Mark: I need help. We (my ex-wife and myself) cannot get our daughter to go to school. When she lived with me she missed nearly all of her freshmen year. She is a sophomore at Anderson High School. She has missed most of this year. She claims that she is sick all the time. However, it seems funny to me that she is never sick on the weekends nor was she sick during Christmas vacation. It is apparent to me that she just doesn't want to go to school. She has been to the Anderson Center. We have went to court where the Judge awarded my ex-wife temporary physical custody of my daughter. Now that she lives with her, my ex has the same issues that I had with our daughter. She just will not go to school on a regular basis. Please advise what can we do to resolve this issue. All I want is for my daughter to be in school to get her education. Sincerely, T.
Going to school usually is an exciting, enjoyable event for children. For some it brings intense fear or panic. Parents should be concerned if their child regularly complains about feeling sick or asks to stay home from school with minor physical complaints. Not wanting to go to school may occur at anytime, but is most common in children 5-7 and 11-14, times when children are dealing with the new challenges of elementary and middle school. These children may suffer from a paralyzing fear of leaving the safety of their parents and home. The child's panic and refusal to go to school is very difficult for parents to cope with, but these fears and behavior can be treated successfully, with professional help.
School refusal is:
- equally common among boys and girls and is most likely to occur between age 5 to 11
- highest when schools reopen after summer
- defined as the behavior of resisting or refusing to attend a specific class or to stay in school for an entire day
- may be accompanied by one or more of the following behaviors: complaints about stomach pain, headache, or nausea before or during school; crying before and during school; frequent visits to the school nurse; temper tantrums; specific fears; anxiety or sadness
School "refusers" tend to:
- feel that others see them in a negative way
- become unduly self-conscious and avoid social situations in which they fear others may criticize them or make fun of them behind their back
- have negative and troublesome relationships with their peers
- get teased by mischievous children or harassed by a bully
- be reluctant to go to school because of an appearance and self-esteem problem, or social "image" problem prompted by a school rumor or being let down by a friend
- be depressed and experience significant difficulty in getting up and getting out of bed in the morning.
Refusal to go to school often begins following a period at home in which the child has become closer to the parent, such as a summer vacation, a holiday break, or a brief illness. It also may follow a stressful occurrence, such as the death of a pet or relative, a change in schools, or a move to a new neighborhood.
Children with an unreasonable fear of school may:
- feel unsafe staying in a room by themselves
- display clinging behavior
- display excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves
- shadow the mother or father around the house
- have difficulty going to sleep
- have nightmares
- have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, monster, burglars
- fear being alone in the dark
- have severe tantrums when forced to go to school
School refusers otherwise tend to be compliant, well-behaved, and academically smart kids. Unlike truants, they stay home only with their parents' knowledge. Generally, they have a close relationship with one or both parents. Overall, they are good kids. So the question arises why does a child who wants to comply with the parents' wishes and be good, drive them nuts in the morning when it's time to get ready for school?
Children refuse to go to school for a reason, and we parents should determine what that reason is.
Such symptoms and behaviors are common among children with separation anxiety disorder. The potential long-term effects (anxiety and panic disorder as an adult) are serious for a child who has persistent separation anxiety and does not receive professional assistance. The child may also develop serious educational or social problems if their fears and anxiety keep them away from school and friends for an extended period of time.
When fears persist the parents and child should consult with a qualified mental health professional, who will work with them to develop a plan to immediately return the child to school and other activities. Refusal to go to school in the older child or adolescent is generally a more serious illness, and often requires more intensive treatment.
Excessive fears and panic about leaving home/parents and going to school can be successfully treated.
For children who refuse to go to school in order to avoid a difficult social encounter, teach them effective social behaviors such as, learning to say "no" assertively, seeking help from adults, and making new friends. Seek help from school authorities if there is a genuine concern for the safety of your child.
Don't make staying home more rewarding than going to school. Eliminate or reduce all incentives for staying home. On the contrary, attach rewards and incentives to going to school and staying there throughout the school hours.
Having investigated the possible causes and offered your support as a parent, you may have to "push" your child out to school. You may have to learn to ignore the tantrums, complaints, and the pleading to "let me stay home just for today."
Children who are clinically depressed or who suffer from an anxiety disorder need professional help. Some medications cause sluggishness and may make it difficult for a child to be alert and active in morning. In such event, consult your doctor.
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