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Teen Truancy: The Causes, Consequences, and Mental Health Impact of School Absenteeism

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Why are so many adolescents skipping school? Truancy, defined as any unexcused absence from school, has been rising among teenagers in recent years. Reasons for teen truancy include long-term impacts of the pandemic, problems at school or home, and mental health issues.

The causes and consequences of school absenteeism can be serious. Parents, schools, and mental health professionals need to intervene to discover what’s behind the truancy and help a teen who’s repeatedly missing school.

Key Takeaways

  • Truancy, defined as any unexcused absence from school without the knowledge of a student’s caregiver, has risen sharply among teenagers since the pandemic.
  • School truancy can be caused by mental health problems like trauma, anxiety, and depression, as well as academic disengagement and other problems at school or home.
  • Consequences of teen truancy include a decline in school performance, loneliness, low self-worth, increased mental health problems, potential increase in risky behaviors, and conflict between parents and teens.
  • To address repeated truancy, get to the root of the problem and access support from school and mental health professionals.

What Does Truancy Mean?

Truancy is any absence that is unexcused by the school and was not permitted by a student’s caregivers. It’s notably different from school refusal, in which caregivers are aware of the student’s absences. But both truancy and school refusal can have significant impacts on students and families alike.

Penalties for truancy depends on the school’s and state’s attendance policies and truancy laws. Many schools require students to attend a certain percentage of courses in order to go on to the next grade or graduate. If a student is truant repeatedly, they may be required to repeat a grade. Other penalties include fines, counseling, or detention. Officials within the school district, such as the principal or a school board, may decide on a case-by-case basis how to deal with excessive truancy.

Stats on School Truancy 2023

Since the pandemic, unexcused absences at school have skyrocketed. Chronic absence, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school, nearly doubled between the 2018–19 and 2021–22 school years, jumping from 15 to 28 percent.

The statistics show that the longer schools were shut down in a given state due to COVID, the higher that state’s truancy rates are now. However, every single state experienced a significant rise in unexcused absences. Alaska and Washington DC have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, at 49 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

What Causes Absenteeism in Students?

So what’s causing all this absenteeism in students? For one, students grew accustomed to not going to school during the pandemic shutdowns, and getting back in the habit has been challenging.

However, students aren’t skipping class because they simply no longer feel like going to school. Researchers suggest that growing rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems among children and teenagers are at least one culprit behind anxiety about attending school. Let’s look at some of the reasons for teen truancy.


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Factors Contributing to Absenteeism in Students

There are many factors that contribute to absenteeism in students, including:

  • Long-term impacts of virtual learning and more liberal schedules during the pandemic
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, which are experienced by 87 percent of Gen Z youth
  • Academic boredom and disengagement
  • Work obligations
  • Illness
  • Bullying at school
  • Problems, dramas, or fights with friends or peers
  • Pressure or influence from peers to skip class
  • Going through a breakup
  • Trauma leading to self-isolation and/or school avoidance
  • A learning disorder (diagnosed or undiagnosed) that results in poor academic performance and low self-esteem
  • Risky behaviors such as substance abuse or dangerous sexual activity
  • Problems at home, including instability, parentification, abuse, or neglect

The Mental Health Effects of Teen Truancy

Truancy can be a sign that a teen needs help. If mental health problems are causing truancy, fear of going back to school can be a self-perpetuating cycle. Avoiding an anxiety or depression trigger often seems like the right call at the time, but ultimately avoidance leads to more anxiety. Skipping school can reinforce the very types of mental health issues students are trying to avoid in the first place.

Ultimately, the impacts of truancy can ripple out across a student’s life. Truancy consequences for a child can include:

  • A decline in school performance
  • Having to repeat grades
  • Loneliness and loss of friendships
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Increased mental health problems
  • Potential increase in substance use or other risky behaviors
  • Family conflict
  • Criminal charges or punishments for the caregivers and/or student, including required attendance at juvenile court, academic probation, counseling, detention, and fines.

