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What to do when your child refuses school

Jo Fitzsimmons

03 Jun, 2019


When 'I hate school' is more than ‘I don’t like it much’. What do you do if your child refuses or has a phobia of school?


I was told my school days would be the best of my life. I am delighted to say that is not true!

I was fortunate enough to enjoy school, for the most part, but since I left I have enjoyed life far more.

But for many of our young people, school isn’t just a place they don’t like much: it is a place they hate. It causes them daily fear, anxiety, panic attacks, poor mental health and exhaustion. It can be a place they don’t feel safe, a place of bullying, mocking, and immense stress.

As a youth worker and a parent of teenagers, I have heard thousands of young people (and I do mean that!) express their dislike of school: on a spectrum of ‘I would rather be at home’ through to ‘if I have to go again I will do something drastic’.

Think about it: as adults we have all had jobs we dislike, but after a few years we would have said ‘enough’ and got out. School doesn’t offer that option: it’s a 14 year ‘job’ from which you can’t resign. For anyone living under that daily stress, it takes its toll on physical health, emotional wellbeing, and mental health that will eventually culminate in illness of some form.

School refusal

Around 90,000 young people in the UK suffer from school phobia (2014 stats): an intense fear of school. This form of school refusal is hard to get true statistics for due to the nature of how Local Education Authorities report it, but it is thought to be much nearer 300,000 in 2018.

If your teenager, or a teenager you are supporting, is refusing to go to school:

  • Listen to them. None of us like to be pushed into a corner as then we lash out or become more withdrawn.
  • Take it seriously. By the time they are teenagers, they are usually too tall for us to try and carry to the car and then through the school gate! If they are refusing to go: it is a for a real reason. Something is going very wrong in their world: find out what. Speak to school – what have they observed?
  • If your teenager isn’t ready to talk: find non- verbal ways of communicating with them. Emojis work great for daily check-ins on how they are feeling; ask them to text you song lyrics that explain how they feel right now; ask them about bullying incidents; if they will let you hug them – hug them a lot (if they don’t like that, find another way of reassuring them that you have got their back).
  • Work with school. If your child is off for more than 15 days, school will inform Educational Welfare who might start issuing a fine so getting your child ‘signed off’ from school by your GP (in the same way you might be signed off from work) is vital. This reduces the parental stress of fear of impending fines but also gives evidence that your teenager needs more support.
  • Counselling. Any form of intense anxiety or fear needs to be bought into the open when the teenager is ready; it might be that your GP refers to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for counselling. If not, you may have to access it yourself – the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has a section for counselling for teenagers, which would be a good place to start.
  • Don’t push too far too fast. Education is often put on a pedestal above mental health: if your teenager had mumps you wouldn’t send them to school: if your teenager is refusing school because they are feeling unwell emotionally and mentally – let’s wait until they are feeling a little better before we return them to it. Before a return is considered the underlying issues, fears and anxieties need to be addressed otherwise the young person will be back to square one after their first day. They won’t be learning anything until their brain feels able to concentrate which means making them feel safe, calm and able to concentrate. It might take some time – be ready for the long haul. It is the duty of the school to provide education at home if the young person is off school long-term due to physical or emotional wellbeing.

If you are supporting a teenager who is unable to attend school due to their mental health, consider how you can support the whole family: it might be that you can engage the young person so that parents can still work; it might be explaining to siblings why they have to go to school when their brother/sister doesn’t; or perhaps ensuring the young person doesn’t get ‘forgotten’ by friends as they go through this challenging time.

Next time a teenager tells us they hate school: let’s listen.

For more support and information:

  • https://www.nopanic.org.uk/childrens-anxieties-phobias/
  • https://www.schoolrefusal.co.uk
  • https://youngminds.org.uk/find-help/for-parents/parents-guide-to-support-a-z/parents-guide-to-support-school-refusal/

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