My daughter is 9-years old and in the fourth grade, and she just doesnt want to go to school!
MOLLY: The reader added that her daughter cries and howls and doesn’t want to go at all. What should she do?
Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): I think we need to know a little bit more about what her history is about going to school. For instance, if she went to school happily for the last several years but all of a sudden she doesn’t want to go to school anymore, that would provoke different kinds of questions than if this is a child who every year refuses to go to school.
If this is a child who every year refuses to go to school, chances are she’s having separation anxiety from her mom rather than anything particular going on at school. And that has to be addressed because the first rule of thumb for dealing with separation anxiety is that you must get the kid into school every day. You absolutely can’t allow her to stay home.
However, if the child has had some kind of negative experience with the teacher or with classmates in the past, and that’s why she doesn’t want to go to school, that has to be explored in a different kind of way.
The mom may have to talk to the teacher about what went on, and she should consider that the child might need to talk about what happened as it was somehow traumatizing to her. There could be a number of issues to consider and they are each worth exploring because the etiology of what this is about is the most important clue. Once you know what causes this behavior, then you can go ahead and address it.
MOLLY: If the child just all of a sudden just doesn’t want to go to school, what would be the best way to start exploring what the cause could be?
MOM: Well, she’s 9 years old so she’s perfectly verbal. I would suggest sitting down with her in a very comfortable atmosphere for the child and talking about how things went last year at school. I would do that in any case because you have to really listen closely to what she’s saying. She might have a hard time telling her mom about something bad that had happened in school, especially if she feels any shame or humiliation from it.
MOLLY: So you have to first just talk about it. Should you ask directly? “Did something happen?”
MOM: Yes. Her mom could say, “I’m concerned about how you’ve been feeling about going to school this year. Let’s talk about how last year went. Did something happen at school that was upsetting? Did somebody give you a hard time? Was it a hard relationship with your teacher?”
If she can’t get much out of her child about it, she should try to talk to last year’s teacher. But always keep in mind that if this is a common problem for this child every year, you can’t ignore the separation anxiety issue with the mother.
MOLLY: How do you deal with that?
MOM: You talk to the kid about how the mom is there and mom will be there when she gets home from school and the girl can share her experiences with her mom when she comes home from school. I had a case in my office where we had the child, who was actually in high school, and the mother was working full time. We arranged for the child to call the mother every day at work at 4:00 pm when she came home from school to check in. This little routine provided enough reassurance for the child to feel ok about the daily separation for work and school.
MOLLY: What might be the long term effects?
MOM: There can be long-term effects of not dealing with childhood separation anxiety for sure. Children who continue to have separation anxiety past ages 5 or 6 miss out on socialization experiences and can grow into clingy teens that dominate the family with their needs. They may have a hard time adjusting to activities away from their parents, including schooling, and may never want to leave their parents’ house and become independent.
If the problem was bullying or another external factor, then it is incumbent upon the parent to work to rectify the situation and advocate for your child. At 9, she has years ahead of her in school.
The first job is to figure out what is behind her behavior. Then you can go from there.