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?


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 35 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

    • I agree completely. daughter is thirteen..first year of high school …. she’s a honor roll student….and at least once or twice a week she’s bugging me at work asking if she can stay home knowing that I don’t have the time or attention to give the matter….it’s frustrating! Being as me and her father work all day and her brothers are in school. I’m thinking that she may actually be craving that separation from all of us…either way…I’m very concerned she insists there’s nothing wrong…and honestly that concerns me more!

  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!

    • Since my daughter started school she’s loved school and loved her teacher, she didn’t have a problem with homework either. Once she got into 3rd grade not only was it a big transition year as far as work load goes, but her teacher was someone who would pick favorites and those same kids would always be teachers pet. She yelled a lot and she also picked certain kids she would pick on and yell at more. Well my quiet daughter who was always the child teachers would dream of in their class was one of the children she yelled at and picked on a lot. Shortly after school started my daughter started to not want to go to school and slowly be less interested in homework as well. By winter break only half way through the year she didn’t want to get up in the morning anymore or go to school. I finally decided to switch schools, so when I went to pick her up one day I went a little early so I could pick up the paperwork. I walked down the hall to meet my daughter at the classroom instead of outside since I was in the school and I quietly walk up to the teacher scolding only my daughter about why she didn’t finish 2 papers that were given the last 10 minutes of the day and to be taken home to be completed if not finished before the bell ring… no one else was being scolded and the teacher gave the work 10 minutes before the bell and to be taken home if not finished. Well as I was walking up she was scolding my daughter and once she noticed I was right behind her she changed her toned to finish. She was sneaky in my opinion and a bully. Because of her my daughter is now afraid of teachers and doesn’t want to go to school, plus we constantly struggle with homework now. Not only that but the stress she was causing my daughter (who didn’t talk about much of it until she changed schools) changed her sweet behavior at home to lashing out here and there. It has all gotten worse but I am working on trying to find a solution to help my daughter get back to herself in all aspects. We have talked to the school counselor, teacher and principal so they know. We’re even in therapy, the therapist is mostly focusing on the behavior at home. It has helped that some but I need more, I don’t know what to do, I need a solution or something…? This is the first time her grades are starting to go down, she will hardly do her homework and she wants to do school online now because she doesn’t want to go and deal with her teachers. What do I do?

      • She is 9 in 4th grade and has been at her new school for about a year now. So she had her new 3rd grade teacher last year when we switched and now her current 4 the grade teacher. Her teacher says she’s smart so she doesn’t know what’s the issue. But she always stresses about school and homework even though she doesn’t always do the homework. I think she probably has anxiety about going to school.

        • We can’t underestimate the psychological damage an individual teacher can do to a child. I’m so sorry that your child was exposed to this. She needs to feel understood about that damage, and that not all teachers are alike. Also, I would emphasize with her that she can tell you straightaway if she encounters any problems in school, no matter how small. I would continually recognize with her that the fault was with the teacher, not her. I think she might be experiencing some separation anxiety from her Mom now, and you might be able to ease her back to school when you recognize this with her. I realize you may have already done these things, but I believe in repetition when dealing with results of trauma.

      • Mom of 2 – If her relationship with her teacher is good and she is doing her work, I think you have to consider something going on with some of her classmates. See if you can get some understanding of those relationships by talking with her and with her teacher. It’s a place to start.

      • Dear Mom of 2, my son also facing the same problem. He refused to go to school everyday cause the teachers talked loudly to him. The teacher also yelled at the class every day. Can you share what kind of therapist your daughter is seeing?

  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!

    • Kristy Chiverton
      It’s so true what you have posted. My 6 year old son feels anxiety, and tells me he doesn’t feel comfortable with the teacher they placed him with, since his previous teacher left, (who he really loved). He often tells me he misses his previous teacher and that things with this new teacher are so different. This change happened since October, and we are in January now, and he feels sad all the time, not wanting to go back to school. I requested another teacher, but the director of the charter school said no. Now I’m praying so much, I been thinking of getting him out and homeschool him for the rest of the year and see if that will help him. But yes! I agree with you, this children need security, to feel safe and wanted by their teacher, is obvious his class environment has changed!

  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!

