What I wish my friends & family understood about my child’s school refusal

raising an anxious teenager

Having a child who refuses to go to school means you find yourself in a very difficult situation.

You need support around you to help you support your child and this is where friends can be a great help.

Yet, dealing with an emotional child who suffers from school refusal means you often find yourself drifting away from your friends. They don’t understand what is going on, which is understandable. Unless you have a child who suffers from school refusal it can be hard to understand.

School Refusal

When I say my child suffers from school refusal I mean that it is a condition they suffer from. School refusal is the refusal to attend school because of emotional distress. It’s not that the child is being naughty, refusing to go to school or even playing truant. A child who suffers from school refusal is physically unable to force themselves to go to school, no matter how much they may want to go. Don’t laugh because it’s true. These children DO want to go to school, but their fears and anxieties are so severe that they cannot. Just the mere thought of going to school can bring such severe anxiety that the child panics and makes themselves physically sick. Truant children generally have no feelings of fear towards school, often feeling angry or bored with it instead. 

When my children were younger, I assumed, just like you probably do, that if children didn’t go to school it was because the parents weren’t strict enough with them. Whenever my children used to say they didn’t want to go to school or that they felt unwell, I would send them to school with promises if they still felt unwell I would come and get them. I knew that most of the time, once they got to school they would forget about feeling unwell, once they were with their friends. I would judge other parents who didn’t send their children, thinking them bad parents.

It’s natural to think that, we’re taught to believe that a child should be in school and that’s it. I understand that you’ve even thought that about me when your child has told you that yet again my child wasn’t in school. I don’t blame you and in your shoes, I would probably have thought the same thing.

What I want you to know

This is why I am writing this post. I want you to understand why my child has missed so much school. Why I don’t punish my child when they don’t go to school. I used to, especially when they were younger. I always wanted to make being home on a school day more boring than being at school. If they were too ill for school, they were too ill for technology and they had to lie in bed all day!

I can understand you thinking “I’d make them go” and believe me, if my child didn’t suffer from school refusal then I would make them go to school. I worry about their future, their education, their exams and their future employment. Just like you do. But for my child, their mental health is more important than their grades or their education!

My child just can’t go to school. I don’t understand it fully myself. Yet I see my child sobbing in fear, begging me not to make them go. Screaming and crying. Making themselves physically sick.  Hiding under their blankets, ignoring me, almost catatonic. I’ve seen them react in fear, react in anger, hurting themselves or damaging walls. I’ve sat there for hours, talking to them, trying to calm them down and ease their fears. “What are you so afraid of?” I ask, my own heartbreaking as they sob. But they cannot answer. They don’t know why they feel so scared or anxious. Anxiety is hard enough for adults to understand, let alone a teenager who is struggling with puberty, or an even younger child who doesn’t have the understanding.

Friendships

What about friends? You may ask. My child doesn’t have any. Hasn’t for years. They suffer from social anxiety, they don’t know how to react around children their own age. They don’t know how to make friends, how to become part of the gang, or even how to keep friends. Their social anxiety makes them say the wrong thing, even just the fear that they might say the wrong thing is enough.

I watched my child once in a group setting. A group of peers were stood in a group laughing and joking and my child wanted to join in. They didn’t know how and slowly circled the group, trying to join in the conversation, trying to be acknowledged. The more my child tried to join in, the sillier and more annoying their behaviour became. The more annoying their behaviour became, the more the group shut them out. In the end, disheartened and upset, my child came to me and asked to go home and never again attended that club. I don’t blame the children, they didn’t understand why my child was behaving the way they were.

To them, my child was just being their usual annoying self and they themselves were only 11. To my child, it was rejection. The horrible voice in their mind, the dementor on their shoulder whispering lies. “Nobody like you. You’re useless. You can’t even make friends. Look at them laughing at you. They hate you. They think you’re so ugly and annoying. You might as well go home because you’ll never have any friends!” My heart breaks as I see all this!

When my child does make a friend, which they did last year. That friend then becomes an obsession. They have to be with that friend constantly, in the same class, have the same interests, hang out with them constantly. School attendance might even improve, they might even start going out and hanging out.

