Helping Children Cope with School Phobia:

A Ten-Tip Special

School phobia, sometimes called school avoidance or refusal, can be described as fears or anxieties that lead a child or adolescent to refuse to attend school. Young children (approximately ages 5 – 7) often develop school phobia as a result of being fearful of separating from their parent(s), called separation anxiety. Separation anxiety can also develop if your child recognizes that you are upset about them attending school. Either way, a fear begins to develop in your child, which can result in school avoidance unless it is quickly handled. Left untreated, these fears could have the potential to be problematic for both the child and parents through many years of their education. Other causes of school phobia (for a child of any age) can be due to home changes (including illness/death/accident of a family member, divorce, new baby, or a family move) or school problems (including the fear of mean teachers or students, anxiety relating to their school performance and being called on in class, and the fear of undressing/showering for gym in front of other students).

Sometimes these fears don’t appear to have an obvious cause, for example, they tend to have a higher likelihood of occurring after an extended absence from school, such as a vacation or illness. After an extended period of time away from school, returning to school can be quite traumatic. Especially for the older child, they may realize that their friendships, teachers, and classes have changed. Because they have spent so much time home (where they are closely cared for by a parent), going to school takes them away from their “comfort zone” and the close attention from their parent. Ultimately, they desire to stay within that comfort zone, rather than returning to the social atmosphere of other kids and teachers, which can bring on more anxiety. When all this parental attention is removed, feelings of insecurity may begin to surface. For the child that stayed home because of an illness, they may associate going to school, being on the bus, and going to class as a place that causes them to be sick, because it brings back feelings of nausea, vomiting, frequent trips to the school bathroom, and feelings of panic (which caused them to stay home from school in the first place).

Whatever the cause may be, it’s important to get the help you and your child need to get through this difficult time. You can call on the help of the school guidance counselor, school psychologist and/or private mental health practitioner to help you get through these problems. To get you started, here are ten tips in dealing with a child who may be exhibiting symptoms of school phobia.

1. Recognize the symptoms

As a parent, you can often recognize typical signs of school phobia. When it’s time to get ready for school, children will cry persistently and ask (sometimes beg) you to allow them to stay home. They may appear to have a panic attack when you don’t allow them to stay home and exhibit symptoms including sweating, dizziness, racing heart, vomiting, diarrhea, or shakiness. When you try to force them to leave the house, they may fight back and physically refuse. If you do get them to school, sometimes the child will flee the school in an attempt to return home (in an extreme case). As a result, a child with school phobia often experiences disruption in other areas of his/her life. When thinking about school, your child may report having headaches, an upset stomach, diarrhea, or body aches. You may find that these episodes occur on school nights and Sunday nights, when they are anticipating going to school the next day. S/he may appear to be sad, not wish to participate in activities with other children, and have difficulty concentrating or staying on task.

2. Talk to your child

It’s important to be aware of the struggles your child may be facing, either at home or at school. If your child is showing signs of school phobia, try talking to them about their fears to see if you can simply work it out together. Sometimes simple assurance, coping skills, and problem-solving is exactly what they need to make it easier to go to school. By recognizing what triggers these fears, you can know how to help your child through it, whether it is from you or a mental health professional. Some triggers that can lead to school phobia may include:

  • Starting school for the first time
  • Moving to a new area, starting a new school, and/or needing to make new friends
  • Being off from school for an extended period of time
  • Bereavement (of a person or a pet)
  • Feeling threatened by the arrival of a new baby
  • Traumatic experiences including being a victim of sexual or physical abuse, or witnessing a trauma
  • Problems at home, including a family member becoming ill
  • Parents having marital problems including separation or divorce
  • Violence in the home towards the child or one of the parents
  • Having social problems, difficulty making friends, or having very little (or no) friends
  • Being teased or bullied at school
  • Being unpopular or being chosen last in gym

Regardless of the reason, do your best to get to the bottom of the problem. Perhaps your child is afraid to go to school because s/he is being bullied. Maybe they didn’t finish their homework and are worried of being called on in class. Or maybe the reasons go deeper, in which case you may need to work harder to find the problem. Let them know that any problem can be solved, but the first step is to tell you so that you can help them!

3. Use reassurance as a parenting tool

When your child is resisting going to school, use reassurance as a way of making them feel better. Typically, a child with school phobia will experience discomfort, anxiety, excessive worry, and distress when getting ready for school in the morning. You can reassure them that they will be fine once they get over the part that they dread. For example, if they are expressing worry about handing a homework assignment in, you can explain that they will feel better once they get to school, start their day, and it will be over before they know it. After you are successful at reassuring your child, distract him/her so that s/he is not constantly focused on the negative aspects of going to school. The longer they dwell on these concerns, the worse they’ll feel, and the harder it will be to get them to school.

You can reassure them about their specific concerns, help them find something to look forward to, and find a way to help them gather the courage to go to school. Finally, tell your child you are proud of him/her for being brave and going to school, and let them know that you love them. Your reaction will be very important. If the child senses that you have anxiety about the situation, or they feel any indication that you want them to stay home, they will use that as a stronger sign that they should stay home. If you are confident, strong, and nurturing (but firm), you will have the most success at consistently helping your child go to school.

