It’s common enough for kids to become shy or nervous about starting the new school year. But for some students, the anxiety is overwhelming enough that they try to avoid school at any cost. They may feign headaches and nausea, complain that their teacher hates them, or beg parents not to send them to school. Known as school-refusal behavior, this type of anxiety can keep kids out of school for weeks or months worth of school in a single year. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled school refusal, what’s behind it, and how it’s best addressed by parents.
Letting kids stay home or attending school with them (e.g. as a volunteer classroom aide) may seem helpful and supportive, but ultimately it just affirms their fear and their perceived inability to handle school alone. Antidepressant medications are sometimes prescribed for children with anxiety, but this is a controversial response. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective response to school-refusal behavior, with success rates ranging 50-70% (and higher in refusal-specialized clinics). Therapists work with kids on identifying their fears and gradually facing them, often by attending one class, then two, then three until the child is back in school full-time. Students also learn relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to help them calm down when they start feeling anxious in school
There is no single cause of school refusal that applies to all students, but for many the behavior stems from an overall sense of anxiety about the experience. Being called on in class, judged by peers, and separated from their home and parents can be stressful. School refusal often surfaces when kids start at a new school, whether after a move or as a transition from elementary to middle school. Bullying and social dynamics can also trigger or exacerbate school-related childhood anxieties. If not addressed with therapy, school refusal and the anxiety behind it all too often lead to poor academic performance, depression, and self-medication through drugs and alcohol later in life.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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