But that’s a lot of pressure to put on another teenager. The knowledge that they are their friends’ strength is draining, having to be with this friend constantly and never be able to get away from them and having to deal with their silly behaviour. It’s stressful for the child and of course, it means that the friendship will eventually fall apart. The friend might say something, in frustration, which my child takes the wrong way.

My child might do something which is taken the wrong way and because of their poor social skills, they might not even understand they have done anything wrong. It might even be something as simple as they have drifted apart in the time that they haven’t seen each other during my child’s school refusal, especially if they live in different towns. But to my child, losing that friend is the end of the world!

Force

You may think that I’m being too soft on them. That I should force my child to go to school. That I should shout at them, drag them out of bed. Believe me, I’ve tried all that and doesn’t work. We just end up in a double meltdown, my child and myself, sobbing and broken.

Parents are often blamed. We’re easy scapegoats. It’s easier to blame parents than a system that is overworked, underfunded and doesn’t work.

Professionals, teachers, friends, family, all well-meaning say the same thing. Punish them if they don’t go to school! Why should they be allowed to sit there on their Xbox or computer when they’re not at school. I’ve even tried that! My child would rather hide in their bed, with nothing to do, than go to school! That is how bad their fear and anxiety is.

Let me ask you a question. If you were off work for your mental health, would it help you if the doctor told you that you couldn’t have your phone, laptop, TV, Internet etc? Would it help you feel better or would it make you feel worse? You may say it’s different because you’re an adult, but why is that? They need distractions to help them push their fears away. Using their Xbox as a distraction is better than using other more extreme ways to deal with their anxieties.

I don’t want to see my child self-abusing because they can find no other outlet for their fears. Nor do I want to get into a battle that I cannot win. Most importantly, I want my child to trust me and be able to open up to me. How can I help them, if they don’t trust me and can’t talk to me? How can they open up to me if all they feel I do is punish them for something they cannot control?

What else have you tried?

I’ve tried everything I can think of. I have seen teachers, educational psychologists, psychologists, counsellors, CAMHS, GPs the lot. The problem is that CAMHS have long waiting lists, they are underfunded and overstretched. Even when you do get to see them, the help might not be what you need. There is no magic wand to make it all go away. No magic wand to magically cure your child. All you can do is offer support.

I’ve become an expert at documenting everything, researching avenues and conditions, trying new ways of helping my child. I’ve helped friends who I see are starting the same journey and don’t know how to navigate the stormy seas of their child’s anxiety. The most shocking part of that is how many parents are struggling yet childhood mental health is only just starting to be acknowledged. Even then, school refusal is not widely accepted as a problem with childhood anxiety. The child is just seen as naughty and the parents as the one at fault for not forcing them to go.

Don’t you get into trouble?

Yes. I can get into trouble because my child doesn’t go to school. I could be fined, prosecuted and I could even face prison. Worst case scenario I have heard of other parents in the similar situation being threatened with social services and having their children removed from their care as their seen as neglecting their child by not forcing them to go to school.

I am my child’s advocate and I do everything I can do to help them. Yet people need to realise that their mental health is just as important as their physical and emotional welfare! Why do we expect children to do something that adults don’t have to do? If an adult doesn’t like their job, they change it. If an adult is struggling with their mental health they’re given medication and time off work to recover. Yet children are still expected to go to school, no matter how poor their mental health is! Why are they not as important as adults?

How can we help?

It can be emotionally and physically draining dealing with an anxious child. It’s harder to leave the house than you might think. You might think I can leave a teenager home alone all day, but I cannot. My child doesn’t have the emotional maturity to be left alone. I even have to make sure that all my medications are locked away so that they have to ask if they want anything.

It’s also isolating and I find myself drifting away from friendships and isolating myself further. It’s easier to be by myself with my child than deal with the constant questions and advice about getting my child to school. I know you are only trying to help and I love you for it but sometimes I need a break from thinking about it. Listen to me if I want to discuss it, but don’t make it all we talk about.

