When Your Kid Doesn't Want to Go to School
An eye-opening perspective on school refusal — and four strategies for handling it.
A few weeks ago in one of my weekly threads, I asked subscribers what they have been struggling with. One parent lamented:
Last Friday my 7-year-old second grader flat out refused to go to school. I think it was a mix of anxiety, getting over a sinus infection, poor sleep the night before, and my husband leaving for work (he works out of town 3-4 days a week). Now I'm anxious every morning that it'll happen again. We've talked about it and he talked about it with his therapist, too, but if there's any suggestions or research on school refusal I'd love to hear about it!
This was one of several questions I got about school refusal, so I put it on my short list to address ASAP. For insight, I reached out to Christopher Kearney, who runs the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic, and Brian Chu, director of the Youth Anxiety and Depression Clinic at Rutgers University, who also specializes in school refusal.
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure how relevant this topic would be for me personally. My kids have never flat-out refused to go to school, although they have certainly wanted to stay home when they’ve felt tired or sick, and understandably so. But when I finished my interview with Dr. Chu, my mind was blown and I vowed to change certain things about how I engage with my kids.
First, an overview: Kids miss school for lots of reasons. They pull a Ferris Bueller and hang out with their friends. Their parents ask them to stay home to look after younger siblings. They have Covid or the flu. School suspends them for disciplinary or academic reasons. Many kids miss school due to anxiety or stress, and these are the kids I’m going to focus on today.
Sometimes, school refusal is straightforward. Kids will say things like “I don’t want to go to school today!” (Parents of kids who do this: Hang tight, I’ll talk about what to do about these proclamations in just a minute.) Other times, school refusal is more abstract and indirect. A kid may wake up complaining that they’re especially tired, have a sore throat, or have a stomachache. And although they are telling the truth, and they really are feeling those physical symptoms, the underlying cause in many cases may actually be anxiety or depression.
What parents do in these situations shapes what happens down the line. Often — and this is quite understandable in our post-Covid world — we say things that suggest to our kids that they shouldn’t have to attend school (or do other activities) when they feel bad. Our kid wakes up and says, My stomach hurts, and we say, Oh, are you not feeling up to going to school today? This response is well-intentioned, but, as Dr. Chu explained to me, it suggests to kids that they shouldn’t have to do things when they feel uncomfortable, and this then becomes a very slippery slope — and, ultimately, a self-reinforcing behavior.
If you think about it, we often lay the groundwork for avoidance behavior in the way we talk about our choices. We say things like, “‘Gosh, I would go to the gym right now, but I'm feeling kind of tired. And so I guess I won't go.’ Or ‘Gosh, we were invited out to go see our friends. But it's been so busy, I'm just really worn out, so I'm just going to stay home,’” said Dr. Chu.
When we frame our choices this way, we inadvertently communicate to our kids that feeling tired or bad or “just not feeling it” is a perfectly valid reason to stay home. And of course, in some cases, it is — but for kids prone to school anxiety, this idea can become a powerful driver of school (and other activity) avoidance — and then, avoidance begets more avoidance. As Dr. Chu explained:
When you decide to take negative feelings and use them as a reason to avoid, or to hole up, withdraw, or to simply shut down, it starts a really bad habit. Because it's very self-rewarding, right? If you stay home, you're going to feel better, because it always helps when you avoid the thing that's scary. But unfortunately, what you learn is that the quickest, most immediate way to stop feeling bad is to avoid, and that becomes a bad habit.
Of course, if your child has clear symptoms of a contagious illness — a fever, runny nose, cough, vomiting or diarrhea, and the symptoms are not attributable to anything else — then yes, absolutely, keep them home. The same goes for when your kid appears to be in so much misery that they couldn’t focus at school (more on that in a minute).
But, as a parent, I’ve found that sometimes, my kids’ complaints are vague and not all that acute: I’m really tired today, or I have a headache, or my throat hurts. In those situations, when kids’ complaints are somewhat minor and it’s not clear that they could sicken other kids, we should be careful about how we respond.
Again: I’m not trying to be an asshole here. Of course there are valid reasons to keep kids home. But many, many kids miss school due to underlying anxieties that manifest in physical ways, and we need to be aware of the possibility that our kids could be staying home when they could, actually, get through the school day just fine and be better off for it.
But, okay, this is all focused on what not to do. What should you do when your kid announces they aren’t feeling well or don’t want to go to school? What can you do to reduce the chance that your kid will demand to stay home? Here are four strategies Dr. Chu and Dr. Kearney recommended.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Is My Kid the Asshole? to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.