My child is 10-years old and is refusing to go to school and complaining of physical aliments that have not been based in reality. What should I do?
MOM: The first thing that people need to understand about school phobias is that it’s not actually a “school” phobia; it’s a fear of losing the parent, of being separated from the parent.
MOLLY: I bet that’s really misunderstood. I bet people think it mostly has to do with something going on at school.
MOM: It’s not about school. Well, occasionally it may be about school, but quite frankly I’ve never seen it about school. It’s about the separation from the parent. And for whatever reason – there’s a lot of stress going on in the house, whatever. For whatever reason, the child is afraid to separate from the parent.
Sometimes what you see are kids whose parents are always, always, always around. Parents who literally hover. This gives the message to the kid psychologically that she can’t make it on her own.
Now, you don’t expect a young child to make it on her own, but there are developmental steps occurring as the child begins to have a life outside of her home at school. So if the message that the parent gives is that the child is unable to manage without the parent, then the child will believe it.
The sad thing is that it’s really done out of a good heart on the parent’s part, because they feel that they’re loving and protecting their children as much as they can, and that’s true, but it can be overdone.
What you end up with is a child that’s frightened of the world out there and only feels safe with the parent. The kid doesn’t feel like she is grown up enough. Even if she might look grown up on the outside, on the inside she doesn’t feel like she can handle it. It feels too overwhelming and she might just decide to shut down from the world. These children figuratively cover up their heads with their blankets.
MOLLY: So what do you do if this happens?
MOM: The very first thing you do is enforce that the child has to go to school. It should not be an option to stay home. Once you get into an, “Okay, you can stay home from school” pattern, it’s a slippery slope.
Now, saying that, sometimes people might allow one day for a “mental health day”, and I think that’s okay, as long as it is accompanied with the clear message that tomorrow is back to school.
And then, if the reluctance to go to school continues, you probably need to get some professional help. The practice of not going to school is the kind of thing you don’t want to settle in for too long in a kid.
MOLLY: What could happen?
MOM: Well, these kids might find all kinds of ways not to leave home, or they could develop panic attacks. They might be reluctant to sleep overnight at friend’s house, or even have play dates without a parent. You might end up with a child who has a lot of resistance and anxiety around independent experiences. The panic is related to the separating from the parent.
MOLLY: So essentially they need to see a therapist.
MOM: Yeah, they do. And it’s not a hard cure.
MOLLY: So it’s not like a years and years thing.
MOM: No, it’s like a few months of therapy.
MOLLY: That’s it?
MOM: Yeah, that’s it. It’s not a hard thing to solve in therapy if you find a good therapist.
Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success helping your child deal with school anxiety using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.