School refusal: what to do when your child does not go to school

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These are not children asking for mental health days. Children “refusing school” refuse not just a day or two, but weeks, months, sometimes semesters.

A child I work with refused to go to school due to deep social anxiety, fearing that other children would ignore him, make fun of him or bully him. Another teenage girl was deeply depressed about her appearance and couldn’t stand the idea of ​​her peers potentially seeing and judging her. And a second year high school client was very behind on tests and homework, and was worried about being confronted with his teachers, so he refused to go to school for the rest of the semester. Many children who refuse to go to school suffer from a combination of these stressors.

With the increase in adolescent depression and anxiety over the past few years, I see this problem getting worse every year – and I fear this school year will be the worst yet. The pandemic disrupted the 2020 spring semester and the entire 2020-2021 school year. Many of the kids I worked with enjoyed being at home when classes were held online, a respite from many of the issues that fuel their anxiety and depression.

Returning to classrooms full time will prove to be a struggle for many who are used to the comfort and seclusion of their rooms and screens. And for the first time this summer, I have already received calls from worried parents looking to fix this problem even before school starts.

Here’s what to know in case your child refuses to go back to school.

School refusal resists change

What is an academic refusal? Although it is not currently considered a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), it is listed as a symptom of various anxiety disorders, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This phenomenon can plunge family life into chaos. Daily arguments, usually starting in the early morning groggy, over the importance of getting up and going to school, often turn out to be totally fruitless for parents.

They tend to be baffled by their child’s sudden lack of reasoning and resilience. Their ability to reason with their once reasonable child leaves parents bewildered, disheartened, and helpless. To remedy the problem, parents attempt corruption, reasoning, guilt and, in the extreme, force. None of these strategies work.

Once a child stops going to school, I find getting them back into the building is a huge task that requires a team of adults, including parents, teachers, social workers, nurses and caregivers. advisers. Even then, children who refuse for a while are the most likely to repeat the pattern. The toss to avoid the weight of feelings of anxiety and depression is often too enticing to return for long.

Children tell me that they cannot be motivated to refuse school. This is not a practical question for them, but an emotional one, based on crippling fear and sometimes sadness.

Psychological treatment of any marked anxiety or depression

If your child is isolating himself, expressing fears of being in public places, or refusing to participate in activities with friends and peers, take note. School refusal is a fairly severe symptom and tends to be associated with other indicators of anxiety and depression. And if any of these symptoms seem to be interfering with your child’s daily life, consider having them work with a therapist, at least briefly.

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Some parents are concerned that therapy is overreacting, but I assure you it is not. Ideally, your child is doing well, but is taking a break to recharge or relax. In all other cases, working with a therapist familiar with school refusal can be instrumental in avoiding the schema in the first place. Either way, the right therapy will help your child meet the challenges of the upcoming school year. The idea is to address not only the school refusal behavior, but also the underlying anxiety or depression.

Gradual return to school

Once school refusal sets in, however, gradual reintegration into the school day is the most effective method of getting children back to class. If you can get them to school for a period or two a day to begin with, they will quickly find that being in the building, among their peers and teachers, can be uncomfortable but not catastrophic (a fear usually expressed by the refusal of the school of the kids). And once kids are in the building, they’re much more likely to stay there, often for another period or two, sometimes for the whole day.

Support from school staff can also help ease the reintegration period. Some children have described shortness of breath and other symptoms associated with the onset of a panic attack during a class. If they are allowed to see a social worker or school nurse, these symptoms often tend to subside quickly.

If bullying is part of the problem, a planning meeting with school staff on how to deal with the problem is imperative. Working closely with teachers and using reintegration classes or on-campus tutors will prove helpful if academic difficulties lead to avoidance behavior.

This is not a test

Your child is not stubborn when he constantly refuses to go to school. Their behavior is not a test of your parenting, and humiliating, blaming, or bribing them won’t solve the problem. Sit them down and ask them what they are going through emotionally. Through understanding and support, create a sense of teamwork and collaboration.

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Ultimately, the goal of any of these interventions is to remind your child that they have the skills and resilience to make it through the day in school. Once this is achieved, it’s likely that some of their other symptoms of anxiety and depression will start to go away as well.

Are you worried that your child will not want to go back to school? Keep in mind that these techniques all work best when tackled before they become problems, when your child initially expresses school-related hesitation. In many school districts, families still have time to address this hesitation before school starts.

To answer any hesitation, try walking through the halls of the empty school before the start of the semester or after the end of the school day. Sit together in a classroom and show your child that it is safe.

Hope we all have a decent school year.

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