Five Ways to Help a Teen Who Hates School

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Nearly one in four high school students experiences some times when he or she refuses to go to school, and parents are often baffled and frustrated with trying to find a solution. Although every teenager has moments of anxiety related to school, when that anxiety reaches a “chronic, high pitched state“, according to Moira Rynn, MD, an Associate Professor of Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University, parents need to have ways to effectively intervene.

There are actually two completely separate conversations that are required: the one where parents are frustrated with the state of the educational opportunities available to their teenagers, and the one about teenagers who hate the school experience. Fortunately, there are many options available to parents of teens who hate school, and some of those options have come about as a direct result of parents who became fed up with poor quality of the high school experience or how their local high school failed to meet the needs of their children.

Part of the developmental process of teenagers growing up involves dealing with anxiety. From the time children are quite young, their lives seem to revolve around that huge chunk of time taken up by education: homework, projects, and the social network of their peers. Poor teacher quality, social anxiety, boredom, bullying, and the enormous pressure to “fit in” are all issues that create an atmosphere in which it is very difficult for teenagers to focus on their studies. Some teenagers find a way to adjust to the added pressures of the high school experience, while others fold beneath the pressures and become angry, or depressed, or refuse to attend school at all.

There are two vastly different schools of thought about teens and school. The first position says its about accountability and helping teens learn to bend to the requirements of “life” – so do whatever it takes to get your teenager back in school. Parents (and therapists) with this mindset view school avoidance as rebellion or manipulative behavior, and use consequences and behavioral contracts to help teens comply with the requirement to go to school no matter what. Those who take the second position believe that it is not so simple. Teenagers who refuse to attend school or experience deep anxiety about the experience are not being rebellious; they are experiencing a very real emotional response to an environment that is not suited to their learning and must be compassionately and proactively heard and helped.

Signs your teenager needs a different schooling option

If your teenager shows the signs listed here, you may want to seriously consider exploring alternative schooling options. Gone are the days when every teenager attended the community high school and simply ‘buckled down’ to the experience. Look for these signs in your teen, and let them know they are not alone!

  • Your teenager says he/she is bored or overwhelmed at school
  • Your teenager complains of bullying behavior from peers or teachers
  • Your teenager experiences physical symptoms of school anxiety such as stomach aches or headaches
  • Your teenager skips school frequently
  • Your teenager refuses to attend school at all
  • Your teenager shows signs of depression such as emotional withdrawal, increased anger or aggression, or sleep and eating changes
  • The social circle your teenager is involved with changes, is non-existent, or is a negative or bullying influence
That “fever pitch” of anxiety is a bull-horn call to parents to intervene. If your teenager is showing the signs mentioned above, or is refusing to attend school at all, it is highly likely that something more is going on than a simple rebellious moment. Pay close attention to what your teen is saying, and what he or she is unable to express in words. Your teenager may not understand what is going on in his or her internal experience enough to say it but the behaviors you see will be screaming for your intervention. Fortunately there are numerous high quality options for teens who hate school and the parents who love them.
Five steps to follow when your teenager hates school
 
  1. Listen. The very most important way to help if your teen is telling you (or if his or her behavior is telling you) he hates school, is to pay attention to your teenager. Don’t simply inform your teen “you have to go to school, so stop with the attitude!”. Don’t become a bully parent and try to exert your will in an effort to force compliance. Instead, pay attention. Listen compassionately. Give your teen the message, “I get it! Now lets work on a solution.”
  2. Make a list. If you’ve gotten to this point, chances are very good that there is more to the story than simply having a teenager who doesn’t like the school experience. Have a sit-down conversation with your teen. Get to the root of the problem. Grab a pen and paper and take notes, find patterns, ask questions. Rather than simply a list of things your teen hates about school, get specific about his or her internal experience. Ask questions about how his body feels when he gets overwhelmed with school expectations, how she responds to bully behavior from other students or teachers, and how he feels about his circle of friends. Define when she is feeling afraid and when he wants to simply ‘throw in the towel’.
  3. Explore options. Since education is important, don’t stop now! You have defined how your teenager experiences the school requirement. Now start moving toward the solution. There are tools to make sure your teenager receives an education, you simply need to use them. Now is not the time to be a passive parent! Advocate for your child. Alternative schools, online schools, homeschool options, community colleges… There are many fully accredited and affordable options to help your teenager learn what he needs to know to prepare him for life beyond high school. Find out from your school district what are the requirements you have to meet in order to make use of alternative educational opportunities.
  4. Get support for your teen. If your teenager’s anxiety, anger, or depression are at peak levels and are interfering with their – and your family’s – daily life, get some help. Explore therapy options, involve your teenager in activities that he or she expresses interest in, and work toward helping them find healthier ways to express overwhelming emotions. Teenagers will not magically stop feeling afraid, or anxious, or overwhelmed simply by removing them from the school environment. Those emotions are signposts pointing toward issues that need your active involvement.
  5. Find balance. Be careful! Don’t let your entire experience with your teenager become defined by the challenge of finding a solution to the school problem. While exploring options and creating a solution for the emotional challenges your teen is experiencing are a super important part of the growing up years, don’t allow this to take over your life and that of your teen. Don’t get locked into so much of a focus on the problem that you lose sight of the joy of helping your child grow up.
There is an enormous difference between a teenager who is bored and would rather stay home and play computer or video games, and one who is experiencing serious school anxiety. Following the five steps above will help you define and find solutions to the problem, and help your teen move through the experience in the most healthy way possible. For specific assistance with your teen’s school anxiety or school refusal behavior, send me a message and we’ll find a solution together!
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About RJ