Come to my house to see how I am, even if it’s only for a quick cuppa! I’d love to see you and catch-up with you and your family but sadly I can’t meet up with you like I used to do. I can’t leave my house for very long in case my child needs me and I certainly can’t hold down a job, yet I often feel judged for not working. Especially now all my children are in school full time.

Think about the behaviour you have witnessed from my child, can you help me unpick it? I need to understand the triggers to help me help my child. I know it’s not just a tantrum and I need you to understand that as well. They may be behaving like a threenager, but just like a threenager it is their frustration and lack of control that is forcing their behaviour.

Understand that my child can’t manage school. Attending other activities is still important, so please invite us out to join you. We will try to join you but understand if we don’t that we wanted to and don’t stop inviting us. Even just being invited can make a huge difference and help us stop feeling so isolated.

Please remember that my child, despite their age and size, is still just a child. A frightened child who doesn’t know what to do and is scared by all these scary emotions that they don’t understand swirling around their head.

I know its hard but please avoid making judgements. I know so many people already are. Consider how you would feel if I were you. You might think of something which I haven’t yet. You have a wider view than I do as I’m too close to it.

Yes, school is important but it isn’t everything. There is more to education than school and you might have ideas that might help.

To help my child I have had to give up my hopes and dreams and even the chance to go back to work. I do this out of love for my child and I know that one day things will get better. Something I remind myself of every single day. I have to, it’s the only thing that helps me get through the day. And when my child gives me a hug and tells me “I love you mum. Thank you for supporting me and never giving up on me no matter what!” it means everything to me and makes all my sacrifices worthwhile!

As a family we are struggling to deal with a ship that’s gone off course and now needs to find it’s own way. But it doesn’t mean that we don’t want to lose contact with our friends and family.

Just as our child needs support, so do we as a family. Even if it’s just inviting one of our other children round to your house for a little bit. It’s hard for my younger children having to deal with their older sibling and it can be hard to find the time to give them the time and the support that they need to have. It can be isolating for them as well as they may be too embarrassed to have their friends over to play because of their siblings’ behaviour or they may not want to leave the house as they don’t want to leave us.

Dealing with a child with mental health issues is hard. But what makes it harder is that it isn’t a recognised condition. If I told you that my child had a different condition, something you’d heard of, you might be able to understand or at least sympathise. Yet it’s the same with a child who has a mental health issue. We still need that support and understanding and the knowledge that we’re not being judged as poor parents!

 

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “What I wish my friends & family understood about my child’s school refusal

  1. Please consider this is a Spiritual issue……
    Fear, Anxiety, Self harm, Rejection, unloved are not from Jesus but from the Devil.
    John chapter 10 verse 10 teaches us…..
    The Devil, Satan, the thief, the accuser comes to Kill, Steal and Destroy, Jesus came that we’d have life to the Full, Life more abundantly.

    Your article shares
     The horrible voice in their mind, the dementor on their shoulder whispering lies.
    “Nobody likes you.
    You’re useless.
    You can’t even make friends.
    Look at them laughing at you.
    They hate you.
    They think you’re so ugly and annoying.
    This is all from the Devil

    Once people get deliverance, set free from Fear, Anxiety etc and begin to understand Jesus will NEVER leave them nor turn his back on them that Jesus is the same yesterday today and tomorrow there will major changes in ones life. That God has a plan for there life, a plan to prosper them not harm them, plans to give you hope and a future.
    Here comes Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness and Self Control.

    Have faith on God Jesus says Truly I tell you if you Speak to your mountain/s problems and In Jesus Name command whatever the issue is to be cast, thrown into the Ocean, Sea and beleives on there heart and doesnt doubt it WILL be done for you
    Mark 11:23

    With God nothing is Impossible
    Like 1:37
    It’s onwards and upwards
    In love peace and truth
    Regards Matt

  2. In similar boat,I just wanted to reach out to you.you aren’t alone fighting battles there’s an army of other invisible a doing the same day in day out,scared of judgement.scared for their child.the future….
    I don’t know if you use Mumsnet but a few of us offload on mental health thread labelled support for parents/carers of an anxious child.
    Please feel free to join us
    Sending hugs and prayers

