Why do children refuse to go to school?

School refusal is defined as a child's refusal to go to school or the inability to stay in school for the duration of the school day. When children refuse to go to school, we need to do what we can to understand why and help them deal with these challenges so they can have the best chance of achieving success and happiness in life.

There are three main factors that influence why a child or adolescent will refuse to go to school: social factors, educational factors, and mental health and/or substance use. In this article, I discuss how each of these factors can cause a child to refuse to go to school.

Social Factors

Bullying at school is a major factor that can cause children to refuse to go to school. This is understandable. Unfortunately in the age of social media, bullying has become an issue for many of our children. According to the Pew Research Center, the majority of teens have experienced some type of cyberbullying.

With social media, bullying does not stop once the child or adolescent leaves school. If a child is intimidated or made fun of on social media and sees this while at home,  he or she may be extremely resistant to going to school.

Educational factors

Children and teenagers with learning disabilities can have a difficult time being in school. They have a hard time keeping up with their school work. While many do understand the material, they may be absorbing it at a slower rate compared to their peers.

This is frustrating to the child because even when they do succeed in learning it can feel like a failure. When school work is very hard, many children simply do not want to be there.

Mental Health

There is a range of mental health issues that can cause a child or teenager to resist or refuse to go to school. Teens and children suffer from anxiety, including social anxiety, separation anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mental health issues can cause distress that is exacerbated by going to school. In a situation such as this, parents need to find ways to help their children learn how to manage anxiety, rather than allow them to simply avoid triggering situations such as school.

It is important to understand children and teens can and do suffer from depression. Depression is a serious illness and can progress to a more serious condition over time. If you think your child is suffering from depression or anxiety, it is necessary to give them access to professional help, even if the symptoms are not extreme.

Anxiety and depression are not manifestations of personality or temperament, but are actually treatable and can make a big difference in your child's development.

Substance abuse

If your child is using substances, either because he or she is trying to medicate symptoms such as anxiety or depression or if they have friends who encourage this behavior, your child may refuse to go to school. Substances cause your child to not feel well the next day and make it difficult to get up in the morning and go to school. Using drugs and alcohol may also change your child's perspective on what is important in life. Feeling better now may become more important than working towards achieving long-term goals for the future.

One or all three factors?

Your child or adolescent can have one or all three of these factors. Social, educational, and mental health factors can influence each other and put your child at risk for refusing school. For example, a child with a learning disability may be more likely to be bullied at school. Bullying and learning difficulties can lead to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Substances can offer an escape or a way to connect with a deviant peer group.

School is an important and crucial element in all children's maturation and development. If your child is refusing school, it is important to understand why and to get them the help they need.

About the author: Dr. Jennifer Lish is a clinical psychologist in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. Lish specializes in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders in children, teens, and adults.

Click here for a list of therapists in your area who can help your child.

Anxiety Children and Teenagers School Issues
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