School avoidance, also known as school refusal or school phobia, is not uncommon, as data suggests that it occurs in among 2 to 4% of all children, from early childhood through high school. According to Stanford Children’s Hospital school avoidance is “a term used to describe the signs of anxiety a school-aged child has and his or her refusal to go to school.” There is a wide range of natural consequences that can occur when an adolescent repeatedly misses school (e.g., falling behind academically, diminished self-confidence, social isolation, friendship difficulties, etc.). School avoidance is a serious problem that can worsen rapidly.
To help a young person manage school avoidance, it is essential to be able to recognize its signs and symptoms. School avoidance is a cyclical pattern. It allows a child or teen to escape distressing aspects of the school day, which provides immediate short-term relief, but robs them of the opportunity to realize that it is possible to learn how to cope with school-related anxiety. To deal with school avoidance and help your teen stop the vicious cycle of school refusal be mindful of the following:
- Routine is key: developing a morning routine and adhering to it on both schooldays and weekends can help to clarify expectations.
- Encourage an open line of communication: try to help your teenager identify the cause or causes of his or her school avoidance. Naming and addressing the underlying cause may help minimize the fear surrounding attending school.
- Offer unconditional support and love to your teen: although it can be infuriating to deal with a school avoidant child, it is advantageous to bear in mind that they are experiencing severe internal turmoil.
- Be kind, but firm: it is important for your child to understand that attending school is obligatory.
Some young people may benefit from additional support and/ or require treatment. The first step to professionally treating school phobia is for the young person to be medically evaluated to rule out the presence of a physical illness. Provided the teen is physically healthy, there are a variety of subsequent treatment options available to help navigate school refusal. The purpose of treatment for young people struggling with school phobia is to provide them with applicable coping mechanisms to deal with the inevitable pain and discomforts that can occur in one’s life, particularly in educational settings. Everyone is different and will require a customized treatment plan to achieve the best possible recovery outcome. Certain therapeutic modalities that are commonly integrated into treatment plans for adolescents struggling with school avoidance may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), and/ or expressive arts therapies. The specifics of one’s treatment process is entirely personal and will be exclusively informed and guided by each young person’s distinct and nuanced needs.
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Seeking help is never easy, but you are not alone! If you or someone you know needs mental health treatment, we strongly encourage you to reach out for help as quickly as possible. It is not uncommon for many mental health difficulties to impact a person’s life, long term. Pursuing support at the beginning of one’s journey can put the individual in the best position to learn how to manage themselves in a healthy way so they can go on to live happy and fulfilling lives.
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