Sometimes teens who were previously able to attend school regularly will suddenly become anxious and fearful. A recent crisis in the community or the family (such as a death, divorce, financial problems, move, etc.) may cause a teen to become fearful or anxious. Some teens fear that something terrible will happen at home while they are at school.
Teens who are struggling in school with academic or social problems may also refuse to attend school. Many teens have social concerns and may have been teased or bullied at school or on the way to school. Some neighborhoods or schools are unsafe or chaotic.
Still other teens prefer to stay home because they can watch TV, have parental attention, and play rather than work in school. Teens who are transitioning (e.g., from middle school to high school) may feel very stressed. All of these factors may lead to the development of school refusal/avoidance.
If complaints of illness are the excuse for not attending school, have your son checked by your doctor. If there is no medical reason to be absent, your son should be at school.
Attempt to discover if there is a specific problem causing the refusal. Sometimes the teen feels relief just by expressing concerns about friends or school expectations. If your son is able to pinpoint a specific concern (such as worry about tests, teasing, etc.), then immediately talk to his teacher about developing an appropriate plan to solve the problem.
Some common sense strategies to try include having another family member bring him to school, or if he does stay home - then rewards such as snacking, TV, toys or parental attention should be eliminated. A school schedule may be duplicated at home.
However, if he is extremely upset, if he needs to be forced to attend school, if there is significant family stress, or if the refusal to attend school is becoming habitual, don’t hesitate in asking for assistance from the school psychologist, school counselor or other mental health professionals.
Treatment depends upon the causes, which can be difficult to determine. Many children may have started to avoid school for one reason (e.g., fear of being disciplined by a teacher, feeling socially inadequate) but are now staying home for another reason (e.g., access to video games, lack of academic pressure, etc.).
Several treatment plans may need to be tried. Helping your son to relax, develop better coping skills, improve social skills, using a contract and getting help with parenting or family issues are all examples of possible treatments.
Mark Hutten, M.A.
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