Adolescents, Anxiety, Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Family counselling, family therapy, School refusal, Uncategorized

Is your child refusing to go to school? Here’s what you can do about it.

Many people approach the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists for help for school refusal.  Typically, this happens after a child or teen has been school refusing for a couple of months and they have not been able to get anywhere with individual counselling. 

School refusal is a complex issue and requires a multifaceted approach.  In order to get a child back to school we often work with parents, the child/teen, other family members and other professionals. It sounds complicated, but it’s the best and fastest way to get results, and your Family Therapist will co-ordinate and sort the team. Without the right team, which might include a School Counsellor, Child Psychiatrist, Individual Counsellor and GP, parents face a much harder and sometimes impossible journey to get their child back at school.

Why does school refusal occur?

School refusal is usually a symptom of other underlying problems like anxiety, depression or mood disorders in teens.  In younger children it is often the first sign of emerging anxiety.  Anxiety in younger children can be related to family events or problems between people in the family. Anxiety can also be related to a diagnosis like AD/HD or ASD. 

Sometimes, school refusal occurs because the child has an undiagnosed learning disability or is experiencing social problems with peers.

Occasionally, school refusal occurs because there is an addiction to gaming, screens or non-prescription drugs.  

Foster children lost in the system can school refuse because they are unsettled.  

Abuse in the home can lead to teens living on the streets or couch-surfing and not attending school.

Why do some teens and children experience anxiety and depression to the point that they refuse to attend school?  

This can be for a range of reasons like the following:-

  • Social problems in school
  • Bullying at school
  • Negative social media experiences
  • Worrying about an unwell parent or family member at home
  • High conflict between parents who are together or separated
  • Learning disabilities that impact self-esteem
  • Hormonal changes
  • AD/HD and ASD can present with co-morbid factors like anxiety or depression
  • Addiction in the home

When we work with the entire family where school refusal is occurring, we assess all aspects of the problem and put together an individualised treatment plan that can be supported by the school and other professionals.

What are some things parents can do right away to help with school refusal?

  • Put your child or teen into a good sleep routine.  The great majority of teens we see who school refuse are going to bed after midnight and sleeping through to the afternoon.  Your child/teen will not go back to school unless sleep patterns are sorted out.
  • Get your child/teen moving.  Many school refusers spend large amounts of time in their bedrooms.  Get them to help you with shopping and chores around the house.  Get them moving with exercise.
  • Take your child/teen to be assessed for any underlying mental health illnesses or problems. Undiagnosed attention problems for example, affect academic performance and impact self-esteem.  Many teens who have AD/HD and ASD start school refusing for this reason.
  • Take your child/teen off screens.  Especially when they are supposed to be at school.  You need to make their school day at home as boring as possible, not reward them with screen time. You are probably going to have to be hardcore with this measure – which might mean confiscating phones, computers, game consoles and tablets.  
  • Address any social concerns at the school.  You will need to contact teachers and the School Counsellor to help with this.  If you are concerned that the school is not providing enough support, escalate the issue (ask to speak to the Principal, for instance) and/or consider changing to a school with good pastoral care.
  • Is your child or teen on medication?  Check to see that the medication is not causing your child/teen to be tired in the morning and unable to get up for school. Many medications have side-affects which make it harder for children to wake up.
  • Is there family conflict at home or are you a separated family?  Conflict or difficult family relationships can cause anxiety in both young children and teens.  Seek family counselling if this is your situation.
  • Incentivise your child/teen to go to school.  Make sure you incentivise with age approach activities and rewards that are not over the top.  

There are many other things that Family Therapists like me put into place from a professional perspective to get a school refuser back to school.  Note that the longer the child/teen has not been in school the longer the process will be to get them back to school.  This is why it is crucial that professional help is sought ASAP.  

The author of this blog, Jacqueline McDiarmid runs regular training on how to treat school refusal for School Counsellors, Therapists and Psychologists.  Her next training will be on the 28th August 2020 – please visit for more details.

About Jacqueline

Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families.  She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas. In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.

Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families.  She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.

Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.

Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter.  Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.

Qualifications and Professional Membership

Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute.  She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.

Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.

She is a Clinical Member of the Family Therapy Association of Australia and a Clinical Member of PACFA.

“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable.
I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.

If you feel as though you could benefit from talking with a Therapist please contact  The Sydney Couple and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397 or email

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