4. Help your child find something to look forward to

You know your child better than anybody. Help them find reasons to look forward to their day. Finding something that can excite them and get them motivated will be very important. If you’re having trouble finding something to look forward to at school, you can use an after-school activity as motivation. It’s important to let them know that the activity can only happen if they go to school, so they understand they can’t stay home all day and then participate in the activity after school. Otherwise, you are only rewarding the problem, which doesn’t help to find a solution. By helping to find something they can look forward to, you are motivating them to overcome their worries, but also distracting them away from the negative thoughts. This can be an important tool in helping your child overcome their anxieties.

5. Set up a consistent routine

For a child that is having difficulty going to school, it might be beneficial to setup a morning routine that can be followed every day. The more you stay on this routine, the more it will become a habit for the child, and the easier it will be to “go through the motions” and help them go to school each day. Part of this routine should include setting the same bedtime each night and the same wake-up time each morning. (That way, you can ensure your child is getting enough rest and can wake up feeling rested. This will make it easier when you are trying to wake your child in the morning.) In addition, you may want to structure the morning activities to be the same each day, including getting dressed, eating breakfast, and any other activities that need to be done before heading off to school. Keeping with the same routine each day makes it easier for the child, less room for change and resistance, and less conflict for both of you.

6. Encourage social situations

You may notice that your child wants to spend time with others considerably less than s/he used to, especially when you are not present. S/he may stop having friends over, attending social events, or expresses a stronger desire to stay home. You may also notice a stronger attachment to you, and is more worried when you are not together. It’s important that you encourage their involvement with outside activities, including social time with friends, involvement with activities and/or sports, and interaction with people other than the immediate family. If your child is displaying signs of school phobia, his/her desire to spend less time with other people and more time at home may only add to these problems.

7. Be cautious about rewarding their behavior

While it is extremely important to reinforce your child’s positive behavior (i.e. getting ready for school, not complaining about school, and actually going to school), you don’t want to fall into the trap of rewarding too much. This tends to happen when parents give their child something (tangible) with the intention of encouraging (or bribing) them, as a desperate attempt to get them to go to school. Children are smart! They start using this to their own advantage and it only becomes a bargaining game to them. You may find that when you reward your child for every positive behavior, the child then learns they can “get” certain things when they achieve the desired behavior. Therefore, they learn, in essence, that they can bribe you. Doing the desired behavior becomes a game of “what will you give me if I go to school?” rather than going to school for the appropriate reasons. This can lead down a tedious and difficult path! Instead, focus on more verbal praise (rather than material possessions) as rewards and as they begin to improve, praise them only intermittently rather than on each occasion. This will make them work for your praise, rather than making it into their own game. In addition to praising them for good behavior, be sure you are not praising or otherwise reinforcing negative behavior. If they are refusing to go to school and they see that you allow this, you are indirectly rewarding this and the behavior will only continue. The school administration and a mental health practitioner can help you find ways to appropriately reward your child so that your efforts are successful.

8. Help build your child’s confidence

Many children that refuse to attend school because of social situations or fears will do everything they can to avoid leaving home. They may feign illness (or become so upset that they become sick), come up with excuses not to attend school, bargain with you so that you allow them to stay home, and react so emotionally (and sometimes violently) until you give in and allow them to stay home. Children who refuse to attend school tend to have low self-esteem and as a result, feel great anxiety and/or fear about the social aspects of school. These anxieties could be due to their peers (feeling like they do not fit in or are accepted, are being pressured to do or say things that are uncomfortable, or are being teased or bullied) or school itself (worrying about academic performance or speaking in front of a classroom full of judgmental peers or teachers). In cases such as these, it is especially important to help your child become otherwise involved in social activities. Think about their individual interests and help them become involved in a team, league, or activity that involves other children their own age (either through the school or your local community). When your child increases his or her positive interactions with others, you are helping them to build confidence and eventually, make it easier for them to attend school willingly. The key is to find ways to improve their self-esteem through praise, encouragement, and involvement in activities in which they can excel.

9. Include the teacher in the treatment

It may be helpful to involve your child’s teacher with the difficulties you are having. If the teacher becomes aware of any of the above situations occurring, s/he may be able to help with any problems happening at school. They can also become an ally for you, and help you find ways to encourage your child to feel better about coming to school.

10. Psychological Treatment

If you notice that your child is having increasing difficulty, they may be having fears and anxieties that are out of your control. If you find this to be the case, you may want to call on the help of a school psychologist and/or private mental health practitioner. They can work with you and your child to discover where these anxieties are coming from, develop a plan to reduce these feelings and help them feel better about themselves, and ultimately help the child go back to school. In some cases, it may be necessary for them to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and given an anti-anxiety medication, at least temporarily.

School phobias are very scary, for both children and parents. These strategies can get you started in your effort at resolving this difficult childhood experience.

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