School refusal is a problem that a growing number of parents and their kids are dealing with. Today we have a brave guest writer who will share her family struggles, her mistakes and what has helped her and her family as her child’s anxiety led to a lot of school absence.

Nina’s Story

​In this post we will cover:

💪 Equip yourself for the endless struggles.
❤️ How not to let the stress take control over you and your family
😌 How to find your calm through physical challenges and anxiety attacks
🌱 Take courage! It is ok to go one step at a time!

What is your first thought when you hear School refusal?

Is it a part of your own story? A distant memory or experience you vividly remember? Is it still affecting you? 
Maybe a loved one is dealing with school refusal and you have been wondering how to better support them. 
Are you facing this big monster right now and you feel completely lost and defeated?

Growing up I loved school, I think I did. While for me as a kid, school was the stage where I could shine and play my role, I now realize that school was also a hiding place for me. Strange but true- only at school my social anxiety did not exist, while in other situations I often froze when people were simply being polite by asking me simple questions.


For my own kids, however, school turned out to be the biggest cause of many uncontrollable fears and a trigger for panic attacks. Just like that, the school buildings were our biggest enemy. 

white girl with long brown hair looking sad, head in her knees and refusing to go to school

What is school refusal?

School refusal is a complex multi-layered problem of child-motivated refusal to attend school. What may look like a behavior issue at first is a sign of mental health conditions (like anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety and more) that require further help and support. 

It is common for most school-age children once in a while to resist going to school feigning stomach aches and the such. But school refusal is a more extreme avoidance of school- in some cases, it is a school phobia. Both younger and older children may refuse to go to school and it is very stressful for the child, as well as family relationships, teachers and school staff. 

The first signs of school refusal behavior may start as leaving late on a school day or delaying getting ready in the morning; taking a day off or being sent home because of physical complaints like stomachache, for example; frequenting the nurses office with various pain symptoms; to the point of being unable to go near the school buildings. 

These are some of the most common ways school refusal creeps in, and commonly, as issues grow bigger, we watch our life turn upside down. 

With young children, uncontrollable crying and tantrums are common- physical and emotional outbursts due to separation anxiety or difficulties adapting to a new school or a new environment. 

In my son’s case, it started with his inability to speak at kindergarten- what we later found out was called selective mutism, related to his anxiety. For the three years he attended kindergarten, he was completely mute there, and his stress and anxiety progressively increased, resulting in numerous late mornings, half days and short visits. 

During which he needed us to stay there with him; he occasionally stayed at home and for 3 months he completely missed school being unable to even go near his kindergarten. 

Now he is in grade 1 and with a lot of support and accommodations he has been able to go to school most days, mostly with me staying next to him, and he has been working hard on staying at school by himself for short periods of time. The struggles for him and our whole family are ongoing.

a white mom with brown hair wearing a lilac top and white pants, hugs her School refusal son as they sit on the sofa. both look sad and worried

Why our natural responses to School refusal don’t work

What at first may look like a minor problem- “I-am-having-a-bad-day” kind of problem- as days go by, the problem gets bigger and scarier, for everyone involved. 

When your child refuses to go to school, you may find yourself trying different strategies and experimenting with any of these:

Conjouling:

Trying to convince them that school is not too bad. Undermining the issue gets you nowhere; your child feels unseen and misunderstood and gets more defiant; yours and your young person’s frustration increases each day. Power struggles take a lot of energy and leave us and our children feeling alone and disconnected.

Forcing the Physically:

Trying to physically force them to go to school, which feels terrible for everyone and leaves you exhausted; do you also try to justify it by convincing yourself it is for your child’s best? 
Don’t get me wrong, I am not blaming you. I have been there, believing I am helping my kid get stronger as I give him that final kick into the classroom. 
But I know better now- if we ignore the underlying issues, physically going to school does not have the long-term benefits that we originally hoped for. Do we sometimes need to push a little so they can go outside of their comfort zone? 
Yes.
But it is crucial to break the process into small achievable steps. When my kid refused to go, it took us days, even weeks, before he was able to go on a walk outside and just look at the kindergarten gate from a distance.

