School Refusal Is A Real Problem In Many Families, Including Ours. Here's How We Cope.

by Meredith Ethington

I first realized my son had more than your run-of-the-mill “I don’t want to go to school” blues the morning that he was fully dressed, coat and backpack on, ready to walk out the door, and curled up on the floor in a fetal position crying hysterically.

This year has been rough for my 8-year-old. While he doesn’t refuse to go to school every day, he complains often enough that I know he is suffering from some sort of anxiety surrounding school.

We’ve peppered him with questions over the last several months that cover everything from bullying, to worrying, to friend issues. He can’t quite pinpoint it himself. He just knows that he doesn’t want to go.

He comes home from school happy and smiling, but getting him there is a battle. It often starts the night before as I’m putting him to bed. It’s usually something subtle like, “My tummy hurts,” or “I feel weird.” We’ve been dealing with it long enough that I know immediately he’s prepping me for a fight in the morning. And sometimes, he just says it outright: “I don’t want to go to school.”

It’s been quite the challenge for our family. You see, my kid gets straight A’s, yet he claims he’s not bored. He has lots of friends, yet that’s not enough to get him to go. His teachers have told us two years in a row that he is a model student and very good at obeying the rules and staying on task, yet he gets very bothered by overly strict environments. He’s told me that he feels like he has to be perfect.

The morning when he was curled up on the floor crying, I had tried to let him stay home for an hour or so. During that time, I prepped him, letting him know he’d still have to go to school by 10 a.m. He played, ate snacks, and was laughing with his little brother, but as soon as I said it was time to go, he fell into an emotional puddle on the floor.

I’ve talked to his teachers about this behavior over the last two years, and we’ve discussed it with the school principal. They are supportive and as helpful as they can be, but they aren’t here every morning helping me get my child out the door. It’s a battle I have to fight at least once a week, sometimes every single day. Therapy has been suggested.

It turns out school refusal is actually a real thing that many parents are facing. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, “children with an unreasonable fear of school may feel unsafe staying in a room by themselves; display clinging behavior; display excessive worry and fear about parents or about harm to themselves; shadow the mother or father around the house; have difficulty going to sleep; have nightmares; have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of animals, monster, burglars; fear being alone in the dark; or have severe tantrums when forced to go to school.”

We’ve experienced almost all of these with my son. However, some days are great. He’ll get up and get himself ready, and skip out the door a happy boy. And I’ll think we’ve turned a corner only to find out a few days later when he won’t get out of bed that we’re still in the thick of it.

The battle parents face when their child doesn’t like school is a heartbreaking one. There is nothing worse than forcing your child to do something you know they not only don’t want to do, but is also something that makes them physically ill sometimes.

But now that we’re into our second year of dealing with school refusal, we’ve figured out a few ways to cope:

After long breaks from school, his school refusal is often worse. Now we take time to talk about going back to school during a break so that it is easier for him to accept.

We involve his teachers. Communicating with your child’s teachers is so important. For the most part, my son’s teachers have been empathetic and helpful. They have even come up with specific classroom jobs that he looks forward to doing as an incentive.

I have also taught my son coping skills. I realize his fears are legitimate in his mind. I have helped him learn how to practice deep breathing, refocus his mind, and think about things that make him happy when he is struggling. We often count down how many days are left until the weekend or the next long break. That helps him see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes, it just takes some tough love. My son, like most kids who refuse to go to school, is usually fine once he gets there and gets going with his typical routine. This means I have to dig in my heels and not give in. Kids know when they are pulling on your heartstrings, and although this issue probably will always make my heart ache, I know that it’s what he needs. We’ve also had many, many talks about the fact that school is just a part of his life now, and he’s got to find a way to enjoy it, and we will help him figure it out and support him.

I don’t know that this issue is going away anytime soon for our family, but I take comfort in knowing that we are not alone — even though my heart breaks for other parents and children who are dealing with school refusal. It can feel truly isolating when you see all the other kids happily trotting out the door to school while your child is a mess on the kitchen floor.

If you’re a parent struggling with school refusal, know that you are not alone. There is someone out there who knows how exhausting it can be to fight that battle every single day.