  3. My daughter is 12, she is dealing with anxiety and school refusal for years now. For the last year, she was at home, many weeks in her bed unable to function because of the very strong, constant headaches. We spent those two years waiting for the appointment with a paediatrician, with a psychiatrist, with a counsellor. Waiting for weeks and months and then meeting an overloaded and busy specialist unable to even remember her medical history. She was on her first antidepressant for one year, 6 months now on the second one. Her headaches are again chronic. I am advocating as much as I can, trying to find help but we are waiting again to see a doctor in January, yes, in 3 months. She started a new school this September. She loved it. She came back the first day saying – it’s so good to be at school! She is an A+ student, caring, respectful, loving child. She has two friends. She is very brave trying to push herself despite social anxiety and migraines but some days she is just crying that she would like to have a normal life, have friends, be able to do activities and not being in pain all the time. I read Meg’s story and I wish it was my daughter’s 🙁

  4. You could have written this about my child. He has a physical illness on top of the anxiety. He was unable to go to school most days because of his health and then we were expecting him to just turn up to class not knowing what was going on, not wanting to face questions about his health and not willing to make himself look stupid because he’d missed so much.

    The only thing that made a difference was starting high school. There were new people, people who didn’t know him and judge him. Different people in different classes, more interesting topics. It’s still hard and his attendance isn’t good. His Mark’s start out high but as he gets more and more exhausted by the end of term he’s barely passing courses.

    I did take him out of school on his therapists advice for the last two months of his elementary school. There was no point in dealing with the almost purely social aspect of the last two mo tha. His time was better spent focusing on his mental health.
    Here there are programs for kids with anxiety. But they couldn’t cope with his chronic pain. They forced me to take him home on the second day because his groans of pain were disturbing the other kids. :/

    My other child attends an alternative high school where they only attend for 3.5 hours, it’s one course at a time, mainly solo work so if they miss school its not a big deal as they dont miss anything. There are programs like that all over the place.
    It’s not easy and you have my sympathy.

  5. This is exactly what I went through I ended up leaving school when I was 16 cause I couldn’t handle it anymore I was always ditching classes and misbehaving and getting into fights cause I didn’t know how to deal with the bullying and teachers always calling me stupid I use to always get bullied and beaten up when I was in intermediate and none of the teachers gave a s*** and I ended up going through depression it got so bad I started self harming and the family that was never there for me always judged me and called me the bad child and the drop out and that im a bad influence on there kids. I am now 17 and going to polytechnic I still have anxiety but I have managed to control it knowing I need to be in this course so I can start studying for my career my mum has always done the best she can with being there for me shes is my biggest supporter without her I would of never been able to get through anything .

  6. Totally relate! Especially about the part of not being able to work…I have 4 kiddos, 3 of which are on the autism spectrum. Two are adults and my third is 17 – I’m still a stay at home mom because I never know who’s going to be having a bad day! Luckily we are part of a great homeschooling program here in BC, Canada, as this child has refused school since she was 9! We have educational assistants who come to the house or she (after a long time g er trying to know them ), starting leaving the house with them. She also has online class with her teacher. She, too, has never had her own friend. Thankfully she is close to her siblings and has a very supportive online friend group. Anyway, it was so nice to read of someone else having had similar experiences!!

  7. Wow, thank you for telling your story, my 15yr old daughter has been suffering for (probably started 2 yrs ago) It became noticeable when she underwent intrusive surgery, for probably a year before her surgery she was in pain which got worse each month so she missed alot of sch with pain, but also anxiety. After her 1st surgery the pain was no longer there but the anxiety & depression was Increasing, a corrective surgery was scheduled then resceduled it was a year after the 1st that she had this 2nd surgery. That issue is all sorted now but since Sept she has refused to go to school.

  8. Thank you for this post it was just what I needed to hear, we’re at the beginning of this rollercoaster and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one going through it.

    1. We are too with our lovely 11 year old who passed the grammar test and has just completed the first half term at her new school. She absolutely hates it and is begging to go back to her old school.
      I hate to see her so sad. How do you make them feel heard and understood and yet try to make them wait and see if they settle.
      She is adamant that she does not want to go to school and I don’t want to look back in a years time and think if only we had done……..

