School refusal is when parents and the school are well aware that a child or teen is not attending school. It is not the same as truancy, which is where a child or teenager does not tell a parent they are not attending school.
School refusal is an avoidant behaviour, signs of which typically start in primary school. Most of the time, a school-refusing teen will say they are unwell, too tired or too anxious to go to school. Parents are understandably frustrated and concerned when a teen is school refusing. Most of the time the school and parents feel at a loss as to how to get the teen back to school – and make sure they stay.
What is school refusal behaviour?
- Refusal to get out of bed, get dressed and get ready for school.
- Staying up late through the night and sleeping during the day.
- Addiction to gaming or screens and saying they are too tired or don’t need to go to school.
- Complaints about tiredness and other medical problems which prevent them from going to school.
- Complaints about not fitting in at the school or not liking the school or the teachers.
- Anxiety or panic attacks at school or other medical problems which result in the child being sent home.
- Repeated visits to the school counsellor saying they don’t want to be at school or asking to go home.
- Social anxiety, mood disorders, depression and suicidal ideation.
- Social problems.
- Falling behind with school work or not engaging with it.
- Addiction to alcohol and drugs – or suspected addiction.
- Not coming home at curfew.
- Running away, sleeping on the streets, parents not having access to their child’s social network.
- Attracted to the wrong crowd – perhaps other kids who are school refusing.
Is school refusal a disorder?
Most children and teens who school refuse are struggling with their mental health. It is important for parents to understand that school refusing is a symptom of underlying problems – typically mood disorders. Counsellors who deal with school refusing usually see anxiety, depression, OCD, ASD, AD/HD, social anxiety and separation anxiety. Many of the teens we see for school refusal at the Sydney Family and Couple Specialists are struggling with untreated mood disorders either because parents have not realised their teen is suffering with this, or because parents have not accessed the right professional help. The great majority of school refusers have a primary diagnosis of social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder.
What causes school refusal?
There are many different causes that contribute to school refusal. However, the most common are mental health problems, family stress, social problems and addiction to gaming.
In school refusal counselling, it is common to see children and teens who are struggling with family stress or relationship break downs with one or both parents. Sometimes the family stress is about the mental health of one or both parents or addiction in the family. This can lead to a teen spending time worrying about a parent and wanting to be at home so they can keep an eye on the parent. For example, some children and teens worry that if they’re not home, their parent might die. Separated families pose a greater risk of family stress particularly if there is emotional stress for one parent after the separation which leads to the teen or child aligning and then worrying about that parent.
The majority if school refusing occurs when a child is between 12-15 years. It is a tricky age socially and many teens struggle with distorted thinking about themselves e.g. body image as well their friendship group e.g. nobody likes me. Developmentally this is also the age that kids start to individuate, which means they start to seek more independence from their parents and realise they perhaps have a bit more agency to actually refuse to go to school – especially if they are physically big enough to not be picked up and taken to school.
And finally, in school refusing counselling we are seeing more and more teens who are addicted to gaming and screens. They are staying up to all hours to do this and they’re often too tired and unmotivated to attend school.
Parenting styles plays a big part in school refusing. Research shows us time and time again that kids and teens do well with a parent who is both authoritative and warm. However, many parents are too scared to exert their authority and a permissive parenting style undermines the process to keep teens on track. It is vital that parents (including separated parents) are on the same parenting page when their child is school refusing which is why family counselling is crucial to get the teen back to school.
How to treat school refusal?
Many parents make the mistake of hoping their child’s school will do the work to get their child back to school. In all reality, a team approach is required to help the teen re-engage with school and stay there. Getting the support of a Family Counsellor is advisable. They’re trained and equipped to get the entire family engaged (even if the parents are separated), the school on board, and help you decide if other professionals need to be involved.
At the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists we work with the school refuser, parents, school counsellors, teachers and other professionals. The teen is assessed and treated for any underlying mental health problem and strategies are worked out to help them face returning to school.
In school refusal counselling it is important that the family access a Family Counsellor who can work with parents to make changes to support their child to return to school. Sometimes those changes may be about strengthening relationships or working with the parents on their own mental health.
If school refusal has been a problem for 15 months or more, other services might also need to be accessed. By then there can be entrenched problems around sleep hygiene, eating patterns, social problems and family interactions. In school refusal counselling it is important to support parents who might also be living with a teen who is physically threatening to parents and other family members.
How to help school refusal?
Parents can do a great deal to help with school refusal. With the help of a good Family Counsellor, parents may be able to:
- Help the teen get back into a healthy sleep routine.
- Help the teen with eating patterns.
- Teach the teen some living schools to help them re-engage with life.
- Make school refusal days a school day at home – the child must do school work or they have nothing to do.
- Remove devices and screens especially in evenings to reduce social anxiety and encourage sleep.
- Seek treatment for underlying mental health concerns.
- Seek help and treatment for family stress or communication problems.
- Be willing to change their parenting style.
- Be firm and clear with expectations of their child but not angry and frustrated. Treat this as a problem that needs to be treated rather than bad behaviour.
How long does school refusal counselling last?
Many parents are understandably concerned about how long it will take their child to return to school.
The longer your child or teen has been school refusing, the longer they’ll need treatment to get them back to school. School refusing is a complex problem and requires intensive work.
However, if underlying mental health problems are treated and the parents make the right changes, there is no reason why the teen wouldn’t return to school quickly. We would typically expect to see a child or teen return to school in the following school term after the commencement of treatment by a Family Therapist. Please be aware that school refusing counselling may need to continue for some time to keep the child at school and to work with ongoing social problems which often occur.
Who can help with school refusal? Why Sydney Couple and Family Specialists?
We are specialist family counsellors and we all have extensive experience working with school refusal in the Eastern suburbs and across Sydney. School refusing makes up about 25% of our case load and we are skilled at engaging reluctant teens into counselling. The Family Counsellors at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists will typically meet with the parents, the teen and any other person of influence to make an assessment and then devise a treatment plan.
We work in a collaborative way and include not only the parents but also teachers, school counsellors, child Psychiatrists and GP’s. We understand the stress school refusing places on families and provide support and clear direction to parents to solve the problem.
We have a high success rate at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists and over 80% of our children and teens return and stay at their school after working intensively with us for 12 weeks.
If you have a child or teen who is school refusing, please do not delay. Call 8968 9397 and speak to our friendly receptionist who will ensure you are matched with the right Family Counsellor to see for you and your family. You can also arrange a free 15 minute consult to ensure you feel happy with who you are booked in with prior to the appointment.