School Refusal Causes (Social & Anxiety-Related Factors)

Refusing to go to school

School refusal is not a random event. There’s usually a reason for why your child might resist going to school.

With the summer quickly fading to black and the academic year looming largely, we will soon be entering the season of school refusal. When I use the term “school refusal,” I’m not talking about that once-in-a-blue-moon occasion when a child forgets about an important test or project and decides it’s easier to feign illness than face the music. That’s pretty typical for nearly all kids, and it doesn’t necessarily establish a pattern of problematic behavior. What I’m talking about is school refusal that is pattern-based, recurrent, and results in academic or social impairment. For assessment or treatment of school refusal, feel free to contact me at my private practice, which services Palm Beach (Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach), Fort Lauderdale, and Miami.

What causes school refusal? Why do kids refuse to go to school?

School refusal is not a random event. There’s usually a reason for why your child might resist going to school. However, reasons for school refusal are many and varied, and may require some genuine detective work to get to the root of the problem. Fortunately, school staff (e.g., teachers, school counselors, and school psychologists) are often able to provide you with some useful clues.

Common Reasons Why Children Refuse School

1. Sometimes, children and teens may have undiagnosed learning disabilities or ADHD symptoms that make schoolwork feel punishing. Even when these issues are present from an early age, highly intelligent children are often able to reach middle school, high school, or even college without apparent problems. As coursework becomes more complex, concentration and organizational issues then become readily apparent. School refusal evolves as a means for avoiding uncomfortable school-related situations.

2. Maybe there’s a bullying situation that makes school feel frightening and uncontrollable for your child. If not detected and addressed early, the effects of bullying often get worse over time. This can leave your child isolated and alone, as most other students (even your child’s friends) will have a hard time siding with your child over the bully. This can quickly shrink a child’s self-esteem and result in severe depressive/anxious symptoms.

3. Perhaps there are social problems that make school uncomfortable or unpleasant. These may include fights with friends or boyfriends/girlfriends. Some children are also less sophisticated at making or keeping friends, or exhibit a paralyzing amount of shyness that leaves them feeling inhibited and socially isolated at school.

4. Children also resist school in order to reduce or avoid contact with stressors. Look at the academic calendar. Is there an exam or project scheduled? Also, consider the occurrence of field trips, dances, parties, or other “fun” events as potential stressors. Although many children enjoy such activities, others may dread them due to potential shame, embarrassment, unwanted attention, or uncertainty (e.g., “Who will I sit by on the bus?”).

5. In some cases, kids avoid school because home provides a preferable alternative. If staying home from school includes television, movie marathons, video games, or time with a preferred caregiver, it is hard to fault a child for preferring to stay home.

These are all potential problems that you, your child’s teacher, and other school staff may be able to recognize as possible contributers to your child’s school refusal. Regardless of the specific cause, these issues should be addressed as early as possible. Be aware that the beginning of puberty is likely to cause additional problems or worsen existing symptoms.

Sometimes a school refusal situation calls for even greater diagnostic clarity, which might involve the assistance of a trained clinical psychologist or neuropsychologist. For example, I have treated many younger patients whose school refusal was actually due to specific fears (e.g., vomit phobia, fear of parents getting killed), depression, separation anxiety, panic, test anxiety, or even OCD (e.g., issues related to perfectionism, cleanliness, “just right” feelings). In many cases, these fears are not obvious, and children/teens will not bring them up spontaneously for fear of making these dreaded events more likely to occur.

Moreover, these are situations that most parents don’t intuitively know how to address properly. Sometimes what seems like the most appropriate, common-sense solution actually worsens the problem (e.g., providing reassurance for health-related fears or giving a cell phone to a child who worries about parental injury or death). In these situations, it is important to have professional guidance in treating the underlying condition.

These issues are not only relevant for younger students but also for older, college-aged individuals. Every semester, university students on campuses throughout the world begin avoiding classes for mental health-related reasons. This may come as a surprise for parents accustomed to thinking that failing out of college nearly always signals laziness, a lack of motivation, rebelliousness, or partying/drunkenness.

This fall, as your child transitions back into student mode, remember that school refusal is a behavior that can be caused by many different factors. Keep in mind that school refusal does not occur randomly and that it is unlikely to reflect a failing on the part of your child. Attributing school refusal to personality flaws (or other such factors) is often inaccurate and unhelpful and prevents you from working with your child effectively to identify an appropriate solution.

Feel free to read my recent post which talks about parental stigma surrounding school refusal.

Questions? Comments? School refusal experiences? Sound off below.

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