“I don’t want to go to school” is a phrase nearly every parent has heard multiple times. Every teenager complains about going to school now and then, and even resists going to school. But when a teen refuses to attend school every day, for days on end, something more serious is likely at play. A teenager refusing to go to school due to distress and anxiety is not the same as truancy or playing hooky.
Teens don’t refuse to go to school repeatedly because they want to have fun outside of school. Rather, they feel an aversion to school itself. They may be traumatized by past or current events and interactions in school. Instead of figuring out how to force a teenager to go to school, parents should try to understand why their kid doesn’t want to go to school and help them address the underlying issues.
How to Recognize School Refusal
To tell the difference between a teenager refusing to go to school and normal resistance to school, parents can consider the following factors:
- Length of time a teen has been avoiding school
- Level of distress a teen feels about attending school
- Strength of the teen’s resistance to school
- Whether their resistance is disrupting the teen’s and the family’s life.
Moreover, teens may show school refusal symptoms even when they do attend school most days. For example, they might be late to school often due to anxiety or frequently leave in the middle of the school day. In addition, they may visit the school nurse multiple times. And they might text or call parents throughout the school day.
Common Reasons a Teenager Refuses to Go to School
When a teen refuses to go to school and insist on staying home, there are a number of possible causes. Some of the most common reasons for school refusal include the following:
- Teen anxiety
- Conflict with friends or lack of supportive friendships
- Family problems at home
- Academic issues or difficult relationships with teachers
- Sexual harassment by another student
- Acute stress disorder or PTSD as a result of an incident in school
- Social anxiety disorder.
Let’s look more closely at some of these issues and examine how each of them can contribute to a teenager refusing to go to school.
Teen Anxiety, Teen Depression, and School Refusal
Once school refusal has become serious, school staff are typically aware of the problem and may be questioning why a teen refuses to attend. “My teenager won’t go to school because of anxiety” is one of the most common reasons parents give high school administrators and guidance counselors for their child’s absences from school. Teen anxiety and depression are the most frequent causes when it comes to school refusal. Symptoms of anxiety or depression typically interfere with every aspect of a teen’s life. So it’s no surprise that they interfere with a teen’s experience in school and their desire to avoid school.
Teen anxiety is one of the biggest reasons why a teenager refuses to go to school. School refusal and anxiety disorders are closely linked. Research shows that about 40 percent of high school students today have anxiety symptoms. In fact, today’s teens are twice as likely to see a mental health professional than teens in the 1980s. Teenagers with anxiety disorders struggle with feelings of tension, worry, and fear. They might be afraid they will get sick or have a panic attack during school. In addition, teen anxiety can affect relationships with peers, making teens withdrawn or nervous around other kids.
Furthermore, not wanting to attend school might be a symptom of teen depression. When a teen feels depressed, attending school often seems overwhelming and exhausting. Fatigue and lack of motivation are common symptoms of depression. As a result, depressed teens often lack the energy and motivation to attend school. Therefore, they refuse to go or feign illness—another common form of school refusal.
Signs of Teen Anxiety or Depression
How can parents tell if a teenager refusing to go to school is struggling with their mental health? In most cases, there will be other signs besides school refusal that indicate an underlying issue. Here are some of the warning signs that a teen is experiencing a level of anxiety or depression that warrants an assessment by a mental health professional:
- School refusal or school avoidance
- Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Withdrawing from social interactions
- Trouble sleeping at night, but often seems fatigued during the day
- Loss of appetite and other changes in eating habits
- Difficulty concentrating
- Extreme mood swings
- Performance dip in school, poor report cards, poor testing results
- Frequent unexplained physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness, despair, and worthlessness
- Using drugs and drinking as forms of self-medication for anxiety
- Avoiding people, places and things that trigger anxious feelings
Social Anxiety and School Refusal
Another reason for a teenager refusing to go to school is social anxiety. Teens with this form of anxiety find school extremely challenging. Sometimes referred to as social phobia, social anxiety disorder is when a person is overcome with fear and worry in social settings.
As a result, a teen with a social phobia experiences intense anxiety that leads to deep feelings of embarrassment and fear of being judged by others. Therefore, this type of anxiety in teenagers negatively impacts their everyday activities, including school. Consequently, a teen with social phobia often avoids contact with peers and teachers as much as possible.
In addition, social anxiety symptoms include
- Feeling nauseous
- Nervous shaking
- Unexpected blushing
- Fear of having to talk or perform in front of a group.
Bullying: A Common Cause of School Refusal
The National Education Association reports that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying. According to the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 22 percent of students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied at school. That’s more than one in every five students. Moreover, school bullying takes a number of different forms. The NCES data found the following stats about teen bullying in middle and high school:
- 15 percent of the students surveyed reported having rumors spread about them
- 14 percent of students reported that they were made fun of, called names, or insulted
- 6 percent reported being excluded from activities on purpose
- 5 percent reported that they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on
- 4 percent of students reported being threatened with harm
- 2 percent reported that others tried to make them do things they did not want to do
- Another 2 percent reported that other students destroyed their property on purpose.