  9. Having some issues with my daughter, for the past 6 weeks she hasn’t been wanting to go to school. She says she wants to quit or switch schools, my daughter is only 6 years old. She is the type of girl that wants to know if she’s doing her work right but was told by the teacher to ask for clarification less often and try on her own first. I totally agree with her on that, but again we are talking about a six year old thats looking for guidance from the teacher. My daughter hates and I mean hates math at school but can sit at home and work on math question no problem. The teacher thinks part of my daughter’s difficulty is that there can be multiple answers and not always a fact to memorize and when she is not sure she tends to lack the confidence to try on her own. She relies on others in her group or the teacher to get started. The teacher also thinks by continuing encourage independent work and effort she will gain more confidence. With that said and done, I guess one day about 6 weeks ago my daughter went up to her teacher and ask for clarification on a math question, the teacher look at my daughter and said you know what how about I quit being your teacher. When my daughter came home that day she was really upset and told me what her teacher had said to her. I was really shocked and upset but told her she must of misunderstood. I requesting a parent teacher interview. When I asked the teacher if she had said that she was quitting being my daughter’s teacher, she admitted to saying it but she was having a bad day and she apologized to my 6 year old daughter. So ever since this day my daughter has been refusing to go to school, she hates math and now she just wants to quit and give up on everything and move to a different school. So as a mother of two (6 years old and a 11 month old) I have been left to try to fix this alone, my daughter self esteem has been tarnished. Children that age are like sponges they absorb everything. My child does have her faults but she’s six years old, I still have faults and I’m 35. She is polite, she uses her manners, she has a big heart and will give up anything to see other people happy. So for 6 weeks now I have been working on my daughter’s self esteem instead of math. Just a few days ago my daughter and her bff had a play date, as we where having dinner I asked how school was today. I was told by my daughter bff that the teacher told my daughter that she had a bad attitude infront of the whole class and this put my daughter into tears. Again I was upset and surprise that the teacher would degrade my daughter again. I asked what were you doing when your teacher said this to you, and my daughter told me she was answering a math question. I asked her what was the math question and she said well the teacher gave us a paper that asked if we like math and we had to choose 1-always 2-sometimes and 3-never. I asked my daughter which one did you pick and she said 2 and I asked why she said she loves doing math at home but doesn’t like it at school. I said okay so then what happen? I was told that the teacher went up to my daughter and told her to switch her answer to never because she doesn’t like math and that she has a bad attitude. This left my daughter in tears and embarrassed as this was said in front of whole classroom. so immediately that same day I wrote in the agenda book that I needed to have a meeting with her as soon as possible her reply was I was thinking the same thing I was actually going to phone you today. I’m so annoyed and so upset and I’m not sure what I should do or how I should go about this or how to fix my daughter self esteem. Please some useful advice 🙁

    • Christine, I am sorry that your daughter is going through this. She is so young to have a difficult time at school. You need to request a meeting with the principal explaining that you already met with the teacher. There is clearly a personality conflict that can only be solved by requesting another class placement. You are your child’s best advocate.–a first grade teacher

  10. I have a 7 year old that just started school she does not like to go and has been crying at the begging of school for her mom she wakes up saying her stomach hurts she started this the last month or so of 1st grade she is a very happy girl most of the time she can have a anger problem with me or her mom but does good otherwise we love her very much my wife and I seperated about 3 years ago but we have her every other day we live in a town of 900 people so everyone know every one good town I just want her to be happy and enjoy school she like school up to the end of last year

  11. Please help!!! :’-(
    I’m the father of a 6 years old daughter who started 1st grade school 2 months ago.
    In the beginning everything was ok and she was excited of starting this journey in her life.
    In the last month, she doesn’t want to go to school anymore. Just after entering school, all her mood changes and she starts getting attached to me (this happens on daily basis).
    In the last two days she’s been crying at school. And today she followed me back to car while crying.
    I talk to her a lot and ask about school and there is nothing wrong there…
    She complains sometimes about having many classes (9!). Their day starts at 8:15 and ends at 15:45. But I “convinced” her that’s ok because there is lots of fun there also. Some of those classes include Music, Arts, Horse Riding and Swimming.
    Her main claim now is that she wants to see us all the time.
    I guess that is what is called “Separation Anxiety”?
    Even in the afternoon, I struggle sometimes getting her allowing me to get out alone for personal matters.
    I saw a reply from Dr Susan above about such anxiety:
    “Jennifer – I realize you meant that he has separation anxiety. I wonder if something happened to trigger this off earlier in his life.”
    In my case, she went through a separation from mommy when she was 6 months when mommy was diagnosed with Leukaemia and had to stop breastfeeding her suddenly (Mom is ok now thanks God).
    I have to mention also that she is our only daughter and she still sleeps in the parents room, so that could be another reason why she is so connected…
    Please help…
    I would appreciate your advice…

