School Anxiety: What to Do if Your Kid Doesn’t Want to Go

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?

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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.

ding 16 comments on “School Anxiety: What to Do if Your Kid Doesn’t Want to Go

  1. I must say, I disagree. I think it is really important to honor your child’s feelings and to try to figure out what is going on in the classroom. When I was teaching, I had a few sensitive children with school phobia my first year teaching, and I realize that it was because I was inexperienced and not doing a good job monitoring the classroom environment. I noticed it less each year I taught. Also, I would say that school has become much more high pressure for younger kids with the high stakes testing. I imagine that sometimes it has to do with attachment, but I would think that more often, it has to do with the school.

    • Thank you Grace, it is really wonderful to hear the teacher’s perspective that is not “its not school’s fault, it your (parents) fault”. I couldnt agree more that the teacher’s ability to create a fun and engaging environment makes a big difference in how a child feels about school. Unfortunately, some teachers drill through the syllabus without truly connecting with the children. Bolor

  2. Dear Grace,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I certainly can see how what’s going on in the classroom can negatively affect a child. And probably easier to deal with than separation anxiety from the mother. I think my viewpoint on this is skewed by the number of patients I’ve seen where there is no reportable concern with the classroom but lies in the relationship with the parents. It may be that there is a new sibling in the family and the child is feeling “replaced” at home. There are all kinds of reasons. Probably it’s a good idea to check out the classroom situation before looking at the family dynamics in helping the child resolve this issue.
    Thanks so much for your input!

  3. What if your child has separation issues ONLY at school? What if your child won’t get out of the car and the parent has to walk or drag the child in? What if the child refuses to enter the classroom or kicks and punches the teacher when he is forced into it? And the ONLY time this behavior occurs is at school? What type of help would you recommend then?

    • Melinda – this sounds suspiciously like there’s someone at school he is frightened of (to go the lengths of hitting the teacher). If he’s not having separation issues outside of school, then I would narrow in on the school. I don’t know how old your child is, but when he is calm, I would have a serious conversation with him. If he can’t suggest reasons himself, I would run by him possibilities that you’ve thought of – is there bullying going on, does he have a serious conflict with his teacher, etc. Honestly, he sounds more frightened than anxious. I would also speak with his teacher for this year, and the one from last year and see if they can shed light on this. If none of this bears fruit, you might need to see a child therapist to help you figure it out.

  4. My daughter did not attend preschool, and was very excited to start her first year at school. She did very well the first two months, and now is crying, not letting me go in the morning, crying through out the day, and even some days is crying so much she gets sick. She has told me that she misses me too much and doesn’t want to be at school all day everyday. This has become very stressful and is taking a toll on me and her. We are very close, and she does tell me everything that happens in school and out. I am sure there is nothing bad happening to her there. PLEASE HELP ME!!!

    • Ouch – this sounds really hard for both of you. If you’re sure all is well at school, I would make sure she doesn’t miss any school – you don’t want to set up a bad pattern. I see this kind of reaction more in kids just starting preschool, and this may be the equivalent for your child starting regular school. If she has a special friend at school, I would encourage her to hang out with her to help her thru this time. Sometimes – although I don’t know if this would be possible, you could arrange to talk midday with her (in the nurse’s office?) for a short check-in with her to help her get thru the day. You just say you’re looking forward to seeing her at the end of the school day and she can tell you all about it. I don’t think think she’ll have to do this for long. She’ll get used to school. The important thing is to send her every day. Maybe she could put her favorite stuffed animal in her backpack as a transitional object (she doesn’t get to take you, but rather a representation of you). If this doesn’t work, you might need to see a child therapist to help you both thru this. Good luck!

  5. The issue is definately at school not home. School should be a happy place, children want to go. The reason they want to stay home with Mum is because they do not feel comfortable there. So often it is hard for children to explain how they feel (eg. young age, betrayed by teacher, other children. The problem is most likely nothing like you have been thinking eg friends bringing toys to school that they will not share or swap). Parents feel guilty and blame themselves! Avoid taking children to phycologists they dont need a stranger delving into their hearts and heads. They need the love of their parents and security and passion that comes from a damn good teacher!

  6. My son has depression anxiety and he is six. It’s not constant it comes for a dew weeks where he freaks when I have to go somewhere without him and then it goes away for a few weeks and I can come and go with no issue. All of the sudden he is giving me issue with going to school. He refuses to go on the bus. And then when I drive him we have to physically removed him from the car crying.he system he doesn’t feel well or makes up some issue with someone in school when there is no issue to make me feel bad. I don’t know what is causing this and have him in therapy already because he has ADD. I don’t know what to do and I feel horrible forcing him but I know it’s the right things to do for him because once he is there he ends up being fine. He tells me when I am leaving to go somewhere without him that he is scared I won’t come back or something bad Is going to happened to me! I Let’s come back I have never not come back and nothing bad has every happened to me! I know it’s some form of anxiety but I don’t know why to do. I need help and advice because this is breaking my heart and causing conflict between my husband and I

      • Jennifer – I realize you meant that he has separation anxiety. I wonder if something happened to trigger this off earlier in his life. In any case, your “mantra” needs to be “Mommy ALWAYS comes back” and continue to have him live a normal life – school, etc. I think it’s not a good idea to keep him home from school – that only feeds into the problem. Be firm, cheerful, and remind him that you always come back. I think he needs to actually experience this. It may take him a while, but stick with it.

  7. My 10 year old son goes to a special needs school. He has recently started refusing to go. I’ve tried taking him instead of him getting on the bus, but then I deal with meltdowns when they come to get him from the car. I’m talking screaming, kicking, hitting. Then when I get him home he continues with the meltdown. He has holes in his wall from his fits. I don’t hover and try to give my kids space and allow them to do some things for themselves. I don’t think it has anything to do with separation anxiety. I’m worried about the legal consequences of him not going to school.

    • Christy – This situation sounds very difficult for both you and your son. The first thing I would suggest is setting up a meeting with his teacher and see if you can find any trigger at school that may have started this process. I don’t think this kind of reaction starts all by itself. Something is very very upsetting for him at school. The sooner you meet with the teacher, the better. The longer this goes on, the harder it can be to resolve. Let us know how you do with this.

  8. My son is 13. He is very well behaved and has benn in gifted classes since kindergarten. He is in middle school and every morning has been having headaches or chest pains or nausea. He’s been to DR’s and neurologist who have written excuses for his absences saying it was a virus or since other family members have had migraines that it is common. I’ve recently asked his pediatrician to recommend a psychiatrist to see if anxiety might be causing all of this. Her response was , ” Do you really want to go down that road?” … Well Yes! If nothing there can’t be any harm in it …. Right? We are waiting on the referral … I just wanted to ask if anxiety is something that is curable or is it something he is gong to have to learn to live with and adjust to? This is something that is keeping my baby from having a happy, healthy childhood.

    • Lula – I’m with you – he needs to see a professional. Anxiety is treatable, for sure. Sometimes it’s drugs, sometimes talk therapy, sometimes behavioral modification. I think you should also consider that he might be having some reaction to food that could cause his symptoms. You and he could keep track of what he is eating, although a reaction could occur several days after eating a particular food. There are blood test that can be done to determine food sensitivities. I’ve been impressed with how much better people feel when they avoid food they are sensitive to. Including me!

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