Hello and welcome back parents, caregivers, and family members of teenage kiddos! In the thrilling saga of raising teenagers, we often face challenges like teenage stress and anxiety, however I want to take some time and acknowledge a potential elephant in the room- school refusal. As the summer-time fun and freedom comes to an end, and school begins, you might be noticing your teen refusing to go to school. This can be so stressful and frightening to manage. I wish I could tell you not to sweat it, but we all know that won’t help… What I can actually do is tell you I know how hard this can be, and I am here as a Marriage and Family Therapist (who is also a parent) to offer some information and guidance that you can lean on. I’m all for practical strategies!
Understanding Teenage Anxiety and School Refusal: Before we delve into the strategies, let’s shed some light on teenage anxiety and school refusal. School refusal is a behavior that can accompany intense stress, general anxiety, social anxiety, or phobia. Picture this: your once sweet and eager little scholar is now battling stress and uncontrollable worries, leading them to avoid going to school.
Signs and Symptoms:
- Anxiety: Have you noticed your teen experiencing excessive worry, restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, racing thoughts, avoidance, panic attacks, excessive self-consciousness, perfectionism? You might hear them doing a lot of “what if-ing” and predicting negative outcomes. These signs may indicate anxiety that needs addressing, especially if you are noticing 3 or more of these that are lasting and interfering with your teen doing the things they normally need and want to do.
- School Avoidance: Is your teen often making physical complaints, frequently tardy, skipping school regularly, grades are dropping, crying or otherwise resistant, avoiding classmates, reporting bullying, needing lots of reassurance? Your teen may have been assigned detention for too many tardies, or you might have been contacted from the school office, guidance counselor, or teachers regarding your teens attendance. These can all be a sign that school refusal is becoming an issue. School refusal is a serious sign that your child is in need of support, and there can be serious consequences for you and your child if your teen is not attending school regularly.
Parental Support Strategies: Here’s your toolkit for helping your teen navigate these challenges with your expert parenting skills:
- Unlock the Channels of Communication: Just like having a heart-to-heart chat with a good friend, initiate open conversations with your teen. Create an environment where they feel comfortable sharing their concerns without fear of judgment. Practice openness and empathy.
- The Power of Active Listening: Become an active listener – a bit like tuning in to your favorite podcast. Pay attention to what your teen is saying, both verbally and through body language. Put away any distractions, make gentle eye contact, and don’t forget to nod, smile, or otherwise express emotion where appropriate. Sometimes, the unsaid words can hold the most meaning.
- Equip Them with Coping Tools: Empower your teen with practical coping strategies to manage their anxiety. Breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and seeking support from school counselors or therapists can be valuable tools in their toolkit. Incorporate tools for general stress management and reduction- demonstrate time management skills, encourage and show them how to stay organized, teach them how to deal with stressful things rather than avoid them, and show them the value and benefits of relaxation and recreation.
- Practice the Art of Patience: Just like tending to a delicate garden, nurturing your teen’s emotional well-being requires patience. This can be hard! Help yourself stay patient by practicing your own self-care, using deep breathing, setting realistic expectations, or counting to 10 and reflecting before you react. Progress takes time, and your steady presence will make a world of difference for your teen.
- Create a Consistent Routine: Routine acts like a stabilizing force amidst the chaos. Stability can be very comforting in the face of anxiety, as predictable routines can help soothe and increase a sense of safety and support. Help your teen establish a daily schedule that balances school, leisure, and responsibilities. Consider regular bedtime and wake times with an awareness of your teens’ needs, avoid over-scheduling, consider limiting extra-curriculars, initiate set times to complete school work, and sit down to regular family dinners if possible. Consistency provides a reassuring framework that will be a wonderful source of support.
- Foster Meaningful Connections: Encourage your teen to maintain and build connections with friends, classmates, teammates, or other peers with similar interests. Social interactions and increased connection offers a sense of belonging that can help boost confidence and can act as a shield against anxiety.
- Seek Professional Assistance: Sometimes, calling in the experts is the best course of action. You don’t have to go through this alone. If you’re struggling to cope, a qualified therapist can offer your teen (and you!) specific guidance and support tailored to your unique personality and set of circumstances, to help you overcome these challenges. and thrive.
As you head into this next school year, please remember that you and your teen are not alone. Anxiety disorders affect 31.9% of adolescents between 13 and 18 years old, and approximately 2-5% of children and teens experience anxiety-related school refusal. Teenage anxiety and school refusal can be completely overwhelming, know that you are off to a good start when you implement these practical strategies. Your dedication and your commitment to your teen will make a huge difference in their experience. And again, don’t be afraid to recruit help from resources when the going gets tough. Here at Outside the Norm Counseling, we can see your teen, to support them in overcoming anxiety and stress leading to school refusal, and we can also see you, to help build up your own skills to manage the challenges that parenting brings. Check us out in person in Temecula, CA or meet us virtually if you reside in California!