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What do I do when my child refuses to go to school?

5 Tips on managing school refusal

  1. Recognize that no matter what your child says, school (whether they are going or not going) is a source of complicated stress and pressure for them. This is increasingly true in the adolescent years. They are balancing social interactions with peers and adults, academic pressure, future uncertainties and a host of other challenges, in a time when their lives are often significantly online. The tendency to feel less than, left out, not good enough is likely stronger than ever for this generation. We want to make sure and validate that and even if they reject this idea, keep in mind it is still true and find some empathy for how it feels to be stuck and under pressure.
  2. Own and learn to work with your own stress and expectations. As parents your plate is full and having a child/teen that’s refusing school is a stress in itself and can complicate and hinder other responsibilities. This is normal but as adults it is our responsibility to manage this stress. Bringing our stress, frustration, upset etc. to the already stressed teen typically just compounds the problem as many parents can attest to. Make sure you take stock of your stress management skills and make some time for yourself in this area.
  3. Be curious about the reason for refusal but know you can’t read their mind or manage their circumstances. Ask questions from a place of calm curiosity. If you don’t feel you can do that or have a hard time maintaining it in the moment, take some time for yourself to explore why. There can be fear, concern, fatigue, annoyance and unrealistic expectations that cause us to become short or reactive in these situations. Make time to own and validate that for yourself. Then ask open-ended questions and give them time and space to think about their answers. “What about getting up and going to school is hard for you? There could be more than one reason and it’s ok if you need time to think about it.” “What do you think you may need to help make it easier?” “I’m here to support you, let me know if you have some ideas of what you may need from me.” This could help create a different conversation. Try not to be attached to answers, you are planting seeds for them and showing up openly to increase the chance they may utilize your support, not trying to get to the bottom of things in order to change them.
  4. See what support may be available from the school and use that as you’re able. All schools are different, many have someone in a role of counselor or advisor that you could communicate with. Reach out and see what type of support, boundaries or consequences they offer. Don’t interfere with or undermine any school consequences unless your child is experiencing an exception and needs some unique support. If there is a pattern of refusal, problem solve with the school and back-up consequences when possible. This can help your child/teen generalize the need to accept some limits and work within structure and different types of authority figures.
  5. Look at the boundaries and limits you set and the privileges/consequences you implement. Teens are not generally motivated by our words, emotions or relationships. In fact if we reactively or intentionally use these to motivate them or hinder problem behavior (ie: Please get up and go to school or I’ll be disappointed.) we may in fact then complicate dynamics, increase shame and frustration and make things more personal than they are. That being said, when we do find we react emotionally it is important to own it and speak to it: “I apologize for snapping at you this morning, I was feeling frustrated because I'm worried about why you’re not going to school and I’ve been late for work all week.”

    Teens do tend to be motivated by clear and tangible rewards, privileges or the removal of them. Look at what your teen has or is getting that is a want not a need. This can look like money, phones, other various screens, video games, a car, credit cards, other online purchasing apps, etc. If they are not going to school but still have access to Netflix, door dash, etc., it will be hard to create change. Tie privileges to behaviors, for example, school refusal equals no screen time whereas a day of going to school with caught up homework means fun apps can get turned on on the phone, or there can be access to the car, etc. They may choose not to care and to lose a privilege, let them make that choice for a period of time. See if they stick with it. Teens do not generally like feeling controlled and in reality, this is a way to leverage them to get to school. So give it a bit and see if they come around.

If you feel you have already been doing the above with consistency and your child is regularly refusing school, you may need more support. Our coaches have decades of experience working with parents looking for more tools to effect change. Reach out for a free consultation to learn more, or share this with someone who could benift from these tips.

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Solutions Parenting Support, LLC is a nationally recognized parent support and transition program assisting parents and families with straightforward and compassionate skills based support prior to, during and after wilderness therapy and/or residential treatment. Solutions is a dynamic team of parent coaches who have had extensive careers as therapists in wilderness therapy or residential treatment before turning their talents towards coaching parents around the globe. The team is family system focused and are licensed professional therapists and/or social workers each with 15-30 years of experience working in wilderness therapy programs, varying levels of residential treatment programming, and transitional support.

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