If truancy becomes a big enough problem, a school board or school principal may decide what to do about it on a case-by-case basis. Different schools are guided by varying regulations and state and federal laws. Although a criminal charge is not very common, it is possible. The more likely impacts of truancy are increased mental health problems, risky behaviors, and conflict between parents and teens.

How Parents Can Deal with Teenage Truancy

How can parents deal with a teen’s truancy problem? The best thing a parent can do is listen to your child, figure out the root cause of their truancy, and support them as much as possible. Here are five ways to do that.

Use open communication.

Instead of getting angry or punishing your child, talk to them about what’s keeping them from going to school. If getting your teen to open up to you is difficult, ask them open-ended questions about their school and life  experiences. An example of an open-ended question is, “What are you struggling with right now?”

When they do talk to you, listen and empathize with their concerns. Don’t try to immediately offer advice or be logical about their problems. This will likely cause them to shut down and shut you out. Listen first, and then work with them to find solutions.

Reach out to school staff and teachers.

If your child is missing a lot of school, you’ll need the support of school staff and educators. Connect with your child’s teachers, principal, guidance counselor, or other appropriate staff to discuss potential support strategies. These might include getting a tutor, testing for learning disabilities, or figuring out how to make class more interesting and engaging for your child.

Help your teen with social problems.

Life for an adolescent is tough. If your teen is struggling with toxic friendships, bullies, or a breakup, it’s even tougher. Validate their emotions, and don’t downplay something that feels hard for them.

Instead, work with them to find solutions and strategies for these struggles. Ask them questions about their experiences, listen, empathize, and work with them to get school staff involved if necessary.

Teen truancy: High schoolers sit outside skipping class

Support your child in building self-esteem.

Self-esteem and confidence are crucial factors in overcoming school-related challenges. These are skills that you can help your teen work on and build. You can support your child by helping them acknowledge and celebrate their strengths, and encouraging them not to compare themselves to others. In addition, talk about the drawbacks of too much social media use, and work together to set limits on it.  

Seek treatment when necessary.

As a parent, you don’t need to navigate your child’s mental health on your own. Mental health problems are often at the root of adolescent school truancy. If this is the case, seek mental health assessments and treatment for anxiety, depression, or trauma. Improving these root causes can boost your teen’s self-worth and help them become engaged, content, and confident.

What School Professionals Can Do About Teen Truancy

When a child or teen is missing school frequently, there are usually various factors at play. It’s not just about the school environment. Teachers don’t have control over students’ mental or physical health, transportation issues, or problems at home. That said, there are things teachers and administrators can do to encourage attendance. Here are some strategies to try:

  • Educate students about why attending school matters and the positive impact of attendance, learning, and graduation.
  • Create incentives for attendance, with the winning homeroom hosting a special event or other reward. 
  • Maintain good communicate with families, letting them know the guidelines about school attendance and how many days their children have missed so far.
  • Do a Parent-Teacher Home Visit to learn more about the challenges that may be contributing to teen truancy among your students.
  • Create a welcoming space when kids enter the building and their classroom, offering them greetings and expressing your pleasure at seeing them.
  • Emphasize emotional well-being and regulation, through school wellness programs and classroom conversations.
  • Recruit community volunteers, staff members, and/or older students to act as mentors for at-risk students who are skipping school frequently.

Teen Treatment at Newport Academy

If your teenager is struggling with symptoms of depression, anxiety, trauma, or suicidal ideation that are causing teen truancy, treatment is the next step. At Newport Academy, we support teens to improve overall mental health and self-esteem through individual and family therapy, as well as psychiatric care and medication management. Group therapy and experiential activities help teens feel safe with peers who are undergoing similar struggles.

In addition to comprehensive mental healthcare, our residential and Partial Hospitalization Programs include a robust academic component that nurtures teens’ strengths and helps them close proficiency gaps. Each teen receives individualized instruction and specialized tutoring with our expert academic staff. Our outcomes research shows that our strengths-based approach to learning increases teens’ motivation, engagement, and organizational skills.

Start the healing journey today: Contact us for a free teen mental health assessment.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does absenteeism mean for a student?
  • Can a child go to jail for truancy?
  • What causes absenteeism or truancy in students?
  • How does absenteeism impact students?