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Son Refuses To Go To School

Terrible morning... my 15 yr. old missed the bus AGAIN. I told him that if he missed again he would have to walk (about 1 mile). He refused and went to his room. I tried to get him to go but he refused. Told him this was unacceptable and ended up driving him part of the way. What do I do now? He has had his phone and ipod taken away already.


School Refusers: Case Examples

Laura, an eight-year-old girl, has always had difficulty attending school. Since she began third grade two months ago, her problems have significantly worsened. She constantly begs to stay home from school, having tantrums that cause delay in dressing and often result in her missing the bus. After arriving at school, Laura frequently complains of stomachaches, headaches and a sore throat to her teacher and asks to visit the school nurse with whom she pleads to call her mother. Her mother typically picks her up early twice a week. When Laura gets home she spends the remainder of the afternoon watching TV and playing with her toys. When her mother is unable to pick her up early, Laura calls her mother's cell phone periodically throughout the afternoon to "check in" and reassure herself that nothing bad has happened. Laura's teacher has expressed concern about her missing so much class time which has resulted in incomplete assignments and difficulty learning.

James is a fourteen-year-old boy who has missed forty-three days of school since beginning the eighth grade four months ago. When home from school, James spends most of the day online or playing video games. On the days he does attend school he is typically late for his first period which enables him to avoid hanging out with other kids before class. He always goes to the library during lunch. When he does go to class, he sits in the back of the classroom, never raises his hand and has difficulty working on group projects. James' teachers have noticed that he is always absent on days that tests or book reports are scheduled. His parents have already punished him after his first report card came home since he received D's in Math and Social Studies and failed Gym for cutting. James' parents have started to wonder if they should change his school placement and have asked the school to arrange home tutoring while this alternative is explored.

Prevalence and defining characteristics—

As much as 28% of school aged kids in America refuse school at some point during their education.1 School refusal behavior is as common among boys as girls. While any youngster aged 5-17 may refuse to attend school, most kids who refuse are 10-13 years old. Peaks in school refusal behavior are also seen at times of transition such as 5-6 and 14-15 years as kids enter new schools. Although the problem is considerably more prevalent in some urban areas, it is seen equally across socioeconomic levels.

Laura and James are just two examples of how school refusal manifests in kids. The hallmark of this behavior is its heterogeneity. Defined as substantial, child-motivated refusal to attend school and/or difficulties remaining in class for an entire day, the term "school refusal behavior" replaces obsolete terms such as "truancy" or "school phobia," because such labels do not adequately or accurately represent all kids who have difficulty attending school. School refusal behavior is seen as a continuum that includes kids who always miss school as well as those who rarely miss school but attend under duress. Hence, school refusal behavior is identified in kids aged 5-17 years who:

1. are entirely absent from school, and/or

2. attend school initially but leave during the course of the school day, and/or

3. go to school following crying, clinging, tantrums or other intense behavior problems, and/or

4. exhibit unusual distress during school days that leads to pleas for future absenteeism.

As evidenced by Laura and James, there are varying degrees of school refusal behavior. Initial school refusal behavior for a brief period may resolve without intervention. Substantial school refusal behavior occurs for a minimum of two weeks. Acute school refusal behavior involves cases lasting two weeks to one year, being a consistent problem for the majority of that time. Chronic school refusal behavior interferes with two or more academic years as this refers to cases lasting more than one calendar year. Kids who are absent from school as a result of chronic physical illness, school withdrawal which is motivated by parents or societal conditions such as homelessness, or running away to avoid abuse should not be included in the above definition of school refusal behavior as these factors are not child-initiated.

While some school refusers exhibit a more heterogeneous presentation, typically these kids can be categorized into two main types of troublesome behavior -- internalizing or externalizing problems. The most prevalent internalizing problems are generalized worrying ("the worry-wart"), social anxiety and isolation, depression, fatigue, and physical complaints (e.g. stomachaches, nausea, tremors and headaches). The most prevalent externalizing problems are tantrums (including crying and screaming), verbal and physical aggression, and oppositional behavior.

The cause and maintenance of school refusal behavior—

Laura had several physiological symptoms at school and went home to be with her mother and play. James on the other hand, avoided potentially distressing social and evaluative situations at school which negatively impacted his academic performance. Although many behaviors characterize kids who refuse school, there are a few variables that serve to cause and maintain this problem. School refusal behavior occurs for one or more of the following reasons:

1. To avoid school-related objects or situations that cause general distress such as anxiety, depression or physiological symptoms

2. To escape uncomfortable peer interactions and/or academic performance situations such as test-taking or oral presentations

3. To pursue tangible reinforcement outside of school

4. To receive attention from significant others outside of school

The above four reasons for school refusal behavior can be explained by principles of reinforcement. Any one youngster can refuse school for one or more of these reasons. The first two reasons characterize kids who refuse school to avoid or escape something unpleasant (negative reinforcement). For example, one of the reasons for Laura's crying in the morning is her fear of riding the school bus. By tantruming she accomplishes her goal of avoiding the school-related object (the school bus) that causes her distress. Another example of negative reinforcement is when James escapes aversive peer interactions and exams by school refusing. The third and fourth reasons characterize kids who refuse school to gain rewards (positive reinforcement). Laura, as is common with many younger kids, tries to avoid school as a means of having her mother provide her with excessive attention and closeness. Thus, Laura's behavior in this situation may be associated with separation anxiety. 

