Conversation guide: how to talk to your teen about school refusal

Family sitting down talking

Talking to teenagers about why they refuse to attend school can be a challenge, but it’s essential to helping them manage the negative emotions they’re experiencing about school.

This conversation guide can help you to prepare to talk with your child about school refusal, and to stay on track during the conversation by remaining calm, compassionate and focused.

General tips for the conversation

  • Practise active listening – you can learn more about it here.

  • Give your child space and time to share openly, without interruption or blame.

  • Ask questions in a calm and non-judgemental way.

  • Defuse tension by keeping your cool.. If you can stay calm when the conversation gets difficult, your teen is more likely to stay calm, too. It will also help to avoid the situation where things are said in the heat of the moment, which will have the opposite effect to what you’re trying to achieve.

  • Don’t blitz attack your teen – let them know you’d like to have a sit-down conversation with them sometime in the next few days, and give them an idea of what you’d like to talk about. This way they have time to think about things beforehand and can let you know when they feel comfortable to have this conversation with you.

  • Before the talk, have a think about the topics you’d like to cover and what you’d like to achieve by the end of the conversation.

You can find more tips on how to have a difficult conversation with your teen here.

Begin with open-ended questions

Examples of conversation openers include:

  • Tell me about how you’ve been feeling lately.

  • What are some things you don’t like about being at school?

  • You’ve said you feel _______. Can you describe to me what that feels like?

  • Can you describe how you feel when you’re at school?

Or try some very direct questions

If your child is reluctant to respond to open-ended questions, that’s okay. Many people who are experiencing stressful life situations or mental health difficulties struggle to process their feelings in a way that allows them to easily identify why they feel this way.

It can be helpful to ask direct questions that help them to identify stressors and emotions. You could ask things like:

  • Is there a specific incident that has made you feel this way with someone at school?

  • Is someone at school bullying/upsetting you?

  • Is school-work upsetting you?

  • Are you having issues with a teacher?

  • Are your classes making you feel anxious?

Try some hypothetical questions

If your teen is struggling to verbalise why school makes them feel anxious, try using some hypotheticals to help them explain their feelings.

  • If you did go to school today, what, in particular, would make you feel anxious?

  • If you walked into school this morning, would you feel comfortable or anxious when …

    • you first arrive?

    • you see your friends?

    • you see a particular person?

    • the first bell rings?

    • you go to [English/Maths/Science/etc.] class?

  • If you could change one thing about school, what would it be?

It’s okay to be honest and admit you don’t know

Honesty is important in these conversations - from your teen, but from you as well.

It’s absolutely okay to admit to your child that you don’t know what to do, or what the next steps should be, or how to fix something.

Your teen will likely appreciate your honesty, and you can comfort them by assuring them there is a solution out there and you’ll be able to figure it out together.

Encourage them to talk to someone else

It can be upsetting if your child doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you, but if it happens, do your best not to show that you feel hurt.

Instead, offer some options of other people they could talk to, such as another family member, a counsellor or a mental health professional.

It can be a good idea to phrase this in a way that shows you are doing this together, so your child doesn’t feel like you are simply shifting the responsibility off onto someone else. For example:

  • I can see you’re having a tough time talking to me about this, and that’s okay.

  • Is there someone that you would feel comfortable talking to about this?

  • How about we work together to find someone else you can talk to about how you feel?

Ask questions about the future

If your child is struggling to open up about what has happened, you can shift the focus to what tomorrow looks like instead.

  • If you went to school tomorrow, what would that look like?

  • If we could maybe look at a gradual return to school, what would make that easier for you?

  • Do you imagine what finishing school would look like? What could we do together to make that happen?

  • What do you think the best thing is for us to do now?

Make conversations a regular thing

Whatever your teen is going through to make them refuse to attend school, it’s unlikely that it will be resolved after one conversation.

When you first sit down with your teen, let them know that you want to make these conversations a regular thing. You could even book time into both your schedules for a regular chat.

This way, your teen will be prepared for these conversations and will know that you are dedicated to spending time with them to try to make things better for them.

If the conversation didn’t go well

You might have tried having an open and honest conversation with your teen, but they reacted negatively.

This can be incredibly frustrating or upsetting, but remember that whether it’s the first or the twentieth time you’ve tried to have this conversation, just the fact that you’re having it is a step in the right direction.

If your child shuts down or storms off, it’s natural to want to follow them, but it’s a good idea to give them space. They have something to reflect on in the meantime, so give it time and try again later when they’re feeling calm and comfortable.

You could also try different methods of communication – perhaps try sending them an email or a text.

It can be a good idea to touch base with your child afterwards, to check in and remind them you’re still there to love and support them. You could say things like:

  • Hey, I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sorry.

  • These are the emotions and feelings I experienced, which is why I reacted the way I did.

  • I’ll work on making sure I don’t react with anger like this in the future.

  • How are you doing?

  • Is there anything I can do to help you through how you’re feeling right now?

You can find more tips on how to have a difficult conversation with your teen here.

It’s okay to ask for help

If you’ve tried to talk to your teen about school refusal and they won’t open up to you, this can be really tough.

If it feels as though nothing is working, it’s a good idea to find support – both for your teen and for yourself and your family.

You could find support by:

  • asking another family member or trusted friend to help you talk to your teen

  • talking to a school counsellor, teacher, or learning support team at your teen’s school

  • finding a mental health professional for you and your teen to talk to together – you can find information about seeing a psychologist here.

You can also find more resources and peer support via School Refusal Australia.

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