By Stephanie Newman Ph.D.
Dear Your Teen:
Amy is 14. She often refuses to go to school, saying she dislikes everything about it and she hates many of her teachers. The only people she likes there are some kids from the grade lower than hers, and some wrestling friends. How can I get her to attend school more regularly?
EXPERT | Stephanie Newman, Ph.D.
Teen School Refusal
School refusal can be painful for both kids and parents. If we were at my kitchen table sipping coffee, I’d tell you not to beat yourself up over this. Adolescents are notorious for avoiding unpleasant situations, and what might not faze an adult can feel insurmountable or devastating to a younger person. Chances are, something’s going on within your 14-year-old’s peer group, classroom, or home life, and whatever that problem is might explain why school attendance is so challenging now.
Underlying Reasons for School Refusal
Another thing to consider is, like many psychological dilemmas, school refusal might stem from school anxiety or other mood-related difficulties. It’s very complicated. So please don’t feel like you’re responsible for your child having a hard time. (And it is a hard time, your kid is not a “bad” kid.)
Even on their best days, adolescents often feel they can’t control much. Current world events—think pandemic, war, school shootings—are jarring to kids of all ages. Some might want to “vote with their feet” by refusing to leave the house. Talking and providing reassurance about your child’s safety can help calm their unease.
If you’re feeling frustrated and like you’re in a power struggle with your defiant adolescent, here’s another way to frame things: This temporary power struggle is often a good sign that the bond between you and your child is solid and strong. Your 14-year-old has a strong, positive attachment to you. Home is their secure base, meaning they can act out, flout the rules, or not cooperate, where they wouldn’t dare behave in those ways anywhere or with anyone else.
Practical Tips to Get Your Teen Back in School
Now let’s work on getting your child back in school. Here are some practical tips:
Chat with your child.
Listen deeply. Read between the lines. Adolescents often communicate in non-verbal or indirect ways. Your 14-year-old has told you they like the boys on the wrestling team and kids in the grade below. Is there a reason why they don’t like their peers? Ask them to tell you more about why they like the wrestlers. Can they pal around with any of the wrestlers at school? Are they being bullied by kids their own age? Ask them about their classmates. Is anyone their friend or is there someone they might want to get to know better? Is something outside of the classroom (more later) or in the larger world bothering them? When you talk things through you can begin to get a handle on what’s really going on.
Check in with a teacher or school counselor.
Kids who refuse school often struggle academically. Try to identify learning challenges or other problems at school, and arrange support through a school resource room or a tutor.
Determine if there’s something going on at home.
Maybe a family member is ill or parents have work-related problems. Trouble at home can be any number of things. If your family is dealing with a stressful situation, try to use age-appropriate words when you explain to your teen what’s going on. Empathize with their feelings about the situation and validate them. It’s important for teens to know they’re accepted and understood.
Do your best not to judge or blame your child (or yourself).
This is easier said than done. I must have permanent gashes on my tongue from all the times I bit down to avoid saying the wrong thing—and you will say the wrong thing. It’s inevitable. But don’t get down on yourself. Parents are human, and by nature, we’re imperfect.
Of course, you can use these chats with your teen to teach them life lessons and help build their resilience, but my best and most important advice here is to be empathic and understanding. Conversations are two-way. Share your experiences of the time you didn’t make the team or when you weren’t cast in the school play or you faced another difficult situation when you were their age. Tell them how it felt to be in that situation, how you dealt with it then, and, looking back, how you might have handled it better.
By modeling problem solving, you’re strengthening your bond with your child, guiding their behavior, and helping them build resilience.
When your teen opens up to offer an explanation for their own difficulties, encourage them to brainstorm solutions. Maybe in your 14-year-old’s case, she wants to organize an activity with the wrestling team. Helping her set that up provides an opportunity for her to bond with her friends. She might then realize she misses seeing them in school. Likewise, helping or encouraging her to reach out to people she likes in the younger grade allows her to enjoy those friendships, too.
If none of these conversations come easily, just know that talking about school refusal can take time. Don’t give up, even if your kid boots you from their bedroom or meets you with an angry glare. Also, don’t give in. If their refusal to go to school lasts more than a few days and talking to their teacher, school counselor, or pediatrician doesn’t help, seek assistance from a licensed therapist who can assess whether there are underlying mood issues like anxiety or depression that need to be addressed.