Another instance of positive reinforcement is exemplified by James, who basically has more fun being at home on the computer and listening to music than being in school. It is important to note that alcohol and drug use can occur among adolescents who school refuse for one or more of the reasons listed above. For example, a teenager who is extremely socially anxious may drink alcohol as a way of enduring distressing social or evaluative situations. Another youngster who avoids school may smoke marijuana during school hours as a means of gaining acceptance by peers or simply because it is more enjoyable than attending school. While all forms of school refusal can be equally debilitating, typically, mental health professionals receive fewer referrals for kids who have internalizing as opposed to externalizing behavior problems. In other words, the kid who exhibits anxiety is less likely to receive treatment than the kid who is disruptive.

Alternative School—

Kids who refuse to go to school typically do much better in an alternative school setting – one in which (a) the classes are smaller, (b) they get more one-on-one attention, and (c) they do most of their work on the comport.

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Stepson Problems

Hello Mark,

First of all, thanks for being there. This is a scary and lonely time.

My problem is that my teen is a step-son- he came to live with us at 14- Bio Mom is addicted to pain meds, and was neglectful, letting him be a "free spirit" as she calls it. When we got him, he was failing at school....basically all of the issues you address. My husband WON’T follow thru with any discipline, and continues to let the tail wag the dog. My son is now 9, and I will do whatever I need to keep him off the path my step son has chosen. I have no support, voice etc with my stepson’s actions, behavior, etc. How can I minimize the damaging effects on my 9 yr old? I don’t want to leave, but also want to keep my son on the right path-- any resources for step parents who don’t get back-up?


Being a step parent has unique challenges that are not present in other family situations. To create a happily blended family, you must balance respect and love, discipline and understanding. In this article, you will learn what it takes to create a happy home environment for your blended family.

When a single woman with kids marries a single man with kids, this union should be viewed as more than the union of husband and wife—it is the joining of two different cultures. Each family is a tribe unto itself and if this union is to work, each step parent must respect the others' family dynamics. Family dynamics can be as different as night and day. This is why you must come to grips with the idea that you have two different tribes living in your house.

So how does this work in a blended family? Before I answer that, take this first bit of step parenting advice and appreciate the power of the birth family. Recognize that your spouse is probably always going to be closer to his kids than yours. Know that if you constantly criticize your spouse's kids, you are creating the beginning of the end. Blood loyalties are usually stronger than marital ties. Although this may change over time—and one day, you may feel as close to your step kids as your own—the process takes time and experience and only occurs when a supportive, loving environment has been created.

The next important bit of step parenting advice is to respect your spouse's family dynamics. For instance, you may have a rigid children-do-not-talk-back rule in your family, while your spouse may be willing to listen to what his kids have to say and open to negotiation. If you try to impose your rules on your step children, especially when they are rules they did not grow up with, they will rebel. When this happens, they may use their father's love for them to drive a wedge between you. It happens subtly at first and you may not notice what is happening, until it is too late. Although you are the adult and you have more power, never underestimate the power of a youngster. Where possible, try to compromise parenting styles, as long as you both agree to help each other act from this compromise.

If a situation escalates, allow your spouse to discipline his own kids, while you attend to yours. When he is disciplining his kids, refrain from joining in or agreeing through words or body language. Be a silent bystander, so the youngster won't feel that the adults are ganging up on him.

Sometimes, kids of divorce have been enabled by the parents because unconsciously, they feel guilty. If you have a child or children in your home who seem to be constantly angry and lash out at others, consider a learn-at-home behavioral program that has shown to help.

The next piece of step parenting advice may seem odd to you—expect your step children to hate you. When I say "expect," I don't mean that you should turn expectations into reality, but that you must understand that kids of divorce usually want nothing more than their birth parents to get back together. Regardless of how you met your spouse, on some level, your step children may hate you and blame you for her parents being apart.

The youngster may also fear that you are trying to replace her mother. Assure her that you are not. Realize that in the youngster's eyes, you may never be considered as more than an aunt. Accept this role graciously. If your step child does like you, she may also feel conflicted. She may feel that expressing love toward you is tantamount to betraying her mother.

Step parenting advice: rather than focusing on the conflicts in your home (and there will be conflicts), invest your energy in creating good times. During the good times when everyone is happy, bonded and relaxed, you can gently and positively bring up the difficulties and ask your kids, step children and spouse what each person in the family can do to help resolve the problem. In this way, you make everyone feel that they are part of the solution.

