It happened again last week. 20 minutes before we were set to leave for school, my first grader told me that his foot and ankle were sore. I racked my mind trying to remember when he might have hurt it. Jumping on the bed? Pretend-sword fighting with his brother? Did he sleep on it wrong?
When I told him he was likely fine and it was time to get ready, he began limping around the house, telling me there was no way he could go to school. Then he told me that—suddenly—both of his feet hurt.
That’s when I knew he was faking it. And yet, no amount of reason would snap him out of it, and he literally would not walk, on account of his “hurt” feet. He’d woken up super-mega early that morning (5 a.m.-ish), was cranky AF, and basically collapsed in my lap crying, “I can’t go to school today. I just can’t.”
Usually I figure out a way to make him get to school, even when he refuses, but this time I gave in and let him stay home, hoping he’d maybe snag a nap at some point. As you might have guessed, within an hour, his feet were miraculously “cured.”
It’s gotten better, but my son has had trouble with school refusal since he stared school. The days that he refuses to go to school make me feel helpless, frustrated—and frankly, really freaking clueless.
Usually—unlike “hurt foot” day—I find a way to make him go to school. A promised trip to the deli for an treat after school usually works. A few times, I’ve had to leave him, crying, at the school door. It’s an awful, awful feeling.
Determined to nip this little problem in the bud before the next time, I decided to ask a child therapist for some advice. And because I know that a ton of parents deal with this sort of thing, I’m here to share what I learned.
First of all, if your child sometimes or often has trouble going to school, you are far from alone. School refusal afflicts 2 to 5 % of school-age children, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Natasha Daniels, child therapist and creator of the website Anxious Toddlers, tells me that she sees it most commonly in 5- and 6-year-olds—and also, interestingly, in 7th and 8th graders.
In order to solve the problem of school refusal, says Daniels, you need to get to the root cause. At its core, it’s usually an anxiety issue (i.e., your kid is not just being a morning-ruining jerk).
In her therapy practice, Daniels see four common causes of anxiety-related school refusal:
1. Separation Anxiety. This can strike at any age. In addition to the general fear of being away from a parent, it can manifest in your child as a worry about their own safety, or the safety of their parent.
2. Emetophobia. This is the fear of throwing up, and is a clinical disorder. Kids with emetophobia are concerned about throwing up in front of their peers, says Daniels.
3. Social Anxiety. This is one we often overlook, but kids might not want to go to school because of a fear of rejection or judgment from peers.
4. Perfectionism. Many kids who refuse to go to school are high-achievers. “Perfectionism can make kids freeze with anxiety around tests and academic performance,” says Daniels.
Of course, it goes without saying that sometimes there are real reasons for your child to be afraid. If they are being bullied, beaten up, or mistreated in any way, you need to get to the bottom of that, contact the school, and be clear that it is not okay for your child to be in a unsafe situation.
Although truly dangerous situations in school are rare, they do happen, so if your child is sharing concerning information with you, you need to take it seriously.
Even if your child’s school is safe and you know there is nothing actually wrong, you should still validate your child’s anxiety about school. For them, the feelings are real, and listening without judgment is a vital first step.
“You want to address the core fear behind the child’s school refusal,” Daniels tells me. “What is driving the behavior?”
Be sure not to get stuck in a power struggle with your kid each morning. “The question isn’t how do I get my child to go to school,” Daniels explains. “The real question is what is causing my child to not want to go to school.” Once you get to the bottom of that, you can begin to address the school refusal itself.
OK, that’s all fine and good, and I love the idea of validating feelings and offering reassurance. But what if that doesn’t provide the necessary result (i.e., my kid getting his butt to school)? What other steps can you take to coax your anxious kid out the door?
If they are complaining of physical ailments, take them to the doctor.
It may seem counterintuitive when you know they are faking, but Daniels recommends that you take your child to the doctor. First of all, they may actually have a medical issue going on, and you don’t want to let that slide. But if they don’t, which is most likely, then at least you can provide them with evidence that they aren’t really sick or injured.
Speak to the school counselor and your child’s teacher.
Your school’s staff sees this kind of thing often and won’t think less of you as a parent if your child is having these issues. I, for one, always have felt better once I tell my child’s teacher that he is anxious because I know he’ll get a little extra TLC while I’m gone. The school counselor and even the school nurse can be involved in a plan to get your child more comfortable at school. Even if they spend half their day in the nurse’s office, it’s better for them to learn to stay at school.
Take your child to a therapist.
If you’ve taken these measures, and nothing works, it’s wise to try a child therapist. You can get a recommendation from your school’s counselor. If you are concerned about cost, therapy is covered by many insurances, and therapists often offer payment plans. Sometimes only a few sessions are needed to pinpoint the problem and come up with a plan.
Don’t keep your kid home.
This is one where we all fail sometimes. A mental health day can be fine now and then, but Daniels says it’s imperative that you don’t regularly keep your child home when they are showing school anxiety. “Anxiety loves avoidance and once it gets a taste of it, it doesn’t like to stop.” Holy crap, that makes a whole lot of sense, doesn’t it?
“School refusal is a difficult behavior to tackle and the longer a child is out of school, the harder it will be to get them back on track,” Daniels says. She recommends you contact your school guidance counselor if school refusal goes on for more than a few days, so that you can tackle the problem right away.
I don’t know about you, but I feel a whole lot more prepared to deal with with this issue should it come up again. I’m going to start an ongoing conversation with my kid (not just as we are heading out the door) about his general school anxieties, and I will think twice about keeping him home again–certainly for more than one day.
Oh, and if all else fails, we’ll resort to treats and some extra TLC after school. Because let’s be real, we could all use that from time to time.
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