and other social activities, so that they can still benefit from these sources of positivity and support.
- Communicate with teachers and administrators
Be sure teachers and administrators know about the situation and communicate ways that they can be active supporters.
- Access help from a mental health professional
Mental health professionals can help you evaluate the full picture of your teens’ situation and recommend the best course of treatment. A full evaluation by a mental health professional will also show whether or not teens are suffering from a greater mental health issue, such as social anxiety disorder.They can determine whether your teenager may benefit from treatments like:
- Cognitive behavior therapy
- Individual therapy
- Family therapy
Furthermore, they can also help teens develop social skills and practice exercises to use when certain things trigger their anxieties.
Finally, mental health professionals can help you, along with your teen’s school officials, create a re-entry plan for school, if necessary.
Easing Back to School with School Phobia
Overcoming school phobia isn’t a hopeless endeavor, but it does require a team effort. If parents, teachers and mental health professionals work together methodically, there is no reason to believe that teens cannot move beyond it.
If your teenager’s school phobia is severe and they’ve been missing a significant amount of school, together with your school, you may be able to come up with a plan to help ease the return back.
For example, maybe you begin the first day back by only having your teen go to their favorite class, working up to attending all day.
In combination with school officials and mental health professionals, overcoming school phobia and actually enjoying school again is within your teen’s reach.