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
- 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.”
- 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’.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.