What to Do When Your Child Avoids School: Tips for Parents

A child or teen may sometimes complain about having to go to school, but most find school fun and exciting. However, when a child routinely avoids going to school it can reflect a deeper problem such as separation anxiety, social anxiety, depression, an undiagnosed learning disability or reading problem, a family issue or bullying.

Common reasons for kids to avoid school

  • A parent being ill
  • Parents separating or having marital problems
  • A death of a family member or friend
  • Moving during the first years of elementary school
  • Jealousy over a new infant sibling
  • Excessive parental worrying about the child
  • Being bullied at school

School refusal often starts with vague physical symptoms

Often the child will complain of a vague physical symptom shortly before school begins. However, no evidence exists (e.g. fever). If the child is allowed to stay home, usually the symptom(s) quickly disappears, only to reappear the next morning. If the parent does not acquiesce, the child may escalate the symptoms and protest through crying, tantrums, increasing anger and defiance.

Sometimes the child just misses the bus every day. And in some case, the child may refuse to leave the house.

Research estimates anxiety-based school avoidance affects 2 to 5 percent of school age children, typically occurring in children 5-7 years of age and 11-14 years of age. It is more common at times of transition, first entering Kindergarten or early Elementary School, entering Middle School, and then again entering High School.

Seek an Evaluation from a Mental Health Professional

Many children with school refusal have an earlier history of separation anxiety, social anxiety, or depression.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

When a child has separation anxiety, he/she will have excessive symptoms related to their attachment figure, usually a parent, that make daily life difficult.

  • Unusual distress when talking about or being parted
  • Excessive fears their attachment figure will be harmed
  • Persistent worry and anxiety about being separated
  • Refusal to leave the attachment figure
  • Excessive fear of being alone
  • Nightmares about separation
  • Physical complaints when separation is immanent

Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder

  • Excessive fear or anxiety in social settings with peers (rather than adults)
  • Social interaction consistently provokes distress.
  • Cringe, cry or react in other ways to show discomfort
  • Fear others will notice their anxiety
  • Fear social rejection
  • Avoid or reluctantly endure social interactions
  • Fear or anxiety greatly disproportionate to the actual situation

Treatment options for anxiety include:

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

CBT helps the student restructure his or her thoughts and actions into a more assertive and adaptive framework to allow a rapid return to school. Therapeutic techniques can include modeling, role playing, and reward systems for positive behavior change.

Play Therapy

Play therapy gives younger children an opportunity to express feelings, show their knowledge, and work through problems in a way that comes naturally to them.

<< Learn More: how play therapy works. >>

Interpersonal individual therapy.

Along with group therapy (peer support), individual therapy can be extremely helpful for adolescents to counteract feelings of low self-esteem, isolation and inadequacy. Interpersonally oriented individual therapy focuses on the student’s maladaptive responses to interpersonal interactions – grief, interpersonal conflicts & disputes, role transitions, communication styles and deficits.

How Parents Can Help a Child with an Anxiety Disorder

Emphasize to your child that he or she must go to school (this in non-negotiable!) as calm as possible.

  • Respond and don’t react to the tears, drama, temper tantrums.
  • Reinforce the positives.
  • Consistent parenting styles & discipline – clear expectations and follow through.
  • Work through your own anxiety issues; don’t feed your child’s anxiety.

Talk with your child.

  • You are the expert on your child, use that.
  • Explore the issues.
  • Process the feelings.
  • Do NOT have these discussions at the front door.
  • After school or in the evening, talk about the day, use the time in a more relaxed setting to explore what is going on with your child.
  • Look for signs of bullying.

Emphasize the positive aspects of school.

  • Talk about their day reinforcing the good things that happened.
  • Minimize or even challenge their fears and/or distortions .

Meet with your child’s teachers, school counselor, school nurse, principal, front staff, support staff.

  • Help establish a support network
  • Create a plan for your child to follow if they start feeling sick
  • Identify safe people and safe places to go (at school)

Other steps you can take:

Support building of friends, play dates, invite classmates over to the house

Get your child involved in school activities other than coursework and homework – the kinds of things that enrich education: sports, music, band, art, photography, STEM, drama, newspaper, clubs , etc.

Find resources that interest your child and work on them together.

  • Online resources
  • Self-help books
  • Great anxiety workbooks
  • Find resources that interest your child and work on them together

Signs that a child may be a victim of bullying include the following

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Lost or damaged clothes, books, electronic items, jewelry
  • Decline in grades especially in math and reading — not interested in school work
  • Avoids school complaining of headaches, stomach pain, feels sick
  • Skips meals or binge eating — may not eat lunch at school
  • Nightmares and trouble sleeping
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoids social situations
  • Decline in self-esteem or feels helpless
  • New onset of self-destructive behaviors: runs away, hurts self, suicide threats

Effects of being bullied for the victim include the following:

  • Increased risk of depression
  • Increased risk of anxiety
  • Drop in grades and academic achievement
  • Child who is bullied retaliates with violence toward others

The best thing you as a parent can do is is stay connected and talk with your child, and talk with your child’s teachers if a problem arises. If problems with school avoidance or separation anxiety worsen, seek help from a mental health professional to assess the reason (or reasons) behind your child’s school avoidance and/or separation anxiety.

<<LEARN MORE: Dr. DeVries joined WOTV’s Maranda to talk about “Why do you think your peers are skipping school” and “How parents can help prevent absences.”>>

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