  9. I totally relate to this. Our teenager was out of school and mostly on screens for a whole year – then went into a very small school and apart from 3 or 4 days off managed to stay all year and did so well . Sadly, after starting college two weeks ago, he has now dropped out and is back in his living room and declining all suggestions of how we could move forward. My heart is sad – but he is at home and safe, and that in the end is the main thing.

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. This is so similar to our story. It really helps to know that there are people out there who understand.

  11. Thank you for sharing… it’s as if I wrote this myself. This is exactly us, my daughter has been out of school over 18 months now. Though the pressure is off, there is still the worry for the future and the thoughts that we could’ve / should’ve done more. My only wish is for my daughter to be happy and find her own way in this world… hopefully this will be so for all our children eventually. X

  12. Thank you so much for writing this. It is our situation as well. Our daughter is a school refuser. She dropped out a year ago.
    Every minute of every day is consumed with us dealing with her anxiety. It is draining for all of us, mentally and physically. We are blessed to have a small number of good friends who “get” her and our issues.
    I wish more people understood that she isn’t just “off school”, she is very ill.

  13. That was so lovely, so true for so many of us. I noticed whilst researching, as i usually spend most of my time doing. That the labour government recognises Emotionally based school anxiety and wants to support it, if not already. Has any info passed through current government? i know tories are different attitudes but shouldn’t MP’s be doing something to change schools, make other educational provisions. Maybe it’s down to us to do this. Where do you live Meg? maybe we could come and stay and meet your lovely sounding family? maybe have space for short breaks and support time for struggling families?? Lovely read, thanks

  14. I can so relate to much of what you have experienced. My daughter and I struggled throughout middle school with her anxiety over school. We did school counseling the first year, we started exploring physical causes the second year, including an endocrinologist appt and then one on one counseling. Finally in the Fall of her 8th grade we requested an appt with a psychiatrist. It took weeks to do the paperwork and another month to get the actual appt scheduled. By this time, it was nearly December and she was home from school more than she was there. The psychiatrist said she had severe depression brought on by several years of anxiety and advised that it would take several weeks for the medication to level out in her system and for us to see any changes. I’d never been so glad to see Christmas break. It was a 2 week reprieve from the tears and stress of trying to get her to school every morning. She WANTED to go to school. She missed her friends. She was a straight A student and always had been. But she would become physically unable to breathe when we pulled up to the school. Most of the staff in the school office and the nurse believe she was faking everything for attention which made it all worse. Eventually she stopped even being able to get out of bed. In January the psychiatrist increased her medication. School resumed and she missed the entire first week. I decided it was time to home school, something we’d been discussing and researching for several months. I submitted my NOI and withdrew her from public school. She started doing school at home and LOVED it. She even decided to add learning German. But she missed her friends and desperately wanted to go back to public school. We continued counseling and the medication. Things gradually improved. She spent more time out of her room. She became more social again. She tried to continue with band (she was 1st chair clarinet and ) but when it came time for the concert–she couldn’t go. But in May she was able to go on the school field trip to D.C. for several days. She desperately wanted to do marching band as a freshman and camp started in July. I was able to arrange for her to get into it, even though she had missed the Spring sessions but the condition was perfect attendance for 3 weeks prior to school starting. She not only was able to go every day on time for 3 weeks but her band director emailed me to let me know what a positive difference she was seeing in her from the previous school years. She was smiling, laughing, making friends. We are now in the 3rd month of school, she has missed 4 days, two of which were due to physical illness. She marches in the band on Friday nights, she has joined the drama club, and just last week asked me if she could explore joining the swim team. I feel like we are finally back on track. She still struggles with anxiety in some situations, but it seems to be less and less. For anyone who has a child going through this, I recommend giving them the break that home schooling can provide. Not public online school but traditional home school. Do your research. Try it for six months while getting medication adjusted, then go back to public school when things improve. For us, it was the right choice. I only wish I had done it much, much sooner, before anxiety led to depression for her. Parents and school staff NEED to understand what’s really going on with our kids. I wish I had known sooner what the issues were.

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