Being the parent or carer of a teenager who refuses to go to school can be incredibly challenging, putting a strain on your relationship with them and on your family and home life.
You may be unsure about how to act in the best interests of your teen while at the same time offering them effective support, but there are many things you can do to manage the situation and maintain a positive relationship. It’s also important to acknowledge your own feelings and to prioritise your own mental wellbeing.
Here’s everything you need to know about school refusal, including its signs, causes and implications, as well as resources and strategies for managing it.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is school refusal?
- Other names for school refusal
- Signs of school refusal
- What causes school refusal?
- Common feelings for parents and carers
- What happens if my teen refuses to go to school?
- Strategies for dealing with school refusal
- Self-care tips for parents and carers
- Where to go for support
- More resources
What is school refusal?
School refusal is when a young person becomes very distressed and anxious about going to school, to the point that they refuse to attend.
The signs of school refusal can include distress before attending school, health complaints, skipping classes, leaving school or repeated absenteeism. In some cases, the thought of attending school can cause physical symptoms such as vomiting, refusal to eat, shaking, or panic attacks.
School refusal is different from regular truancy. When a student is ‘wagging’ school, they hide it from their parents or carers. School refusal isn’t concealed; it’s an adamant refusal to attend that stems from the teen’s belief that they are unable to cope with school.
Other names for school refusal
School refusal is sometimes called ‘school can’t’ or ‘school phobia’. This is because it isn’t a mental health condition or a behavioural issue in itself, which the term ‘school refusal’ might imply. Rather, the condition is often an expression of underlying mental health conditions and emotional difficulties.
Young people don’t tend to use the term ‘school refusal’, and instead usually refer to the underlying causes or feelings they’re experiencing, such as being stressed, anxious or lonely.
Signs of school refusal
There are many signs of school refusal. Some of the most common ones include:
- crying or yelling related to attending school
- frequent health complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches, dizziness or fatigue
- repeated requests to go home from school
- high levels of absenteeism or frequent lateness to school
- difficulty falling asleep the night before school.
If you are noticing these behaviours in your teen, it’s important to speak to a GP. They will be able to work with your teen to rule out any health issues that may be causing these symptoms and suggest management and support options.
What causes school refusal?
The reasons for school refusal are complex, and it can start gradually or happen suddenly.
School refusal can be related to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD or PTSD, or to experiences such as difficulties at school, bullying, or major life events (such as separation, divorce, moving, being away from family, or the death of a family member). It can also be caused by worrying about slipping grades or about keeping up with schoolwork.
While school refusal isn’t related directly to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, these challenges do appear to have had an impact on the frequency of school refusal. The Youth Survey 2022 report by Mission Australia found that young people wanted more support for transitioning back to face-to-face learning and further help in recovering from the impacts of lockdowns and remote learning.
Common feelings for parents and carers
Being the parent or carer of a teen who refuses to go to school can be emotionally challenging, bringing feelings of:
- shock and disbelief that this is happening to your teen and family
- fear and worry about your teen’s future
- sadness for your teen
- loneliness and isolation
- guilt that you’re not doing ‘enough’
- fear of being judged by others
- confusion about what to do.
It’s crucial to acknowledge these feelings and to seek support if needed.
What happens if my teen refuses to go to school?
If your teen is refusing to go to school, you might worry that their interrupted education could prevent them from reaching their potential or living the life they want in the future. There can also be significant impacts on their social development as well as on their academic progress.
Parents and carers are often faced with a dilemma: should they be more forceful in making their teen attend school, or more empathetic and allow them to stay at home? Parents and carers may also experience stigma, with school refusal often not being recognised as a real issue.
Your teen’s refusal to go to school may also require you to take time off work, reduce your hours or leave your job, which can have a significant impact on your and your family’s finances and wellbeing.
Can I get into legal trouble if my child refuses to go to school?
School attendance is a legal requirement for all Australian school-aged children. The rules are different depending on the state or territory you live in, but there can be legal or financial implications for parents.
It may help to find out about your school’s attendance policies and procedures to help you avoid any legal or financial penalties while you try to address the problem.
