Parents whose child displays school refusal behavior likely wishes they’d stumble upon a guidebook, or manual of sorts, to help them better understand and help their children.
What is most challenging about this issue is that school refusal behavior presents itself as a confusing set of symptoms. Typically, parents first assume their child is going through “ a difficult phase”, but soon realize they are actually experiencing severe emotional distress.
Each case of school refusal is different, and unfortunately, there is no single guidebook that explains how parents should care for it.
School Refusal Behaviors and Symptoms
As a parent, the most important thing you can do in helping your child cope is to respond early to school refusal behavior.
The first place to start is by learning about the types of school refusal symptoms. These involve physiological, behavioral and psychiatric symptoms, all of which are associated with going to school. School refusal behavior often improves if the child is allowed to stay home.
- Stomach/abdominal pains
- Back or joint pains
- Difficulty getting out of bed in the morning
- Frequent requests to go to the school nurse
- Frequent requests to call home
Importance of Intervening (Not Ignoring) Your Child’s School Refusal Behavior
You may decide to ignore your child’s school refusal behavior and force them to go to school. However, the fact is that school refusal is legitimate emotional distress, and it can be a signal of an anxiety disorder.
The longer you ignore the problem, hoping it will resolve itself, the more likely it is that further complications will arise.
There are direct implications on your child as a result of simply letting them stay home. With frequent absences comes a loss of valuable instruction time. This can impact academic performance, which may affect test scores and chances for getting into college.
Frequent absenteeism will also cause your child to miss out on meaningful socialization time during recess, at the lunch table, or in the hallways, which can cause them to withdraw and isolate themselves.
Families are affected as well. You’ll likely experience tremendous strain, as you’re constantly rearranging your schedules to be home with your child.
How to Cope with School Refusal Behavior
Because every child presents school refusal behavior in a different way, each family’s treatment plan will vary.
However, one thing is the same and that is that your child needs to know that you believe their distress is real, and that you want to help them find the best way to make it better.
The optimal solution to handling school refusal behavior usually comes with a team approach.
This team should include the following:
- Family members
- School administrators
- Mental health professionals
Here are some tips on how to take a team approach as you work through understanding and handling your child’s school refusal behaviors.
Use Relaxation Exercises to Calm Physiological School Refusal Behaviors
Often, certain situations associated with going to school trigger physiological distress. These scenarios may include:
- Giving a presentation
- Being around particular people
- Walking through the school doors
When faced with these situations, your child may vomit, feel intense back or joint pains, or even become dizzy. These and other severe physiological symptoms interfere with their ability to attend school.
Relaxation training is a good way to help your child cope. Not only does it give them a tool to
calm down, but it shows them that you acknowledge their fears and sincerely desire to help
You can talk to your child about what triggers their physical pains, and then lead them through deep breathing or guided meditation exercises. Calming music and positive imagery are effective tools, too.
Over time, your child will learn to practice these exercises on their own if something triggers their anxiety.
Team Up with the School to Manage School Refusal Behavior
If you’re the parent of a child who refuses to go to school then you know that the symptoms don’t only occur at home. In many cases, school refusal behavior presents itself at school, like:
- Crying, or acting out in the classroom
- Calling home frequently
- Visiting the school nurse multiple times throughout the day
For these children, being in the school environment is a genuine struggle for them.
You should partner with your child’s teachers and school administrators to arrive at the
best possible solution. School counselors probably have some familiarity with school
refusal behavior, and they can assist in the process.
An effective first step might be to bring your child to school early and let them sit with a trusted
teacher until their first class. Teachers can also help by implementing opportunities for your child
to make positive contributions to the classroom.
For example, helping with jobs before or during class can allow your child to build a solid
relationship with teachers and feel a greater sense of ownership in the classroom. This also
increases their connection to school and decrease their anxiety inside its walls.
Have a Mental Health Professional Evaluate Psychiatric School Refusal Behaviors
School refusal can be a symptom of an anxiety disorder, such as separation anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. On top of physiological and behavioral symptoms, children might also demonstrate psychiatric school refusal behaviors, such as:
- Excessive fears about losing their parents
- Unreasonable anxiety about being around a certain peer group
- Sudden withdraw from other activities and passions
A mental health professional can give a full assessment of your child’s situation, and
recommend the best course of treatment. This might involve a combination of individual and
family therapy, which will help both you and your child understand school refusal behavior and
learn strategies to cope.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medication may be recommended.
It’s especially important that adolescents who have a history of school refusal get advice from a
mental health professional. These children are more likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder and
experience damaging consequences of their school refusal behavior.
Handling School Refusal Behavior
As a parent, coping with school refusal behavior can be stressful and frustrating. It’s hard to know where to turn.
Establishing a team-approach system of care will give you the best chance of finding answers so you can help your child. Together with your child’s school and mental health teams, you can create a custom treatment plan, implement strategies that help you and your child, and gain strength in knowing that you’re not alone.
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