Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Children, Family counselling, School refusal, Uncategorized

School refusal

As a Family Counsellor I work with a lot of families who have a child who is starting to avoid school or school refusing. Sometimes they have seen several other counsellors before they get to me. Some have been school refusing for months – even a year or more.  School refusal is a big problem in Sydney, and I have also seen it among families from regional areas.  It’s a problem that has nothing to do with social, geographic or economic factors.

School refusing is a symptom of other underlying problems – typically a combination of mental health concerns and systemic problems i.e. family stress.  It is a complex problem to solve and requires a team of professionals to do so.  Teen counselling alone will not solve the problem of school refusal, as many parents ultimately discover.  It is crucial that parents access a Family Counsellor who is able to identify the underlying cause of school refusal, work and support parents to get their teen back to school, and work with other professionals as part of a team to facilitate the practicalities of getting the teen back to school (and staying at school).

As a Family Therapist I work with some or all of the following when it comes to school refusal:

  • School Counsellors
  • Teacher/s
  • Child Psychiatrist
  • Parents
  • Teen who is school refusing
  • Teen counsellor
  • GP

There are also very good programs which offer outreach for the school refuser. Outreach is someone who goes to the home to help the teen (and parents) with skills that help them get back to school in a practical way e.g. helping them get into new routine.  If the teen is a chronic school refuser who’s been school refusing for more than 18 months, I recommend using an outreach service.

Why do kids school refuse? 

School refusal can usually be traced back to primary school.  Kids at primary school who show anxiety around school friendships and who start to show avoidance behaviours are more at risk of outright school refusing in later years.  The great majority of teens who school refuse have an underlying mood disorder – anxiety, depression, OCD, separation anxiety and so on.  In fact, I have never worked with a school refuser who does not struggle with their mental health.

There are also systemic factors that impact school refusing.  It is common for parents of school refusers to be struggling with their own mental health. There may also be family stress which is contributing to the school refusers behaviour.  Parents are often frustrated and are at a loss as to how to help their school refuser and sometimes that frustration ends up being part of the problem. It is important that parents are supported to make the necessary changes in the home to facilitate return to school for their teen. And it is important that parents learn the right parenting skills and problem solving techniques. This is why it is crucial that a Family Counsellor is accessed rather than sending a teen to counselling on their own.

Broadly speaking here are the main areas reasons why school refusal occurs:

  • The teen feels pressured by the academic work.  And is perhaps struggling with untreated mental health concerns which compounds this pressure – i.e. mood disorders, AD/HD, ASD.  Or there are intellectual impairments.
  • There is conflict or chaos in the home and the school refuser is worried about leaving a parent on their own and stays at home to keep an eye on them.
  • There are social struggles at school which the teen avoids – again there is usually an underlying mental health concern.
  • The teen has become addicted to “gaming” or other screen-based activities which are played throughout the night, leading the child to sleep through the day and miss school.

School refusing can cause further social problems for the teen as the very act of being away from school for long periods of time can make them a target for bullying and exclusion when they do try and go back to school.

What can parents do to help a school refuser? 

  • Take your teen to the GP and get a full checkup.  If necessary, get a referral to a Child Psychiatrist who can assess whether there’s a mood disorder or neurological problem which needs to be treated.
  • Access a Family Counsellor who is experienced in school refusing and is prepared to work with the school, Child Psychiatrist, other counsellors and any other professional.
  • Parents should consider professional help if they are struggling with their own mental health or family stress.  Sometimes a difficult separation or conflict between parents can cause stress for children and teens – sometimes to the point that they do not want to go to school.  A Family Therapist will be able to help with this.
  • Access a Family Counsellor who can help you learn parenting and problem-solving skills to support the changes needed to get the teen back to school.
  • Get your teen back into a good sleep routine.  Again, your Family Therapist will help you with this.
  • Make home a school day.  This means not allowing the school refuser to access screens or gaming throughout the day. If they are not at school, they should still be doing school work or nothing at all.  If home is more fun than school they will never go back.
  • Consider a new school for a fresh start.  But don’t do this until your teen (and you) have commenced treatment with a Family Counsellor and other professionals. You don’t want another school refusal failure.
  • Help your teen learn some living skills like cooking, washing clothes and shopping. This builds confidence for the teen and helps them to get out of the house.  This is particularly important because learning living skills gives teens an idea that there is a future to think about and can be a great motivator for going back to school.
  • Don’t threaten or physically manhandle your teen to go to school.  This builds resentment and typically leads to teens running toward the wrong crowd and staying away from the home. Then you will have another problem on your hands. Remember school refusal is a symptom of an underlying problem which needs to be treated.
  • Spend time with your teen doing positive things that they enjoy.  Many parents are so frustrated and resentful they forget that connection with their child is important.

School refusal is a complex problem and both the parents and the school refuser require professional help to solve it.  Like all problems, early intervention means that treatment time is reduced and the child will be back at school quicker.

If your pre-teen or teen is either school refusing or starting to show avoidance behaviours when it comes to school, access a Family Therapist and get the work underway.  The biggest mistake and time waster is sending your child off to an individual counsellor.  Whilst an individual adolescent counsellor might end up being part of the treatment plan, it is crucial the whole family is worked with.

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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