School Refusal in Teens

School refusal“I don’t want to go to school! You can’t make me!”

These are all too familiar words for most parents who have children who dislike school or don’t want to go for other reasons. For some, the issue of school refusal can be solved by getting teens involved in extracurricular activities that they are passionate about. For others, however, teens who refuse to attend school are actually experiencing a more serious issue – school refusal.

(Photo Source: Flickr user – Grace Hazal)

What is school refusal?

School refusal occurs when a child (or teen) refuses to go to school for emotional reasons. The severity of school refusal can vary from a teen complaining about school every so often to missing days, or even weeks of school. School refusal is oftentimes associated with anxiety and depression, which might be the underlying causes of your teen not wanting to go to school.

School refusal vs. truancy

Knowing the difference between school refusal and truancy is essential in preventing further harm to your teen’s future emotional and educational welfare. Teens experiencing school refusal will feel severe emotional distress about going to school. They might feel anxious, depressed or throw temper tantrums about going to school. If your teen has school refusal, you will be are aware of your teen’s absence from school because they’ll be begging you not to make them go.
Truants, however, do not fear going to school and, most likely, try to keep their absences a secret. Also, teens with school refusal willingly do schoolwork at home, whereas truants are not interested in schoolwork and don’t care about meeting academic or behavioral standards. Knowing these differences means getting help from your teen if they are having problems with school refusal, rather than your run-of-the-mill truancy.

Underlying causes

Teens experiencing school refusal might have specific characteristics causing them to not want to go to school. Characteristics can include:

  • Separation Anxiety: Your teen might be worried about your safety and fear something bad will happen to you.
  • Social Anxiety: Your teen might feel anxious while interacting with his or her peers and teachers.
  • Depression: If your teen is depressed, they might also experience anxiety. Symptoms of depression include sadness, lack of motivation and sleep difficulties.
  • Bullying: Your teen might fear being bullied at school. They might be physically threatened by other teens or left out of social groups.

Helping your teen

  1. Talk to your teen about what is causing their issue. Make sure to be asking open-ended questions, so they can explain their situation thoroughly. You might also want to talk to your teen’s teachers because they might know things your teen will never tell you.
  2. Be supportive of your teen and use positive incentives. Recognize the little things. This is important for your teen’s feeling of empowerment and self worth.
  3. If all else fails, get professional help. Go to a therapist or enroll your teen in a program that can help them. One option is wilderness therapy. Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program that can help your teen experiencing school refusal get back on the right track for a successful future.

For more information on school refusal, contact Trails Carolina at 800-975-7303.

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Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

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Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

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