Update 7/10: The beginning of the school year is still a big unknown for many states. We’ll all return to in-person school eventually. For some kids, the adjustment back to school may be a rocky and emotional one. Plan ahead this summer to head off school avoidance!
What do you do when your teen or tween begs to stay home from school? Kids may dread a big test, a presentation or an awkward social situation, and might even complain of vague physical symptoms to seal the deal. Parents decide how to handle these occasional absences, balancing the potential mental health benefits of a day off with the need for consistent attendance.
Some kids of all ages develop a more serious aversion to school that crops up suddenly. Mornings become a battlefield and you begin to dread the frequent confrontations with your teen over attendance. It’s become what’s commonly known as school refusal or school avoidance. Addressing chronic absences and the reasons behind them can be confusing and frustrating to parents.
So what should you do if your teenager won’t go to school?
- Explore the reasons behind the refusal.
- Evaluate your parent role to support attendance.
- Partner with a school counselor and be open about the reasons for absences.
- Be consistent with a fair system of consequences and rewards to encourage regular attendance.
- Consider outside counseling for support.
1. Explore the reasons behind the refusal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates as much as 19% of all high school students are chronically absent. Every teen is unique, but school avoidance by students included in that statistic is often motivated by similar triggers. It’s usually connected to one or more stressors that kids experience at school and the possible positive feelings associated with staying home. Anxiety about school is normal, but developing an aversion to attending regularly needs immediate parent intervention and possible professional help.
Find the stressors, eliminate the fun of staying home and you can help your teen take a small step toward resolving the problems.
School refusal commonly begins when kids mistakenly think that a problem will be solved through a short-term absence. Other causes can include illnesses or other disruptions that throw off a teen’s daily routine. Whatever the initial cause, the avoidance strategy may soon take on a life of its own, creating a more complex web of behaviors that can be difficult to address.
Teenagers often feel anxiety for these common reasons:
- Social challenges – teens may feel isolated, experience bullying, conflicts in friendships and romantic relationships.
- Academic problems – schoolwork may be difficult, a student has fallen behind, has a conflict with a teacher, or is experiencing teasing relating to academic performance.
- A change in family situation such as divorce, a recent move or a death in the family.
- An illness that causes your teen to fall behind and/or feel disconnected from the school community.
School avoidance can masquerade as an illness with stomach aches, nausea or headaches. If the symptoms resolve themselves on weekends, they’re likely triggered by a larger problem at school. On the other hand, If symptoms continue outside of school hours, or are accompanied by fever or other clear signs of illness, have your teenager examined by a doctor to rule out any underlying disease.
Contact the school nurse to see if your teen is avoiding classes when in school with similar patterns.
Try to avoid being reactive. This may not be easy as the pressure mounts to get your teen to school so that you can get to work on time or meet other responsibilities. It’s also hard to keep cool when you think about the impact that many absences will have on your teen’s future. Yet, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know that yelling or threats are not likely to help. Your frustration will just add to an already charged situation.
Here’s what you can do:
Use open-ended questions, mirroring and other conversational techniques to understand the extent of the problem. How you handle the rest of your conversation will be determined by the cause of school refusal.
The Goal: help your teen calm down and think beyond the moment to weigh the effects of staying home.
Remind your teen that he or she will be giving up certain privileges (see #4 for more detail) to stay home. There will be no screen time; no extracurriculars, sports or meeting friends after school. Maybe they’ll also miss an important upcoming event.
You’ll need to decide how much to guide the discussion towards the real-world consequences of missed instruction; if your teen’s anxiety over academic performance is prompting the school avoidance, you’ll want to tread lightly here. It’s worth pointing out that a day out of school makes it harder to catch up on missed assignments.
Sometimes taking a bit of pressure off an anxious kid will help; lower the bar to what your teen should expect from himself or herself that school day. Great things have been accomplished in the world by people who consistently just “show up” and get through difficult days, even when not performing their best. It’s called grit! Everyone can develop this core response to challenges with practice.
2. Evaluate your parent role in supporting regular attendance
At first glance, it may not be easy to see yourself as part of the problem. As hard as it is, you’ll need to objectively evaluate how you may be allowing the behavior to continue.
Of course it tugs at your heart when your teen is in distress! Yet helping them avoid facing problems is a problem. It will impact their confidence in facing other challenges.
Dr. Debra Kissen, Clinical Psychologist specializing in Anxiety, OCD and Related Disorders, shares that teens need to see themselves as capable in solving problems in productive ways, “ What is most important is for children to learn that quitting, avoiding, or running away from problems is not a viable long-term solution.”
Your teen’s ability to take on the challenges of life is an essential skill of growing up.
If you’re still tempted to give in to your teen’s plea to spend one more day out of school, it may strengthen your resolve to see the big picture: studies show that school avoidance can shape your teen’s life in adulthood. In “Chronic Absenteeism in the Nation’s Schools”, the U.S. Department of Education highlights the strong connection between chronic absenteeism and high school dropout. In addition, the studies cited chronic absenteeism as a factor leading to poor health and a greater likelihood of arrest and other negative outcomes in adulthood.
