Does your child throw tantrum just before going to school? Does your child make several excuses (stomach ache, headache etc.) just to skip going to school? Does he seem fine on holidays, but sick only on school days? Does he have the Monday blues?
8 years old Shrihari often complains of headaches and stomachaches and says he feels upset and nervous while in school. His parents, however, complain that he seems fine on holidays. His physical ailments only appear on school days; they are concerned that their son may have some physical or mental condition that is preventing his school attendance.
Seems like he is exhibiting characteristics of what psychologists call - School Refusal. School refusal differs from truancy. Children with school refusal feel anxiety or fear towards school, whereas truant children generally have no feelings of fear towards school, often feeling angry or bored with it instead.
As explicit as the title, school refusal is when the child (mostly ages 5 - 8) gets extremely upset about the idea of going to school and prefer to spend time home.
Although School refusal is not a psychiatric diagnosis, rather just a name for the emotional and behavioral disturbance in children relating to school. It can be very stressful time for the children and their parents. While this was formerly called school phobia, the term school refusal was coined to reflect that children have problems attending school for a variety of different reasons and these reasons might not be the expression of a true phobia, such as separation or social anxiety.
Let us take a look at the signs of school refusal;
When your child refuses to go to school, or get dressed for school, your home may become a war zone! Your child might hide under the bed, throw tantrums, cry/weep, take the bed-covers above him, refuse to move from his place, complain of various aches in his/her body, or even make a threat of self-harm.
What steps can you, as a parent do, at such a point in time?
- Stay calm and polite: Children can sense anxiety and worry in parent's voice and may react in a worse manner. It might affect their anxiety levels as well. Staying calm also gives you less headache and presents a model way of behavior for the children to follow. As a parent, things may get really frustrating but try to refrain from bombarding your anger on the child.
- Check for medical causes: When your child complains persistently of a physical cause, get them checked by a licensed physician. Approximately 52% of adolescents with school refusal behavior meet criteria for an anxiety, depressive, conduct-personality, or other psychiatric disorder later in life. If a child has somatic complaints, you can expect to find that the child is suffering from a true physical malady.
- Try to find the root cause: You as a parent can work with the counselor and the child to figure out the exact reason for child's maladaptive behavior. Whether it is bullying, generalized anxiety, depression, social phobia, separation anxiety etc., the problem can be solved by first knowing its origin. Tak to the child, gain his confidence and support him non-judgementally. Addressing the issue becomes easier when the cause is known.
- Talk to the school staff: If the reason for not going to school are related to excessive studies pressure, bullying or peer pressure, then parents need to be in touch with the school authorities and other concerned parents. There should be zero tolerance for bullying in school and it is parents job too, to notify the school staff of such dangerous behaviors. School refusal is a major symptom when it comes to bullying, sexual abuse or harassment, teasing, etc. The parent must notify the teacher and take steps to make the child's life easier.
- Talk to a therapist: Cognitive behavior therapy which is derived from behavior therapy may be useful in the case of children refusing to attend school. The goals of this therapy include the correction of maladaptive and inappropriate behaviors. The therapist might also use Systematic desensitization, this is a technique by which the child is gradually helped to modify his or her emotionally distressing reaction to school so that eventually the child can return to school without experiencing distress. Another approach the counselor might take is of Exposure therapy, this is a technique by which the child is exposed in a step-wise fashion to increasing intensity and duration of the emotionally distressing event coupled with encouragement to modify maladaptive and inappropriate cognitions gradually enough that the child becomes able to tolerate the previously distressing experience (that is, school attendance) without distress.
Listening to the child's real problems and fears of going to school is extremely crucial. Some of the reasons for refusing to attend school may include another child at school who is a bully, problems on the bus or carpool ride to school, or fears of inability to keep up with the other students in the classroom. These issues can be addressed only if they are known. Hence parents need to be aware of the whole situation and be open minded in order to cure this problem.