When you need something, ask for it, rather than complaining and criticizing others for not giving it to you. If you ask, people will be more receptive and responsive, than if you harp on them. This is a good piece of advice for any family, blended or not.

Perhaps the most important piece of step parenting advice is to strive to be more reflective, insightful, compassionate and humane. Focus on the areas in which you need to grow as a parent and a human being and your kids and step children will follow your lead.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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Daughter Dating Boy with Bad Reputation

Hi Mark,

It's been awhile since I've had to email you. Thanks to your program, things have improved greatly in our home. We are experiencing some more difficulty at the moment and my husband and I are confused on how to handle the situation and would like your opinion. I will try to explain the situation as briefly as possible.

Our daughter is 16. Last year was a difficult year. My daughter was disrespectful at home and at school. She had social problems at school and was involved in some fighting. Her grades suffered. This year our relationships at home have improved greatly. She is trying hard to control her anger because she sees it gets her nowhere (thanks to your program and the "poker face" tip). She is still struggling academically, but there is less drama at school. She is respectful to her teachers and has been trying hard not to get in fights with her peers. Because of your tip on using an online monitoring program I have been able to keep track of what she is up to. She has not been perfect by any means, but for the most part she is staying out of trouble and I must say it appears that she is mostly honest with us. I heard her make the comment the other day "my parents always find out everything, it is so annoying". But she said it light heartedly.

Here is our current problem. In December, she started "dating" a 19yr.old boy. This boy does not have a good reputation. He has been in trouble with the law. Just this week he was arrested twice for getting into fights. Of course, our daughter swears they were not his fault. I've been told that the boy is somewhat mentally handicapped and is teased about being "stupid". My oldest son has confirmed that this is true but says the boy does not know when to shut up and is constantly getting in fights and getting beat up. We were leery of her dating him to begin with and should have put a stop to it immediately, but because her behavior has been so much better, we did not. She is never with him when these incidents occur. In fact, she is only allowed to see him when she is supervised. After this last incident, we decided we do not want her to see him at all. We told her that even though he is good to her, the fact that he has a violent part to him could put her in danger. For two hours last night and two more hours today, she has been in a rage using every tactic she could to get us to change our mind. I wasn't sure whether to call the police or take her straight to the hospital. She threatened to run away and to kill herself. She admits that she is very depressed and will go for help- but only if we allow her to see him.

This is what I proposed to her:

• She could see him one time during the week and that would be Sunday. We would pick him up and they would both go to church with us and then he could spend the afternoon.
• She can talk to him on the phone.
• She has to show us some improvement in her school work.
• She must agree to some counseling to help her with her depression and her obsession with having a boyfriend.
• He would have to stay out of trouble.

Are we crazy for even considering this???? I have to say, I don't know him very well at all and am not sure I want him around our family. But as a Christian I feel we need to give him a chance and maybe make a difference in his life. Everyone else thinks we're nuts.

Thank you for taking the time to give us your opinion. We don't know where else to turn.




Re: Are we crazy for even considering this????

Not at all. I think you are largely on track. Congrats!

As parents, we are not very comfortable not knowing what is going on in our teenager’s life. But as your daughter starts to date, you will need to take a step back and not try to know ‘everything’. You may at first have a hard time and feel like something is wrong. That is normal – your parenting role is changing. Change always feels awkward at first. On the other hand, your daughter may want to chat about the experience. She may have some questions to ask. If so, make yourself available. But remember to try not to ‘read into’ any of the questions and begin prying.

All parents dread the day when their son or daughter comes home with a new love interest. There will be many relationships that you know will not work out. And while you might be tempted to share your opinion with your daughter, I would suggest you didn’t.

One point I can’t stress enough is to never tell your daughter you disapprove of her boyfriend. This will only make her that much more attracted to him. If she asks your opinion, you can say that the boy isn’t the person you would have chosen for her, but it’s her life and she has to figure that out for herself.

If you keep telling her how bad of a person her boyfriend is, he could turn out to be your son-in-law. I know this from firsthand experience. My wife hated my daughter’s high school boyfriend - even forbid her from seeing him. All this did was make her want to see him even more. At one point my daughter said to me, “When my boyfriend and I would have disagreements, I would not see that the relationship wasn’t working. I would only see that I had to make it work to keep mom from knowing she was right about him all along.”

You have a Romeo & Juliet phenomenon on your hands that will need to be diffused (if not, they will work harder at sneaking rendezvous behind your back).

Unfortunately, if your daughter wants to be with someone -- she'll find a way, no matter what you say or do. Parents can only guide their children in the right direction and hope for the best. If they do a good job, their children will make the right decision all on their own.

Since you will not be successful at keeping those two apart, you must adopt a philosophy of “if you can’t beat ‘em - join ‘em.” In other words, they should be able to see one another within limits, and you decide what those limits are. And it sounds like you have already decided on some very appropriate limits.

Good work,

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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