I'm passionate about HOPE! As a first year medical student, I spend most of my time studying like mad. Somehow I still find time to build a successful entrepreneurial venture that is helping to change lives. I also keep up with writing, make a few videos here and there, and hold as extra precious the time spent with friends and family. I'm thrilled to work with you as you create your own abundant health, wealth, and happiness.
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51 Responses to Five Ways to Help a Teen Who Hates School

  1. Didn’t get to add my website properly. Did so on this comment.

  2. Katherine G Levine (@KGLevineBooks) says:

    Useful advice. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t see the need for a careful psychological evaluation with someone who specializes in learning problems. Both my sons have a number of learning disabilities and school was quite painful for both. One dropped out of college eventually, but now owns the parking valet business he worked for as a teen and on vacation from college. He has done well enough to also purchase a number of small apartment houses which he has rented out and is doing well with that also.

    The other son with our permission stopped high school and got his GED, then was accepted at an open admission college, but could not stand it although he loved the state it was in. He stayed there did every sort of job fell in love with a girl and landscaping. Gathered up his courage and signed up for a certificate program with his girl, was encouraged to go on by his instructors with the result that he and his girl, who is now is wife both graduated from Cal Poly with honors and have very solid management jobs.

    Knowing what they could and could not do with the help of the psychologists who first evaluated them help us be supportive.

    The second tip I would give parents is to instill a good work ethic. It has moved both my sons passed many of their friends who graduated from prestigious colleges in the expected way and at the expected time. We were poorer than most in the town where they grew up. We had enough, but to do what their friends did they had to work and both started on that path early on.

    Just my thoughts to supplement your advice which right on as far as it went.

    • RJ says:

      Katherine, I appreciate your input! No one article can ever cover all aspects, and your perspective is so helpful. There were many times back when my own sons were teens that I wished there had been a Psychologist who would evaluate – without that, often we felt we were “flying blind”, and in some ways we were. Unfortunately, there are some circumstances under which such evaluation is simply not available. I’m super glad to hear of the creative ways your sons found that worked for them!!

  3. Michael Ann says:

    Great post, thank you! When I was a sr. I hated high school. I was bored and was ready to “move on.” I woke up one morning and just refused to go to school. My mom was angry at first but finally did listen. I only had one more credit to complete for my diploma and I ended up taking it at the alternative high school. I took a year off and worked, then went on to get my college degree.

    • RJ says:

      Michael Ann, Super kudos to your mom for helping you find a solution that worked for you! And super kudos to you for going on to get your college degree :-)

  4. Pingback: Live Radio Tuesday, November 29, 2011: When Teens Hate School | The Blog Farm - A Growing Blog Community

  5. Pingback: Live Radio Tuesday, November 29, 2011: When Teens Hate School | Hope Coaching with Ronae Jull

  6. Jennifer says:

    Great solutions here, thanks. This is so much better than having the attitude of “too bad, you don’t have a choice.” My kids still love to go to school. I *hope* that never changes!

    • RJ says:

      Jennifer, I’m crossing my fingers right with you! Some kids seem to breeze through those high school years without much struggle, and others just can’t find a way to adjust. Fortunately there are now workable options!

      ~RJ

  7. Marie says:

    When our son realized that the neighborhood high school wasn’t working for him, we allowed him (with guidance) to come up with the solution. He looked at a couple of different schools, wasn’t sure about either of them, so stayed at the high school a while longer until HE was ready to make a change and decided to attend an alternative, independent-study school. There were many who questioned our wisdom since it was so not the norm, but he excelled there where he didn’t at the high school. He also gained the confidence and esteem of learning how to solve his own problems and knowing that his opinion mattered.

    • RJ says:

      Marie, thank you for sharing your experience. The way you created a collaborative atmosphere for your son to find a solution that worked for him is a fantastic way to empower him! Sometimes we parents get so in a rush to create our own solution, that we forget its about what is best (including the timing) for our teens. Kudos to you for helping your son find a way that worked for him!