Bottom line: parents have a responsibility to get their teens to school, even under duress. The fact that your teen may be digging a hole may be hard for him to see. Between you, you’re the only one with the adult ability to see the long view.
In the challenge of getting your teen attending consistently, you’ll find you’re not alone – reach out to allies and set up routines like the ones below for support.
3. Partner With a School Counselor and be Open with the school about the reasons for absences.
Getting on the same page as your teen’s school staff is a powerful strategy. In the early stages of school refusal, a meeting with counselors and administration may be enough to pave the way for your teenager’s quick return. It’s often easier if the reason for the refusal is clear and can be addressed immediately.
Important Tip: Don’t cover for your teen! Be open about the reasons for every absence.
This initial meeting with school counselors can determine how to work together on managing anxiety or reducing depression through school-based adjustments. This involves the school at the outset so that you have formed a partnership moving forward.
4. Set a fair system of consequences and rewards to encourage regular attendance.
A power struggle between you will make a difficult situation worse. Take the emotion out of the equation as much as possible. If you push your teen by yelling or threatening, for example, it may push him to dig in his heels as this may be the one area in which he feels in control.
And it’s not like you can throw the overgrown kid over your shoulder like a sack of potatoes and haul him into school. You need to appeal to his higher-order thinking and emotions. This is often easier after the anxiety has decreased, but return to school should happen as soon as possible.
Here’s what you can do:
A system of consequences and rewards should function as an if-then procedure that can remain as free from emotion as possible.
For example, “Brian, if you miss a day of school when you’re not sick, then you’ll miss going out with your friends this weekend.” (or lose car privileges, cell phone, social media, access to gaming platforms, etc.)
Some overall tips to help your teen:
- Be supportive yet firm about your expectations for regular attendance.
- Keep calm and don’t engage in a long discussion.
- Move forward with the predetermined set of consequences, backed up by rewards when positive behaviors are demonstrated.
- You may not see great progress right away; set small goals and celebrate achievements.
- With counseling as a support, consistently follow the behavior plan.
To help calm the anxiety often associated with chronic school absences, create a predictable structure to your days.
Establish regular morning and evening routines.
- Have meals at the same time.
- Establish a regular homework time and place. Feeling prepared about schoolwork may help your teen to function better emotionally in high-anxiety situations.
- Establish a regular, lights-out bedtime with no access to electronics after hours.
Staying at home should be boring.
Kissen goes on to warn that parents can unintentionally encourage chronic school refusal by allowing staying at home to be fun. “Today, the average home has TVs hooked up to cable, computers, iPads and smartphones galore and gaming systems, etc. Who would not want to stay home and “play” with their gadgets, in contrast to engaging in the challenging curriculum and uncharted social relations of an average day at school?”
How to head off reinforcing school avoidance:
- Implement a no screen time rule on home days unless a computer is required to do homework or makeup classwork. Even if a computer is required, seek out ways to allow only schoolwork to be done. Keep your teen accountable with a list of assignments to be completed by a certain time, for example.
- All missed work should be made up and turned in, regardless of the work actually graded. This will help him stay connected to the academic piece so that he’s not completely lost on returning to school.
- Require that your teenager get out of bed, shower and get dressed as if it was a normal school day.
- Stay in contact during a day home – frequent conversations in-person, via text or phone to help keep your teen on track.
5. Outside Counseling by Therapists or Treatment Center
Unfortunately, your best efforts with home- and school-based interventions may not be enough to help your teen “get back on the horse”.
Even in its most extreme form, school refusal is not a diagnosis on its own. It usually happens in tandem with other anxiety, fear or motivational issues. Multiple studies suggest that in persistent school refusal situations, teens often have underlying anxiety or depression disorder that requires treatment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents reach out to a therapist and the teen’s pediatrician if the absences exceed a week. It’s important to address the causes (often anxiety, but could be other triggers) as well as the symptoms of the chronic absenteeism itself.
As Dr. Barbara Greenberg, author of “My Teen Won’t Go to School” in Psychology Today relates, “Every case of school refusal needs to be treated individually and with a good assessment so that treatment is focused on the appropriate target areas.”
Many counselors use this assessment to gauge the severity and create a therapy plan.
It may take family counseling to explore your parent-teen relationship patterns and how to adjust them to improve school attendance. Some persistent cases of school refusal are best treated with an outside counselor or at a treatment facility that specializes in adolescents. This would be a likely next step for more serious cases of depression, anxiety disorders and for family counseling.
All therapy approaches focus on the core problem (the driving force behind the school avoidance) but differ on how important it is to get the student back to school as quickly as possible. Most recently, the pendulum of best practice has swung to favoring the rapid return to school while treating the anxiety at the same time.
In a perfect world, teens would never miss school, even to avoid a short-term problem. The best choice is usually to face the music, but this is real life and stuff happens.
Early intervention by parents to encourage consistent attendance can be effective. Even with your best efforts, though, there may be underlying anxiety that can best be resolved with a counselor. For more persistent problems, there are outpatient and inpatient programs that support teens in a more gradual return to school.