School Refusal: A Comprehensive Guide To Getting Your Teen Treatment

No parent wants to see their child struggle in school. School refusal and other academic issues can really put a damper on a child’s future success and so it’s extremely important to get your child back on the right track.  But first parents might ask: where are these problems in school coming from? And how can parents work with their child through these issues?

Truancy and school refusal can take on a variety of forms. For some children, these problems at school may start after an illness has thrown off their usual school schedule. Some may even refuse to go to school altogether because of this.

If your child is frequently getting suspended, it may be because they are hanging out with the wrong crowd or have defiance issues that need to be addressed. Either way, getting help for your frequently suspended child is essential to their future success.

This guide for parents seeking help for their teen’s school refusal issues is meant to be comprehensive, but as such, not every section will be applicable to everyone. Instead, we invite you to click on the links in the table of contents to jump to the sections that most interest you.

Table of Contents

What is School Refusal?

To better understand whether or not your teen should receive treatment for school refusal issues, we first need to define what school refusal is. School refusal, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, is a disorder that causes a child to refuse to attend school. Teens struggling with school refusal issues may also have trouble remaining in school for a full school day.

School refusal vs. truancy: what’s the difference?

School refusal and truancy may be the reason why your child is struggling in school. Both of these issues may seem like the same problem, however, they follow very different patterns. Your child may be having issues with school officials in both scenarios. Every child’s situation is different and so a parent’s first step should be to evaluate the signs present in each case. Every problem associated with school attendance and behavioral issues usually revolves around some underlying problem. Usually there’s some deeper problem than what’s openly visible. 

The same goes for a child who is frequently suspended. Maybe they aren’t enjoying school and lash out because of boredom. Or maybe it’s because of some mental health struggle such as oppositional defiant disorder or ADHD. As their parent, this may be a scary ordeal to undergo. However, figuring out what may be causing the suspensions is important to getting your teen back on the right track. 

If your child is struggling with school refusal issues, the following patterns are most likely to appear:

  • Not hiding anything: Children who are struggling with school refusal do not hide any of it from their parents. You will be well aware of your child’s refusal to go to school if school refusal is the issue. 
  • Not “faking it”: If your child is struggling with school refusal, they will have severe emotional distress associated with attending school. This can be apparent through tantrums, severe anxiety towards school, and depression.  
  • Physical symptoms. Some common physical ailments that appear due to school refusal include headaches and stomachaches. Often these occur without any obvious physical cause. 
  • Staying home rather than going elsewhere. Children with school refusal do not want to leave their homes because they would prefer to be somewhere they feel they are safe.  
  • Not participating in reckless activities. Generally children suffering from school refusal issues do not participate in dangerous or delinquent behavior during school hours. 
  • Still want to learn. School refusal does not normally mean that children give up studying altogether. Many children who refuse school are actually very studious! The roadblocks come with actually going to school and receiving the proper guidance and materials. 

Children who are truant often display the following:

  • Don’t care about attending classes: Unlike children refusing school, truants don’t care about going to school at all. They may even show some level of arrogance about the matter. 
  • Hiding their school attendance. Truant children attempt to hide their absence from their parents. Children who refuse school are typically open to discussing what’s going on with them, and truant children lie as much as they can in order to prevent the discovery of their absences. 
  • Disruptive behavior. Often, truancy is associated with petty crime and other disruptive behaviors. Truant children often form groups with other truant, antisocial peers with whom they have a lot in common.
  • School hours spent elsewhere. Truant children do not spend school hours at home. They prefer to spend their time doing other things rather than going to school. 
  • Don’t care for studying. Children who are truant often have a lack of interest in studying or have troubled studying due to a learning disability. Truancy often coincides with rebellion and a lack of desire to conform to parental expectations. 

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Why is my teen refusing to go to school?

Like many other adolescent issues, these outward problems with school can actually be signs of something else going on with a child. 

School refusal can be caused by a variety of factors:

  • Bullying: For many teens refusing school, they are afraid of the bullies who harass them on a daily basis. When school becomes unbearable because of bullying, children may refuse to go to school entirely. 
  • Not having any friends: Feeling lonely and isolated from peers at school can be a contributing factor to school refusal. 
  • Separation anxiety. After a traumatic event that results in the child being separated for a period of time such as an illness or marital issues, a child may begin to show signs of refusing school.  