      ~RJ

  8. I love these tips! It is so important for teens to feel that they are being loved, listened to and validated. When they feel like they really matter and that they have a support system it can mean all the difference in their world. I love your passion and mission. Thank you :)

  9. Anita says:

    Absolutely! Listen is the key to all relationships. I have two grown children and one coming up to his teens, they are all different with different needs and experiences. Its very important to communicate what your hearing back to them as well.

    • RJ says:

      Anita, thank you for highlighting the reality that each child is so very different. And I love your comment about c reflecting what you as a parent hear back to the teenager. Sometimes we think we got the message right, but still may be missing it entirely!

      ~RJ

  10. Excellent tips! As a mom of 5 I can truly tell you that it is very important to listen to our children, set boundaries and open communication. Thankfully we homeschool our children, but even then we deal with some of the same issues…finding alternatives and making the learning process fun, helps dramatically…:)

    • RJ says:

      Dr. Daisy, wow! Homeschooling 5 puts you in the category of “super mom”! As a parent who was homeschooled many years ago, and who homeschooled just one child through highschool, I have a little idea of what your experience is like. My hat is off to you! Sometime I would love to interview you about what its like to decide to home school, and how you have navigated as a family through the issues that come up. Sending you joy in the journey!

      ~RJ

  11. Michele says:

    What a helpful article for parents with teens who hate school. Having constant dialogue with your teen seems like the best option. Hearing and listening without judgement. It is how we navigated through high school with my sons and it definitely worked.

    • RJ says:

      Michele, thank you for sharing a moment from your own experience. That “without judgement” part is SO important, and is the part that so often parents forget!

      ~RJ

  12. Love how you differentiate between a parents frustration with educational opportunities and a teens perspective. Maybe you can talk sometime about the powerlessness a parent feels the older and older a child gets. Dealing with a teens ever-changing emotional landscape is frustrating enough…then to deal with unsupportive or differently-opinionated school systems is a whole ‘nother level of frustration! Great topic!

    • RJ says:

      Elise, thank you for highlighting the very real difference between parents’/educators’ perspective and the viewpoint of teens. So often those two perspectives appear to be at complete cross-purposes, and it is important to navigate carefully.

      I will definitely write soon about the powerlessness experienced by parents as their children grow older. Thank you for the suggestion for such an important topic!

      ~RJ

  13. Thanks for your insightful advice! It’s so easy to give up and not turn on every stone. I am currently struggling with one of my children who has no idea what she wants to study and is therefore working. She started to studying anthropology and then over to psychology. Left after a year and said it was so boring and no place for own interest. I think it’s waste of time in some way but on the other hand she needs more experience from life. Sometimes the pressure from the teachers is too high and it feels as speed is more important than knowledge.

    • RJ says:

      Christer, you bring up an important issue of the pressure for young adults to decide quickly and move through the educational experience fast. Sometimes kids don’t pursue their dreams in a straight line, and in the grand scheme of things, that is really okay! I know from personal experience the frustration of having a young adult who can’t quite decide what they want to be when they grow up, and have found that it is much less stressful for both the parent and the child to simply let go and allow the child the time and support they need to discover their own direction. Sending you courage and gentle joy as your daughter learns her own “perfect fit” place in the world!

      ~RJ

  14. Sue says:

    This is such a great article; in the busyness of our world, sometimes we really don’t take the time to “listen” as closely to what our teens are saying. Anxiety can be very real & cause a lot of stress in teen’s lives. You’ve done a real service here by providing such great insight!

    • RJ says:

      Sue, thank you for your mention of the problem of busyness. It seems we’re all so often nearly frantic trying to keep up with life, and sometimes forget to pay attention to the real struggles of our teens. But when we do pay attention and provide a safe haven for them, life can get so much better!

      ~RJ

  15. Lorii Abela says:

    Thank you for sharing this post! These are really wonderful tips! It is nice to know that there are someone like you that help parents to communicate with their children. Keep it up!

    • RJ says:

      Lori, thank you for your kind remarks:-) It is nice to be heard and appreciated! We can each be a positive influence in the lives of teenagers – here’s hope for better authentic experiences for every teenager we come in contact with, and for every parent who loves them!

      ~RJ

  16. Thanks for the article Ronae. This is an issue that needs to be dealt with more & more, for sure. In this crazy world, there are so many things that make school difficult including bullying…
    The LEARNED Preneur @ NormaDoiron.NET╰☆╮

    • RJ says:

      Norma, thank you for your comment. It seems that we must constantly not only protect our kids from bullying, but also arm them with an arsenal of coping skills that they will continue to use as they grow into adults. Here’s to making a positive impact in the lives of these “almost adults”!

      ~RJ

  17. Kim Garst says:

    Lovely article with valuable tips. It is important that our teens can come to us with their problems and we can work together to help them solve them. There are so many issues that they face in today’s world that it is important for them to have this safe zone.