Sexual Harassment and School Avoidance
In addition to bullying, many teens experience unwanted sexual advances in school. In a survey conducted by the American Association of University Women, 48 percent of middle and high school students said they were sexually harassed at least once, typically by their peers. And 87 percent of the victims reported detrimental effects from the harassment. Hence, a third of harassed students said they did not want to return to school after the harassment occurred.
Furthermore, sexual harassment incidents take place in elementary and middle school as well as high school. A yearlong investigation by the Associated Press uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in grades K–12. These took place over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015. However, experts say even this number does not fully capture the problem. That’s because victims often fail to report such attacks.
Sometimes, harassment progresses to physical violence. In fact, in a study of national youth risk behaviors, 10 percent of high school students reported physical victimization. Hence, victimized students have a strong reason for refusing to attend school.
Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD Resulting from a School Incident
Acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are psychological responses to a traumatic event, and typically develops within one month of the traumatic incident. And up to one-third of people who experience a traumatic event develop acute stress disorder, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs. If ASD lasts for more than a month, the diagnosis becomes PTSD.
Experiencing bullying or sexual harassment in school can lead to ASD or PTSD. In addition, a life-threatening situation such as a school shooting, an attack, or a bomb threat can cause a traumatic response and possible PTSD in students. Student who directly or indirectly experience such events often experience feelings of intense fear, horror, and/or helplessness. Consequently, they feels a strong desire to avoid the situation and location where the trauma occurred. A 2022 study from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research found that school shootings lead to drops in student enrollment and increased absenteeism for the two years following the incident.
When a teen is refusing to go to school after a traumatic event, parents and school officials need to provide support and reestablish a sense of safety. When trauma and PTSD go untreated, teens can be negatively impacted for years to come.
Social Rejection and Peer Conflicts
For teenagers, the fear of social rejection is huge. In fact, rejection by their peers may be the most intense fear that adolescents face. MRI research confirms how crippling this fear can be. A brain imaging study at the University of Michigan suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated by social rejection as by physical pain.
Hence, teens who have experienced rejection by peers or who fear rejection may show signs of school refusal. Moreover, conflicts within friend groups or being “cancelled” by peers may lead teens to avoid school. Or, if a close friendship breaks up, teens may feel isolated and alone. Hence, they try to avoid school as much as possible.
More Reasons Why Kids Avoid School
Avoiding school has other causes, too. Some teens refuse to go to school because they’re worried about a troubling situation at home. For example, teens might want to stay home if a parent is ill. Moreover, if their parents are fighting, a teen might want to stay close by to prevent one parent from leaving or from hurting the other.
In addition, teens may refuse to go to school if they are failing a subject or struggling academically. Or they may feel intimidated by a particular teacher. Teenagers who have problems with authority and following the rules may sometimes refuse to go to school.
What to Do When a Kid Doesn’t Want to Go to School
The first step in helping a teenager refusing to go to school is to identify the root causes. A school refusal intervention should get at the heart of a teen’s avoidance of school. Compassion, understanding, and patient listening are paramount during this discussion.
Subsequently, the school and the family should explore solutions to the teen’s school avoidance. For example, the family could meet with a school guidance counselor to discuss possible ways to solve the problems a teen is experiencing in school. Sometimes school refusal can be solved by addressing a very specific issue. A teen may need to be switched into a different class if they are struggling with the teacher or with other students. Or the school may need to provide additional supervision if there’s a bullying problem.
However, a teen’s school refusal is sometimes beyond the scope of school staff. If anxiety or depression symptoms are catalyzing school avoidance, an assessment by a mental health professional is essential.
Newport Academy’s Approach to Teen Treatment and Academics
At Newport Academy, we view a teen’s academic progress and motivation as an important aspect of their well-being and self-esteem. Therefore, we provide a robust educational component in our residential treatment and our full-day outpatient programs, or Partial Hospitalization Programs. Our strengths-based approach builds on a teen’s natural talents and interests. Teenagers build motivation along with executive functioning and organizational skills.
Most important, teens can progress in their learning and academic goals while receiving the treatment they need for anxiety, depression, trauma, substance use disorder, or other mental health and co-occurring issues. Contact us today to learn more about how Newport can help your teen move from school refusal to engagement, excitement, and a sense of purpose—in school and in life.
- Every teenager complains about going to school now and then. But when a teen refuses to attend school every day, for days on end, it’s essential to uncover the cause of their school refusal.
- Some of the most common reasons a teenager refuses to go to school are anxiety, depression, social anxiety, bullying, problems with peers, and trauma due to a frightening incident at school.
- When a teen resists attending school, parents should do a mental health temperature check and watch for other symptoms indicating they are struggling with an emotional or psychological challenge.
- Instead of figuring out how to force a teenager to go to school, parents should try to understand why their kid doesn’t want to go to school and help them address the underlying issues.
Frequently Asked Questions About School Refusal
Soc Indic Research. 2015 April;121(2);437–454.
Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2012 Jan; 21(1).
PNAS. 2011 April;1 08(15); 6270–6275.
Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research
AAUW Report: Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School
National Center for Education Statistics