This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post.
“I am not sure what has changed. Things were fine last year and now he wakes up with a stomachache and says he doesn’t want to go to school. It takes me forever to get him out the door. We are often late. He ends up screaming at me and telling me I am the worst parent ever! I end up yelling at him and almost have to pull him out of the car. He leaves upset and I feel upset, worried, and angry. Why is this happening!?”
If it sounds like I was in your car this morning, that is because this situation is very common with children — both with those I work and those I parent. On the outside, a child’s life can seem so simple — they go to school, play, and have most things done for them. However, on the inside, a child’s life can be very complex. This complexity can result in a range of thoughts and feelings that go from “School is hard”… “I don’t want to go to school”…”I hate school”…”I am not going to school”, to “I wish I was never born” and “I wish I was dead.” The latter statements are more alarming to parents for sure, yet all suggest something is going on.
It is easier to take the daily getting to school struggles (and frustration) in stride when your child’s behavior consists of avoidance, rather then pure refusal and/or panic. However, it is very difficult to reason with a child who is in refusal mode and even more difficult to reason with a child who is in panic mode. If your child is refusing to go to school or having anxiety or panic attacks in the morning, something is definitely going on. But what can it be?
School avoidance, refusal, and anxiety can be due to several factors. These include:
• Social issues – no friends; being teased; being bullied
• Learning or processing issues – hard to pay attention; hard to read or write; can’t finish work on time; can’t keep up with the work; hard to hear or see
• Worry and anxiety – worry about being looked or laughed at; worrying about doing poorly on a test; worried about getting bad grades; worried about being called on in class
While any of the above alone can result with school avoidance, refusal, or anxiety, often a child experiences several of these issues at once.
So what can a parent do?
The first thing to do is consider that your child’s behavior is communicating that something is wrong. They usually not just trying to be difficult and ruin your morning, as they are clearly not having a good morning either. The next thing to do is to try to figure out what is going on. Try talking with them to see if they will give you any information. Next, talk to your child’s teacher. Are they seeing anything unusual? Is your child engaged in learning and other kids, or checked out and wanders around alone?
While exploring above, it is also important to look at our own parenting behavior. Not that you are causing the problems, but our behavior can certainly make things better or worse. For example, a child is avoidant in the morning may do less well when a parent talks about them being okay, asks what is wrong, and gives too much attention to the trepidation. They may do better with firm, short communication that states they need to brush their teeth because we are leaving in 15 minutes. They then may need ushering to the car. This does not fix the underlying problem (which you are still trying to figure out) but may make the morning routine and drama shortened.
It is important to remember that we all (all of us of all ages) avoid what we are afraid of or worried about. Thus, your child is successfully avoiding a fear by avoiding going to school. It is frustrating, but normal if they are worried or scared. It is also important to remember that overcoming worry and fear involves dealing with it. Avoiding it makes the fear stronger. The key is to get your child to school while ALSO figuring out what is going on that is upsetting to them.
Things to do:
• Ask you child what is happening at school
• Check in with your child’s teacher to see what they are observing
• Ask for a school meeting
• Try different strategies in the morning to improve the avoidance routine
• Be nurturing but firm about the steps needed to get to school
• Seek counseling if the above doesn’t help
• Consider a more formal comprehensive evaluation of your child’s thinking, learning, emotions, and behavior to better understand why your child is struggling
It is important that we remember that children want to succeed and feel good. When they are avoiding or refusing to go to school (their job), it means something isn’t right for them and it is our job as parents and educators to figure it out.