Maybe your child is still snuggled up in their nice warm bed, or perhaps they spot their tablet or game console as they’re getting ready for the day. “I don’t wanna go to school!” they whine, or even, “I hate school!” Surely, you’ve heard it before.
Some resistance is perfectly normal — do you want to get up and go in to work on Monday morning? — but if getting to school is becoming a real struggle for your child, it likely indicates another issue. They might refuse to get out of bed or start to develop a stomachache every morning before it’s time to get out the door.
School refusal, as mental health specialists call this phenomenon, is estimated to affect between 5% to 28% of children at some point in their lives, and kids from varying socioeconomic backgrounds are equally impacted. The number of kids reluctant to go to school presumably increased with the pandemic, with some unmotivated to attend classes online and others anxious about returning to their school buildings after such a long absence.
If your kid seems to have turned against the idea of school lately, here are some things to keep in mind as you try to get to the bottom of what’s going on and find a solution.
When does not liking school become a problem?
“School refusal is actually pretty common,” Anjali Ferguson, a child psychologist in Virginia, told HuffPost.
“If you notice this refusal happening for a consistent or a long period of time, then we classify that under school anxiety,” she continued.
Physical symptoms are another indication of an issue deeper than not wanting to get out of bed.
“If you’re noticing things like your kid is having headaches and stomachaches or feeling nauseous ... that’s when we want to pay attention a little bit more about this concept of school anxiety,” said Ferguson.
It’s important to note that these physical symptoms can be real to your child even when they have a psychological trigger. Don’t assume that they must be “faking it.”
“We know in kids that our anxiety and our mood stuff often manifests as somatic complaints,” said Ferguson.
“They still are developing a way to connect their thoughts and their physical sensations and their feelings,” she explained. “Developmentally, they’re not there yet. So you see it play out really physiologically for kids.”
Dr. Larry Mitnaul, a board-certified psychiatrist for children, adolescents and adults, told HuffPost that in addition to these physical symptoms, you may notice other signs of your child’s anxiety, such as:
worrying about their parents
worry about something bad happening to them
“shadowing,” or following parents around the house (to avoid being alone in a room)
trouble falling asleep
fear of being alone or of dark places
other exaggerated, unrealistic fears
A common cause of school anxiety is separation anxiety, which is most often seen in younger children — although a number of kids experienced something similar when returning to school after isolating during the pandemic.
“Other struggles that can contribute [to school anxiety] include bullying, learning difficulties, inattention, and depression,” said Mitnaul.
In addition to the struggle of readjusting after COVID-19, any kind of trauma in a child’s life can show up as school anxiety: abuse, neglect, divorce or even lesser stressors like a move or a change in routine, Ferguson explained.
Since solutions to these dilemmas differ, you’ll have to get your child to open up about what’s going on in order to figure out how to help.
“As a parent myself, anytime I hear about any type of conflict, I’m like, ‘How do I fix it?’ That’s not actually teaching them conflict resolution skills [that] are so important for them to figure out.”
How should you talk with your child about this?
If you’re concerned that school refusal is coming from a place of anxiety, try asking open-ended questions to get your child to talk about what’s going on, both at school and in their mind. Mitnaul suggested starting with these:
- “What are you thinking about when your stomach is in knots?”
- “Are you worrying about Mom and Dad?”
- “What has been hard about school lately?”
You can also ask leading questions to help them connect their physical symptoms to their emotions, said Ferguson. She gave the following example: “I’m really hearing that your tummy hurts and I’m wondering if you’re feeling nervous about school. Sometimes I get really nervous too about things, and my stomach starts to hurt before something that makes me nervous. Do you think that’s what’s happening here?”
Start by teaching them a few coping strategies.
You want to validate the feeling that they are having while at the same time suggesting that they could exert some control over it. To tame feelings of anxiety, you could practice breathing exercises together. This could be as simple as taking a few deep breaths. You could teach them some guided imagery, like imagining a calm place, as well.
We also want to teach them how to challenge their anxious thoughts. Ferguson suggested the following: “Is everything bad at school? What are some good things that happen in your school day? Who are the people you really like to see at school, and how can we make sure we see those people that we really like to see, or that really make us feel safe? Let’s figure that out together.”
If they’re having a social problem with peers, Ferguson suggests using “collaborative problem-solving” to brainstorm ways to address the issue. After you’ve listened to your child and validated that what they’re dealing with is difficult, you might ask questions such as: “Where do you think we should start?” or “What do you think we should do?”
See what ideas your child is able to come up with on their own before offering your own suggestions. You might eventually say, “What if we tried this?” or “Do you think you’d be able to go speak to this person or that person? How do you feel about that?”
Ferguson understands that instinct tells us to jump in and solve our kids’ problems but explains that when it comes to peer conflict, it may be better for us to take a step back.
“As a parent myself, anytime I hear about any type of conflict, I’m like, ‘How do I fix it?’ That’s not actually teaching them conflict resolution skills [that] are so important for them to figure out,” she said.
It’s a delicate balance of both reaching out and letting go. “We don’t want them to feel like they’re on their own with this. We want them to know that we are there, but we want them to take ownership,” she explained.
Think twice before allowing them to stay home.
“As parents, we want to protect them and we want to validate their feelings,” said Ferguson. But if we allow them to stay home from school, instead of bolstering their mental health we may actually be contributing to the problem. We allow them to avoid the thing that’s making them anxious, which makes their anxiety even worse.
“Because then they’re not facing the fear and not realizing that maybe the anxiety that they’re having in their mind is kind of unrealistic or manageable. They’re not given the opportunity to practice it if we avoid that,” said Ferguson.
While you can’t send a highly distressed child off to school, hopefully, you can talk them down to a place where they’re willing to walk into the building.
It’s possible that you’re doing other things that are also contributing to the issue. Mitnaul says an evaluation can help identify “parental behaviors that inadvertently reinforce school avoidance.”
Ferguson suggests thinking of your own involvement in your child’s problems on a continuum. For peer conflicts, you can be a sounding board and offer advice, but if the behavior morphs into bullying, you’ll want to step in and inform a teacher. Emotional and educational struggles also warrant you acting as an advocate for your child.
School personnel and mental health care providers can be of assistance. Both Ferguson and Mitnaul emphasize the importance of involving adults at your child’s school as soon as this sort of problem arises.
“Parents should avoid the inclination to let it ‘sort itself out,’” said Mitnaul, who also suggested that parents speak with their child’s primary care provider and have the child professionally evaluated for emotional issues or learning difficulties if it seems appropriate to do so.
“If children are struggling with persistent fear, it is important to consult with a qualified mental health professional,” he said. Kids can get a psychological evaluation for emotional issues, and schools should offer psychoeducational evaluation if learning difficulties are suspected.