    • RJ says:

      Kim, there sure seems to be a never-ending set of stresses for teenagers today, and I think I’ve become one of those adults who can honestly say it was easier “back in the day” 40 years or so ago when I was a teenager (although it was still stressful back then)! That ‘working together to solve problems’ principle is so important, and can make the difference between teens who seem to barely struggle through those years, and teens who can make mindful use of experiences to grow into the person they are becoming!

      ~RJ

  18. wow! how that would have helped when my youngest was in high school! Thinking now that these same valid principles will work and be helpful even though our kids are no longer in school – life can sometimes be overwhelming in the transitions – these tips are really strong helps!

    • RJ says:

      Michelle, it seems some kids just struggle harder through the tough high school years! You are so right – the principles here can definitely be applied to relationships with adult children as well, and can help provide the road map for options and support during transitions at any time of life.

      ~RJ

  19. Lauryn Doll says:

    I loved this post. When I was a teenager, I didn’t really feel that I was paid attention to in the manner that I’d have liked… and I want to be sure when I have teens, they know they can come to me for mostly anything…during that phase.

    • RJ says:

      Lauryn, being prepared and mindful of what didn’t work so well during your own teen years is so important! It can serve as a great motivator for you to lay a good foundation starting early, and hopefully ease your own teens through these tough years!

      ~RJ

  20. Max M. says:

    Communication is always key. My parents were always approachable and it was very helpful in getting through high school.

    • RJ says:

      Max, what a marvelous experience you had with approachable parents! So many teens say their parents don’t listen or pay attention, and it is always heartening to hear stories from those who had parents who stayed engaged and proactive!

      ~RJ

  21. Peggy Malone says:

    It’s great to hear that there are voices helping parents to find options other than the status quo for their kids who may need something different.

    • RJ says:

      Dr. Peggy, thank you for your comment:-) Being an involved parent sometimes means finding alternatives, but those options can mean the difference between just surviving the high school years, or thriving through the experience!

      ~RJ

  22. Edmund Lee says:

    Great tips. Although not a parent yet, this is something that I know that I will face when I do have kids.

  23. Having all teenagers who are in high school right now, I totally agree with listening to your kids and being attentive what they’re experiencing in school! Great article!

    • RJ says:

      Antonina, oh boy! Having just one teenager at a time is tough – several increases your own stress as a parent exponentially! Sending you courage and joy as you navigate these challenging years with compassion!

      ~RJ

  24. Tara says:

    Great post. I’ll have to remember to find it again when my girls become teens! they are all in primary at the moment, and they still love school.

  25. Thanks for sharing on this topic. I know this is true for many children. Great article!

  26. This is a great article. It’s so important to really listen to you your teen as well as give them the support they need to deal with the stress of school. The warning signs are a great way to know whether or not your teen may need a different school. Thanks for your information!

    • RJ says:

      Lisa, paying attention to the warning signs is so important! And when teens can’t describe their stress in words, parents need to notice the non-verbal signs of stress and address issues before they become overwhelming. There is hope!

      ~RJ

  27. What a great post! I love the wisdom that you share here with each of us! As a former teacher and school administrator I have found too that when students are able to connect their school work to something that they enjoy or hope for in the future, that this too can help bring the “spark” back with regards to schooling. Students today need to know and understand how their current schooling can help them achieve the dreams and hopes that they have for the future. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • RJ says:

      Jennifer, thank you for sharing your input as a former educator. With parents, teachers and teens working together, teenagers have a much better chance of growing through the school experience rather than simply “hating it” and giving up. That connection between teens’ current schooling and their future hopes and dreams is so important, but won’t happen accidentally!

      ~RJ

  28. Important topic. It makes 100% sense to “Listen” to your kids. That way you can find out so much about them. Thanks for sharing.

  29. Great post, RJ! While all 5 points present relevant and vital steps to actually helping teens with this issue, for me, numbers 4 and 5 speak the loudest. I’m always supportive of my teens and constantly helping my family understand and find balance. I’m lucky, so far, that my teens haven’t given me any serious problems, your advice and active steps are meaningful for any parent of teens. Too many parents have the “not my child” syndrome, when it comes to seeking help for their kids. — they aren’t having serious issues, so think that seeking help is a bit over the top. Certainly, many teens do not need intense help because they aren’t experiencing intense issues, but this certainly doesn’t mean they won’t benefit from coaching or helpful advice from a professional.

    • RJ says:

      Sam, I think its super important for all parents to pay attention to their teenagers’ school experience! Even when teens don’t refuse to go to school or sink into deep depression or anxiety, there are still enormous stresses inherent in the entire school experience. Paying attention and creating an atmosphere of open communication and support can go a long way to keeping those issues from becoming more serious. Kudos to you for helping your family stay in balance!

      ~RJ

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