Strategies for dealing with school refusal
There are many strategies for managing school refusal, and what works is different for everyone.
Some strategies to help you manage school refusal include:
- Take each day as it comes. Dealing with school refusal can be unpredictable: your teen may be willing to attend school one day and then the next day refuse to go. Try to take each day as it comes and to manage the issues as they arise.
- Establish a morning and evening routine. Having a routine in place can help give your teen a sense of stability. Sit down with them and work out everything that needs to be done and schedule it into a planner. Consider including relaxation techniques into your routine to help reduce stress or anxiety, such as breathing exercises or meditation. You could also try out this template to see if it helps you and your teen to create a routine.
- Focus on mental health, rather than enforcing school attendance. This can create an opportunity for you to problem solve together with your teen around their mental health and to address the issues that underlie their school refusal.
- Encourage open conversation. You can learn more about how to have open and effective communication with your teen here.
- Acknowledge what is and is not in your control. It can be helpful to help you focus on the things that are within your control and begin to let go of those that aren’t. A mental health professional can be helpful to help you manage this.
- Research alternative pathways of learning. Your teen may be better suited to other types of learning. These could include an apprenticeship or an option such as educational support classes. It may relieve their stress just to know that there are different options and pathways available to them.
- Work with your teen’s school on management plans. Inform your teen’s school about what’s happening and work together with them to find solutions. Management plans could include:
- regular meetings with your main contact at the school
- regular meetings for your teens with a school counsellor
- lesson plans being shared with you and your teen to help them keep up
- your teen being excused from activities that make them feel overwhelmed (e.g. public speaking)
- advance notice of changes happening that may affect your teens anxiety (e.g. if there will be a substitute teacher one day)
- creating a school return plan, such as returning to school for half a day initially, and then gradually increasing the amount of time they spend there
- offering modified curriculums, reduced homework or extra tuition.
Self-care tips for parents and carers
Dealing with school refusal can put a lot of pressure on parents, carers and other family members. It’s important to remember to take care of yourself as well, which will help you to support your teen through this challenging time. It will also model to your teen how important it is to practise self-care and to stay healthy and well.
The best kind of self-care is the kind that you enjoy and practise regularly. Make self-care a habit, even if it’s only for five to ten minutes a day. Self-care could be exercise, listening to music or a podcast, watching your favourite movie or TV show, going for a walk, meditation or mindfulness, or catching up with a friend.
If you feel unsure of where to start, this quiz will help you find out which type of self-care is right for you.
Finding support with school refusal
Support for teenagers
If the above strategies haven’t worked, or you feel like you need support, it may be time to look into flexible learning options or to seek professional help.
- Make an appointment with a GP, who can suggest treatment and support options, and can refer your child to a counsellor or psychologist if appropriate.
- Make sure your teen has a reliable personal support network of family and friends around them.
- Let your teen know about mental health hotlines and crisis chat services such as Lifeline and Kids Helpline so that they’re aware they have support available to them around the clock. You could also encourage or help them to make an appointment with ReachOut PeerChat, so they could chat online with a peer worker who understands.
Support for parents and carers
It’s also important to get other forms of support for yourself if you’re struggling with your teen’s school refusal. Here are some options:
- Sign up for ReachOut Parents One-on-one Coaching for free, personalised support. The coaching sessions will help you to understand your teen’s school refusal and assist you to create an action plan to help them.
- See a GP and ask for a referral to a mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychologist, who will be able to support you during this challenging time.
- The ReachOut Parents Online Community is a safe and anonymous space to discuss what’s going on for you and your teen with other parents who understand.
Resources on school refusal
Some school refusal resources include:
- School Refusal Australia offers peer support for Australian families with children and teens experiencing school refusal. They also have a private Facebook group and support meetings across Australia.
- If you’re in need of immediate support, contact Lifeline’s 24/7 Crisis Chat or call them on 13 11 14. For Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people in need of support, 13YARN (13 92 76) has counsellors available 24/7.
- ParentLine is a free telephone counselling and support service for parents and carers. Head here to find the direct phone number for your state or territory.