By Ms. Anu Gehlot , Psychology
“Mommy my tummy hurts….”
Do you hear this frequently as you’re getting ready to drop your child at school? And, does this tummy ache mysteriously vanish within a few minutes of agreeing to let your child stay home for the day? If this scenario plays out regularly in your home, your child could be showing signs of school refusal behavior.
As the name suggests this condition is marked by the child’s refusal to go to school or stay in school for the entire day. It usually affects children between the ages of 5 and 17 years. It is most common during the transitional years such as when your child leaves elementary school to start middle school. Children with average or above average intelligence show the highest risk of this type of behavior. A change in life events such as moving to a new town, the birth of a sibling, a death in the family or being witness to frequent arguments between parents could also spark this type of behavior. Children with a prior history of separation anxiety usually have a higher risk of displaying such behavior. Being ill or seeing a parent ill can also spark school refusal. This may happen even after the child or parent has recovered. Witnessing a traumatic event at school or reading about it could also make the child want to avoid school.
School refusal behavior is not the same as being naughty or playing truant. A child displaying signs of school refusal behavior doesn’t want to stay home because he would rather do something else. This is a form of an anxiety disorder. Truancy is usually noted amongst teenagers while this disorder can affect children of any age. A child playing truant will usually brag about skipping school to his peers while one showing signs of school refusal behavior will be embarrassed by his inability to attend school.
Some of the most common reasons include:
- Parents separating, having marital problems, or having frequent arguments
- A death in the family of a friend of the child
- Moving from one house to another during the first years of elementary school
- Jealousy over a new infant sibling
- Bullying can also be a cause of school refusal. Bullying can include threats, and/or attacking someone verbally or physically. Signs that a child may be a victim of bullying include the following:
- Lost or damaged clothes, books, electronic items, jewelry
- Unexplained injuries
- Avoids school complaining of headaches, stomach pain, feels sick
- Skips meals or binge eating — may not eat lunch at school
- Decline in grades especially in math and reading — not interested in school work
- Nightmares and trouble sleeping
- Decline in self-esteem or feels helpless
Effects of being bullied-
- Increased risk of anxiety & depression
- Drop in grades and academic achievement
- Child who is bullied retaliates with violence toward others
What parents can do to help?
You could force and drag your child to school, but this isn’t really the best way to deal with this condition. Your child may turn defiant and will not be able to absorb what is being taught in school. Instead, here are a few things you should do.
It’s easy to think of this as a phase or behavioral problem and hope that it will simply go away on its own. However, school refusal behavior needs attention and treatment. Do not punish your child or shame him for not going to school. This can make your child withdraw further into himself and complicate the problem. Instead, act as a supportive partner.
Talk to your child
It is important to understand why your child doesn’t want to go to school. Bullying could also make a child want to stay at home. Look out for signs of bullying as well. These include skipping meals, unexplained injuries, frequent loss of stationery, books, clothes etc, loss of self-esteem and avoidance of social situations. Bullying is often associated with several negative outcomes that include substance use and impact on mental health. Alternatively, there may be a problem on the bus to school or with his carpool. Hence talk to your child and try to understand why he or she prefers to stay at home. Once you know the cause, you can address that and persuade your child to attend school.
It is also important to talk to the child about the behavior of the teachers at school. It may be possible that it is the conduct of a teacher that is leading to the school refusal behavior in your child. It is not always right to blame the child for his stubbornness to not go to the school as he/she may fear the punishment or a differential treatment again them. You need to know the exact cause of the fear and talk to the school authorities in case you feel there is something fishy.
Help your child find a hobby
School refusal behavior that stems from a change in life events could indicate low self-confidence. Help your child find a hobby or activity that they like. This can build their self-confidence and can help them make friends. As our child makes more friends he or she will start looking forward to meeting them more often and your task of sending them to school will become easier.
Emphasize the positive aspects of attending school
Giving in to your child and allowing them to stay at home does not help. Instead, this can further build your child’s animosity towards school. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of going to school. Remind your child of their friends, their games and all the things your child enjoys at school. Build a support system within the school. This could include their teachers, the school counsellor and the principal.
If your child misses school too often, it puts a lot on stake. Even the students that are brilliant can also lag in academics if they miss school too much which may, in turn, result in failing. It is important to understand the cause of anxiety and school refusal and solve the problem before it gets worse.