  12. My husband daughter is 10 years old, she refuse to go to school. She lives with her mother (mostly grandmother) the mother and her boyfriend is in and out of the house. She screem like a small child I don’t want to go to school. she’s grade 4. learning classes. and 6 months at a therapist. they gave pills, but she don’t want to even stay at her dad’s. she is lying to everyone, and manipulating everyone around her. Sometimes she is ugly with my 4year old. I don’t say anything otherwise I am the bad one.. it is out of control. Can you please help with any advise

    • Louise – It sounds like you have a very difficult problem to deal with. Obviously, something is very wrong. Have you spoken with her teachers to see if then can shed light on the situation? In addition, when kids refuse to go to school there is a Separation Anxiety going on with the parent – a fear of being separated from her for some reason. You might want to explore that possible explanation.

  13. Hello, I need help my son has recently started crying about going to school for example he’ll start craying Sunday night and he keeps repeating he doesn’t like school, he even says he hates school. He is 7 second grade he has speech problems and when he was little he was tested for autism they say he does not have autism but autistic like behavior so he is on special classes he has been going to school since he was 3 and since last year he says he doesn’t want to go, but from a few months to now he crys about it for a good time and I don’t know what to do it’s really stressful because I do t know how to manage this situation.

  14. Hi,my 12 year old grandson over the last couple of weeks has been very distressed about going to school,he is in first year senior school and has,nt had a problem up to now.His mam has a terrible time getting him to go but knows he has to go,he is ringing her crying from school to go and get him but this morning I think he was so desperate he was ringing me begging me to go and get him.The school are aware of the problem and are trying to help he has had someone to talk to at school but not sure if it will work as he is still very distressed,the problem goes way when he is out of school ,his work at school is very good,so that’s not the problem,we ask him if anyone is bothering him such as pupils or even a teacher but he insists not,he has had blood tests to rule out anything physical but they have come back clear,he was poorly about three weeks ago with a bad chest the doctor gave him steroids to help his chest,could they have affected his emotions?We are desperate to help him ,have you any suggestions please? thankyou Judith.

    • Judith,
      Steroids can affect emotions, but it sounds like your grandson was experiencing problems before he took this medicine. Something is happening in school that is distressing/scaring him and he sounds frantic. The family really has to get to the bottom of this. You should definitely check into any possibility that other kids are harassing him, teasing him, or any other behavior that’s been harmful and scary for your grandchild. He may be afraid to tell you. Enlist any help you can get from school.

  15. After my wife finished her phd, we move from another country to follow her path in science, and we change roles, i move from full time work to full time dad of our 4 year old and it was a very difficult time for me and my child, he change language, house, school, weather, country and care keeper.

    After a very hard and difficult year, all that i can say is that i have learn a lot from him and even that he still have some problems with bedwetting, we are doing well, he speaks english, he have a lot of friends, he love his new school and even he is in hockey lessons with one of his friends from his pre-k, but im going to start in a new job soon and today that i went to my final interview, my wife left him in the school and he refuse to enter the school and even he hit his teacher and yield,
    And after my interview i try to back to school in the afternoon turn (that he likes too) and even that we speak about it, and he was ready to say sorry to his teacher, when we arrive to the school again, it was impossible to make him go out of the car.

    I understand that he have feelings because i will start a new job, and we already speak about it, but i’m really worry.

    In the meantime i think is good idea go to a therapist. The big question is: what kind of therapist does we need?

    • Alberto,
      It sounds like you’ve done an amazing job with your son. Now that you will be working, your son is distressed about separations from you. This is quite normal. Four year olds will more likely “act out” their issues rather than talk about them, but talking about his feelings would be part of the goal. Usually you would need to put his feelings into words – he might not be able to. It might be helpful to set up activities that you will be able to do with him ahead of time – giving him something to look forward to and bridge this difficult time in his life. For instance, taking him to hockey, etc. – what could be possible while in your new job. He needs time to adjust. Set up a time with him everyday that will work for your schedule and his that you can talk on the phone and he can check in with you about his day. Then he’ll know for sure that he’ll have contact with you. Also, perhaps he could have more time with his Mom.
      If you decide to see a therapist, look for a child psychologist or social worker. Most likely they will do play therapy with a child this young.

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