Every teenager complains about school now and then, or perhaps on a regular basis. And sometimes they resist going to school. But when teens refuse to go to school on an ongoing basis, something more serious is likely at play. School refusal is not the same as playing hooky. Teens don’t refuse to go to school because they want to have fun outside of school. Rather, they feel an aversion to school itself. In fact, they may feel fear, anxiety, depression, or distress due to past or current events and relationships in school.
Therefore, parents faced with school refusal need to figure out why their teen is so adamant about avoiding school.
How to Recognize School Refusal
To tell the difference between school refusal 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 school early. In addition, they may visit the school nurse multiple times. And they might text or call parents throughout the school day.
The Primary Reasons for School Refusal
A teenager may refuse to go to school for a variety of reasons. Some of the most common 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.
Teen Anxiety, Teen Depression, and School Refusal
School refusal and anxiety are often linked. Research shows that high school students today have more anxiety symptoms. Hence, they are twice as likely to see a mental health professional than teens in the 1980s. Therefore, teen anxiety is one reason why a teenager refuses to go to school.
As a result of anxiety disorders, teens struggle with feelings of tension and fear. Moreover, these symptoms are ongoing and interfere with daily activities in school. In addition, teen anxiety affects relationships with peers. The result may be school refusal.
In addition, school refusal might be a symptom of teen depression. Teens who are depressed sometimes lack the energy and motivation to attend school. Therefore, they refuse to go or feign illness.
Signs of Teen Anxiety or Depression
Here are some of the signs that a child 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 Avoidance
Teens with social 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. Hence, school refusal may be a result.
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
- About 13 percent of students surveyed reported that they were made fun of, called names, or insulted
- Another 12 percent reported being the subject of rumors
- 5 percent reported that they were pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on
- In addition, 5 percent reported being excluded from activities on purpose
- 4 percent of students reported being threatened with harm
- 3 percent reported that others tried to make them do things they did not want to do
- 2 percent reported that other students destroyed their property on purpose.
As a result, bullying leads to school refusal and school avoidance. Hence, the National Education Association reports that approximately 160,000 teens skip school every day because of bullying.
Sexual Harassment in School
Moreover, 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 begins before high school. Consequently, 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 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 school refusal.
Acute Stress Disorder or PTSD Resulting from a School Incident
Acute stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are psychological responses to a traumatic event, such as a fire or car accident, 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.
Traumatic events that can cause ASD include death, threat of death to oneself or others, and threat of serious injury to oneself or others. In school, such events might include a school shooting, an attack on a student, or a bomb threat. As a result, these events create feelings of intense fear, horror, and/or helplessness. Hence, the student feels a strong desire to avoid the situation and location where the trauma occurred.
Therefore, a traumatic event at school can cause ASD or PTSD. Subsequently, these conditions can result in school refusal. 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.
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.
Moreover, 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 may lead teens to avoid school. When 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
School refusal 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.
Furthermore, teenagers who have problems with authority and following the rules sometimes refuse to go to school.
Steps for Addressing School Refusal in Teens
Finally, 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. Moreover, the family may wish to meet with a school guidance counselor. Furthermore, an assessment by a mental health professional is also essential for teens with school refusal symptoms.
Most important, the first steps are recognizing the problem and identifying the root causes.
AAUW Report: Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School
Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2012 Jan;21(1):119–x.
Soc Indic Research. 2015 April;121(2);437–454.
PNAS. 2011 April;108(15);6270–6275.
National Center for Education Statistics
Centers for Disease Control
US Department of Veterans Affairs