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  • Understanding School Refusal in Teenagers: Causes, Implications, and Remedies

    Reluctance to attend school is common in children, especially teenagers. It can be a temporary issue and can be easily addressed. For example, this is quite expected if your child is out sick for a few days and has difficulty returning to school. Depending on their age, your child might get anxious, clingy, or emotional about the homework they may have missed. Conversation with your child, validating their fears, explaining the importance of school, and providing reassurance can help them get back on track.

    However, when reluctance to attend school turns into complete avoidance, and a child refuses to get up in the morning, completely misses school days, and this starts affecting their academic performance, it becomes what we call “school refusal,” also known as school phobia or school avoidance.

    School refusal is a complex issue affecting many teenagers worldwide. It manifests as a persistent reluctance or refusal to attend school, often leading to significant distress for both the teenager and their family. About 1–5% of school-aged children in America, with a similar rate for boys and girls, struggle with school refusal. It’s more common in younger children, particularly those aged 5–11, and is often linked to anxiety disorders. In teenagers and adolescents, it can be related to the presence of mood disorders. Addressing the underlying causes, recognizing the implications, and implementing effective remedies are crucial steps that parents and educators can take to help a child transition back to school.

    Causes of School Refusal:

    Several factors contribute to school refusal in teenagers:

    • Anxiety Disorders: Teenagers may experience overwhelming anxiety about attending school due to reasons such as separation anxiety, social anxiety, or specific phobias.

    • Academic Pressure: High expectations from parents or teachers, fear of failure, or difficulty coping with academic demands can lead to school avoidance behaviors.

    • Bullying: Being subjected to bullying or harassment at school can make teenagers feel unsafe and reluctant to attend.

    • Family Issues: Conflict within the family, changes in family dynamics (e.g., divorce or relocation), or traumatic events can contribute to school refusal.

    • Physical Health Concerns: Chronic illnesses, disabilities, or physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches may hinder attending school.

    Implications of School Refusal:

    The consequences of school refusal extend beyond academic performance and can have long-term effects on teenagers’ social, emotional, and psychological well-being:

    • Academic Decline: Missed classes and incomplete assignments can lead to academic underachievement and hinder future educational opportunities.

    • Social Isolation: Avoiding school can result in social withdrawal, loneliness, and difficulty maintaining friendships.

    • Mental Health Issues: School refusal is often associated with anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health conditions, exacerbating the teenager’s emotional distress.

    • Family Stress: Parents may experience frustration, guilt, and conflict when addressing their teenager’s school refusal, leading to strained family relationships.

    Remedies for School Refusal:

    Addressing school refusal requires a multifaceted approach involving collaboration between parents, educators, mental health professionals, and the teenager:

    What can schools do?

    1. Establish Regular Communication: The first step is to adopt a team approach between parents, teachers, and school counselors. The student’s support team should collaborate daily on progress and challenges, what is working, and what is not.

    2. Identify Underlying Issues: Conduct a thorough assessment to understand the factors contributing to the teenager’s school refusal, including any underlying mental health concerns.

    3. Create a Supportive Environment: Foster a supportive and nurturing school environment where teenagers feel safe, valued, and understood. Teachers can spend extra time with students before or after school.

    4. Avoid Pressure: Collaborate with the student. Ask open-ended questions. Offer extra time to complete assignments.

    5. Show Empathy and Compassion: School refusal is not defiance but a form of anxiety. Teachers must avoid joking about students’ punctuality and be sensitive to their sense of shame and guilt. Assigning classroom duties can help build self-esteem.

    6. Implement Gradual Exposure: Gradually reintroduce the teenager to school by starting with small, manageable steps and gradually increasing their exposure over time. Be flexible with rules.

    7. Avoid Punishing with Technology: Taking away cell phones can worsen isolation and anxiety. Encourage healthy device use by promoting homework completion before gaming.

    8. Provide Counseling and Therapy: Offer counseling and therapy to help teenagers develop coping strategies, manage anxiety, and address any underlying emotional issues.

    9. Flexible Educational Options: Explore alternative educational options such as homeschooling, online schooling, or flexible scheduling to accommodate the teenager’s needs.

    10. Provide Peer Support: Encouraging participation in extracurricular activities or joining clubs can help them develop a sense of belonging and build connections with peers. An assigned peer buddy for recess, lunch, and unstructured time can bridge the gap.

    What can parents do?

    1. Communicate with the School: Inquire about your child’s progress, instances of bullying, academic performance, and any concerning behaviors observed by teachers.

    2. Find the Cause: Ask your child open-ended questions without blaming or yelling. Understand their concerns.

    3. Show Empathy: Let your child know their concerns are valid. Don’t force them to go to school.

    4. Team Up with the School: Involve the school in developing a treatment plan. They can provide resources, assign a guidance counselor, or help with transitions.

    5. Spend Extra Time: Engage in activities together and offer support with homework.

    6. Create a Daily Routine: Help your child establish and stick to a daily routine. Use a problem-solving approach to help them leave home or go to school.

    7. Seek Professional Help: Consider counseling or therapy for your child to manage their worries.

    8. Make school trips fun: Keep the journey to school calm and enjoyable by stopping at favorite places or playing their favorite music.

    In summary, school refusal is a real challenge for kids of all ages due to anxiety, stress, or life-changing situations. It needs to be addressed early on to prevent later problems, school dropouts, worsening depression, and other academic issues.


    • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2017). School Refusal. Retrieved from

    • Kearney, C. A. (2008). School absenteeism and school refusal behavior in youth: A contemporary review. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 451-471.

    • King, N. J., Bernstein, G. A., & Kersey, K. S. (2001). The assessment and management of school refusal. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(8), 197-205.

    • Maynard, B. R., Salas-Wright, C. P., & Vaughn, M. G. (2012). High school dropouts in emerging adulthood: Substance use, mental health problems, and crime. Community Mental Health Journal, 48(4), 433-441.


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