Ask A Therapist: My Child Refuses to go to School

by Liz Covey

My 13 y.o. son is a nice kid. He’s pretty shy, but hasn’t ever had trouble in school with the work or with making friends. About a year ago, he started to complain about going to school, which was not a surprise, but his complaining turned into many sick days and some trouble catching up at the end of the year.  This year, he is not wanting to go at all anymore. We’ve tried bribing him with his favorite things like extra video game time and going to the trampoline park, but those aren’t working anymore. We’re wondering if we should be more serious about our consequences, or what we should do. When we take his privileges away for not going to school he says we’re being cruel, that he has too much stress and we’re punishing him for that. We don’t know what to do, and the school  hasn’t been able to help us much since he isn’t there hardly at all. What do you suggest?  


Dear Reader,

With all the dividedness in our nation today, there is one truism in American life that we can probably all agree on: it is a rare kid who truly loves school. As I write this, my school-aged kids are home for winter break, and whenever well-meaning but out-of-touch adults ask them if they are looking forward to going back to school soon, the poor souls are met with bewildered, blank stares, cultivated to utter perfection by my tween, a visual communication of are you kidding me? with their faces. With teenhood, no doubt, this will be outright disgust, but for now, it’s just unvarnished shock that anyone would think that a kid would rather be in school than doing just about anything else.

School is hard and boring at once. It’s stress-inducing to nearly everyone- think algebra, bullying, and living under the specter of getting an “F”, or a zit. It’s your second home, only without the guarantee of close relationships, kindness, or consistency.

Yet, most kids attend with only a minor fuss. It’s a job for them, one that they can’t choose, or quit.

Or can they?

The once-rare problem of children ceasing to attend school, now called “school refusal”, has seemed, of late, to be on the rise. Though statistics are somewhat murky on the topic, it seems to be the case that there is a growing trend of children with attendance and persistent school-anxiety problems, as evidenced by the frequency with which therapists, behavioral health programs and pediatricians are consulted on the topic. Some studies hold this number to be as high as 28% in the general population for school resistance over the lifespan of the school career.

It often starts with a particular complaint, but that one thing sometimes metastasizes to become a consistent or constant pattern, one in which parents lose all bearings, and free-fall into the no-man’s-land of “school refusal”, which seems to defy the social compact of family in public life.

From a straight mental health perspective, the place to begin with a case involving School Refusal is in examination of the areas of disorder, such as anxiety or mood (like depression), as well as to assess the factors of severe stress in the inner life or external situation of the child. But let’s be clear: there are many things to consider, and ways to position oneself as the parent, advocate, or ally to a child who is experiencing something that causes them to resist school to the point of not being able to attend. We do well as the child’s champion (versus critic) to open our ears, our hearts and our minds to what kinds of information we might receive at this juncture.

Ross Greene, a well-known child psychologist and author, is famous for the quote “Kids do well when they can”. His intent is that we apply this ethic to every child misbehavior or hardship, which is compelling in a discussion such as this, since we are concerned not only with the mental health reasoning behind a child’s refusal (which itself sounds like an interpretation of the behavior as willful), but that they are not able to go to school for one or another reason.

This approach encourages us to do our legwork on this problem from the inside out: how is the child’s inner situation of feeling, thinking and learning? What is the health of their home relationships and attachment system? What is their school and social life like, and are they being met and challenged without that exceeding their level of tolerance or competence? And lastly, how is their physical and medical situation? Are they (and their caregivers) healthy enough to accomplish the tasks that school sets before them?

These questions, like so many things in parenting, cannot only be settled through interrogation of the child. So often kids in these situations do not know what is happening, nor are they willing or even able to verbalize it. These latter points are crucial to hold in mind with compassion. There may be no willful negligence at play, but genuine shame or mystification. Or just plain immaturity, the birthright of every child.

I do not know your particular situation, Reader, but I do know that your question indicates a good amount of empathy and an attempt at understanding your child. This is what is called for now. If, in a deeper inquiry about what is making your child set off the alarm, where they cannot function on this level, and you cannot find some specific answers, you must call in some outside helpers. It is usually recommended to start with school personnel (often a school psychologist or special ed assessor will be assigned), a psychotherapist who is trained in this area, and often an MD to rule out medical problems or to consult with the former specialists on whether medication is indicated at this time.

Beyond this, the only real question is, how do we show up- as helpers, or as stress-drivers, who can only panic at the thought of the chaos that is initiated by being in this foreign terrain? Remember that your primary job as the parent is to lead your child in the direction of love when fear is in your midst. It is not to find your superhero cape and take away all pain and problems. It is to be the grown up that will guide, and who will do so with loving care.

And one more thing, Reader: Let it be stated here loud and clear that not all children thrive in the passive, large-group and increasingly hands-off paradigm of education (called the factory-model in academic education circles). If after a long assessment you come to think that your child is one of the types for whom this is true, you might have your work cut out for you. But know you are not alone. There are ample programs, administrators, therapeutic assistants, and parents who homeschool or online school who can guide you on a path, be it one that is an alternative model of education, or one that is simply a step or two removed for the time being, as you get this situation or child the redress needed to get back on the normative track.

However this unfolds, Reader, keep your child’s whole self in mind. And make sure that their future self will be able to tell the story of your care, command and composure in the end. After all, who among us remembers the particular details of how we got through our worst moments in childhood? All we really tend to recall is who helped us, and how that felt.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

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