Truancy and frequent school suspensions can triggered by the following:

  • Negative  influences. If your teen falls in with a bad crowd, they may begin skipping school with their peers. This even happens to well behaved, reasonable children because of peer pressure. If your child isn’t skipping school but is frequently getting suspended, you should probably get to know the people your child is hanging out with at school. They may be egging on the behavior which is causing the frequent suspensions in the first place.
  • Not enjoying school. Teens who have bad relationships with teachers and other school staff may feel like the school is being unfair to them. For teens with frequent suspensions, not enjoying school can lead to teens acting up during class due to boredom. 
  • Stress and anxiety. If a teen feels like they are at a breaking point because of learning disabilities, a build up of assignments, or having to hold down a job while attending school, they may walk away from schooling altogether or do something to get themselves suspended from school.
  • Substance use. While truancy and frequent school suspensions do not necessarily develop as a result of illegal substances, drug and alcohol use can perpetuate the issue – especially, if not identified in time.
  • Asserting independence. If a teen feels like they need to be heard by authority figures, they may use truancy as a way of voicing how they feel about school. This assertion of independence may also be reflected in frequent school suspensions.

Treatment and Solutions For School Refusal 

As a parent, it is not easy to see your child suffer academically. Fortunately, as difficult as the problem may be, there are solutions.  These may include: 

  • Having a conversation with your teen. Many problems can be solved by talking to your teen about what’s going on in their lives. From there, you can come up with a solution to their problems. 
  • Letting them know that you are supportive of them. Your teen needs to know that you’ll always be on their side. However, they need to understand how important it is for them to go to school. 
  • Getting them involved in something they’re passionate about. Help them find an extracurricular activity that will make them want to go to school everyday. 
  • Remaining positive. Don’t give up on your child! They can be successful with the right attitude and tools for success. 

For teens struggling with frequent school suspensions, it’s important to make their time away from school as productive as possible. Remember that your child is already being punished for whatever wrongdoing led to the school suspension. During the time they are suspended, make sure your teen is completing all of the assignments they have missed while they are away from school. 

Children struggling with school refusal benefit from following a routine. This can help children acknowledge that going to school is a normal part of life. You could also make home unappealing to your school refusing child. Make being home as boring as possible for your child during school hours. 

Truant children need to be pushed a little harder. Finding out what is causing the behavior in the first place is important in getting your child back on the right track. Confronting the problems as a unit will help build stronger bonds between you and your child. 

If your teen’s school refusal and truancy issues are persisting, it may be time to consider therapeutic options for your child. Treatment options include:

  • Outpatient treatment can be helpful to families who are in the early stages of finding a more long term solution for their child’s challenges. A neutral third party adult can be helpful in better understanding the challenges your child is facing and planning the next steps for treatment. Unfortunately, outpatient therapy is not always helpful because your child will be returning home after each outpatient therapy session and back into their everyday environment, without daily professional support.
  • Therapeutic boarding schools are inpatient therapeutic facilities specifically focused on reshaping learning and study skills. They blend clinical programming and traditional academic environments to help individuals struggling with mental health issues.
  • Residential treatment centers are therapeutic programs heavily focused on clinical support for children and teens struggling with mental health challenges. There is often an academic program included in these facilities.
  • Wilderness therapy is a great option for parents seeking help for their teen’s school refusal issues. At a wilderness therapy program, your teen will be away from the distractions and toxic environments that may be making school refusal challenges worse. Your teen will be able to focus on addressing the underlying issues causing school refusal. 

Wilderness Therapy as a Treatment Option for School Refusal

At blueFire Wilderness Therapy, we take students out of their high-stress, fast-paced lives and immerse them in a nurturing, calm, wilderness environment. Just the stark contrast between the two places is often enough for a teen to begin to focus on healing themselves. Many of the teens we work with have had limited experience with outdoor activities, at least on a regular basis, which adds to how transformative a wilderness experience can be. The combination of the power of nature with evidence-based therapy is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, trauma and other contributing issues to school refusal. 

Benefits of Wilderness Therapy Programs

  • Community Environment: Right from the start, clients quickly form friendships and bonds with their leaders and peers in their small groups. This helps to create a support system that encourages their progress. Social support is key for teens who have had difficulty with anxiety and depression. 
  • Healing Atmosphere: Spending a few weeks in the woods is a low-pressure environment for participants to focus on working toward their goals. This encourages them to take things one step at a time rather than getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Time spent outside, whether engaging in physical activity or sitting around a fire, is also associated with significant health benefits, including but not limited to improved mood, lower stress levels, and more energy.
  • New Experiences: Teens who spend a lot of time isolated from others and cooped up in their room don’t go out and experience the world. Wilderness therapy teaches students new recreational skills and helps them get out of their comfort zone. 
  • Becoming More Physically Active. Struggling with depression and other school refusal related issues can make it hard to want to spend time outside. Adventure-based therapy might include rock climbing, camping, canoeing, or mountain biking. This sets them apart from other wilderness programs that focus more on outdoor skills and backpacking.
  • Discovering New Social Activities and Ways to Connect. Outdoor activities for teens struggling with school refusal issues teach teens how to collaborate with others and develop meaningful relationships with their peers. No prior outdoor experience is required to build confidence in these activities and the lessons they offer for everyday life.