School Refusal: Just a Phase? Or is it Anxiety?

It was an honor to be a guest blogger once again for my friends at Achievement Advantage Assessment & Services, LLC in Lyndhurst, OH.  Be sure to check them out if your child is in need of psychoeducational assessments, educational interventions, consultation or advocacy services. Thanks again for this opportunity, Jen and Greer!

Does this sound like a typical school-day morning with your teen?

  • Getting your teen out of bed and to school on time is a chore.
  • There’s so much arguing on school-day mornings that you often give up or feel like giving up.
  • You’ve lost track of how many days of school they’ve missed or how many times you’ve called them in late.
  • Your teens distress and refusal to go to school has caused you to be late for work most days.

As a counselor who works with older teens 16 years and up, I’ve seen the difficult effects school refusal can have on the teen and their parents.

Sometimes school refusal is in an attempt by the teen to avoid something unpleasant. Maybe a test they didn’t study for or a class they’d prefer to miss. Sometimes school refusal is a temporary issue such as when school starts back up after summer or winter break. It’s common for worries to flare up then but once the teen gets back into a routine, the worry usually decreases.

Sometimes school refusal isn’t just full school days missed but multiple days tardy, leaving school early, or numerous trips to the nurse. It’s important to note that anxiety in kids and teens typically manifests in somatic symptoms, such as a stomachache or a headache. It’s important to make an appointment with your teens pediatrician to be sure there isn’t an underlying medical issue that needs attention.

When tardiness, leaving class, or school refusal become an ongoing issue, this may point to the presence of a diagnosable disorder such as generalized anxiety disorder.

Let me start by saying that this article is not intended to help you diagnose your teen. In our “WebMD world” today, it’s important to remember that diagnosing should be left to a licensed professional who administers a diagnostic assessment in person. The purpose of this article is simply to help you gain a basic understanding what generalized anxiety may look like.

So what does generalized anxiety disorder look like in teens?

Teens who are struggling with anxiety may have difficulty concentrating, experience muscle tension, may often feel irritable or on edge, fatigued, or may have difficulty falling or staying asleep. When I talk to teens who have missed multiple days of school, they often share that they feel completely overwhelmed by the piles of work that need to be made up. And the fact that they may already be flunking the class doesn’t help to motivate them; it simply creates an even more pronounced feeling of helplessness. You or I may think “Well, what’s the problem? Just take it one assignment at a time!”, but anxiety doesn’t work that way. Anxiety only allows the teen to see the enormous, daunting pile of work in front of them in its entirety and not the smaller, more manageable parts.

Your teen needs coping skills and strategies to manage the feeling of being overwhelmed, help with that feeling of helplessness, and support for all the ways anxiety affects other aspects of their life. Do them (and yourself!) a favor and talk to them about their willingness to work with a therapist. Email or text them the link to Tell them to type their zip code in the “Find a Therapist” search option, scroll through the pictures and bios of the clinicians in their area until they find someone who works with teens with anxiety and who seems like they’d be a good fit. And if your teen doesn’t jive with the first counselor they meet, don’t make them go back. Help them find a counselor that they feel comfortable with and who seems genuine and trusting so they can start moving towards a life where school isn’t plagued with anxiety and you can begin to feel hopeful for smooth and steady school-day mornings with your teen.