What to Do When Your Anxious Child Refuses to Go to School

Let’s say your anxious child complains of feeling ill and begs to stay home from school. You agree staying home is OK – but then notice your child is suddenly feeling well enough to be begging to go outside to play. Since you know it’s pretty rare for an illness to pass in all about five minutes, you realize something else must be going on. And that something else may be school refusal.

School Refusal Explained

School refusal is a term used to describe a disorder in which children regularly refuse to attend school or have problems staying in school once they get there. If your child begs to skip school once or twice, you may not be seeing the issue in action. If your anxious child begs to stay home consistently, you may be facing a school refusal problem.

What to Look For

Complaining of physical ailments that seem to appear right before school, or during school at the nurse’s office can serve as indications of school refusal. While the child may insist the symptoms are severe enough to miss or leave school, those symptoms tend to disappear once the child is safe at home. They may reappear the next morning, again, right before school time.

Signs of school refusal can include:

  • Complaining of physical symptoms such as:
    • Stomachaches
    • Headaches
    • Nausea or diarrhea
  • Tantrums or defiance
  • Inflexibility or avoidance
  • Separation anxiety

Why It Happens

Fear and anxiety are typically at the heart of school refusal. Children may be fearful of being bullied, doing poorly in school, or something happening to their parents while they’re in school.

Starting a new school can also trigger anxiety-based school refusal, which afflicts up to 5 percent of school-age children. This issue tends to crop up if you’ve moved to a different school district or your children are transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle school to high school.

What Parents Can Do

Helping your anxious child work through the fear and anxiety can be done using several different strategies.

  • Focus on school’s positive elements, like the ability to see friends, learn new things, and have fun during recess.
  • Meet with your child’s teacher or school counselor outside the classroom for support and guidance.
  • Gradually expose anxious children to more and more school time in order to help them realize they have nothing to fear.
  • Find and share a book or two on the topic with your anxious child. The book School Made Easier is one option suited for children 8 to 13.

One more tactic that can continuously help anxious children is taking the time to have an honest chat. Talk to your child about his or her fears and anxieties, and why school may seem scary or unwelcoming. Sharing experiences from your own life may help your child see that everyone has their moments of doubt, but it is possible to successfully get through them.