Staying Cool:

Trying to keep cool about skipping school attendance and not making a big deal out of it? 

You don’t want to overreact and choose to deal with your child’s emotional distress by letting them stay home whenever the big resistance hits. Your child feels an immediate relief, everyone’s stress levels go down. 

On the surface, all looks good and feels like a good idea. Keeping your cool is important and helpful, of course, and being accepting and understanding of our children’s experiences is what we need for a deeper, more trusting relationship with our kids. 

Yet, it is crucial to look the monster right in the eye. Avoiding addressing mental health issues or encouraging masking behaviors may cause more long-term effects than we reckon. 

There were times I convinced myself that my kid only needed some rest and he would be happily back to school the next day. Now I know I have been too permissive and missed to recognize the support my kid needed, and this kept us stuck for a while.

In a few words:

For children of any age, their parents, caregivers, families, teachers,
School refusal means:
Endless battles, a whirlpool of difficult discussions, increased stress, and painful confusion. 

poster with the text "For children of any age, their parents, caregivers, families, teachers,
School refusal means:
Endless battles, a whirlpool of difficult discussions, increased stress, and painful confusion. Nina Kamburova 
Tiny Hearts Happy Hearts"

How School refusal affects family members

For me, the daily battles, especially the extremely stressful mornings, were so draining, and they left me feeling worried to death about the future. 

  • What is going to happen to my kid if they miss school?
  • What if they end up hating learning?
  • What if they are left behind?
  • What if they don’t practice navigating social situations and end up having no social life? 
  • How will they survive? 
  • How will their life turn out? 

It is so easy to slip into what-if thinking and catastrophizing. Giving yourself a grade based on your child’s behavior and attaching your value to your child’s performance are common parenting pitfalls. Which can result in helpless and  self-blame.

  • What kind of parent am I if I cannot deal with my kids` meltdowns, defiance, big feelings, and negative behaviors
  • When and how can we get out of this mess? 
  • When did things get so complicated? 
  • I see no way out and no rescue.

If you or a loved one are dealing with school refusal, then you know.
You just know.
The physical symptoms that anxiety causes, and the emotional turmoil affects not only our kids but everyone – parents, caregivers, siblings, friends, educators, classmates- and all the relationships become much harder to maintain. 

You are in a strenuous battle to better understand and deal with everyone’s experiences and manage daily interactions. The million questions running through your head, the fears that take control and convince you that you are incompetent, the answers and advice that never seems to work.

What to do about it then?

What I am going to tell you next is the last thing you want to hear. Because in our exhaustion, we are so desperate for a quick fix and one-step solution. Bear with me. 

School refusal is not a thing that disappears just like that. 
Children don’t just grow out of it. 
There is no switch to turn it off.

It takes time, effort, intentionality, space, and grace.

Wait, but I am already exhausted. I am ready to give up. And you tell me I need to try harder, to do more, to push stronger, to keep fighting. I am done, you say. You want to run away and hide.

I hear you. I have felt this way more times I dare to admit.

It is hard to hear it but it is a process that takes time. The good news is that the process doesn’t need to be tedious and dark. And it goes far beyond the issue of going to school or not. I needed some time, space and guidance to be able to come to this realization and truly accept it and work with it. 

You are on this long and winding road, on a journey together with your family, educators, guidance counselors and other professionals. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The passage through is hard, yet meaningful, because courage doesn’t always look like what we expect it to be.

A young child in a yellow tshirt, crying refusing to go to kindergarten. School refusal is upsetting for kids and parents

Courage means choosing your child and your relationship first.

Courage means letting go of your own agenda of your child’s life.
Courage means walking together with your child and letting them be themselves.
Courage means to be their light when they face their darkest fears.
To guide them on their way, as they work through their challenges.
Courage means you know and truly believe they can.

Here are my top 4 School refusal tips simplified:

  1. Get help- for you, for your child, and the whole family if possible. Follow your timing and pace.
  2. Deepen your understanding- become curious and observant, investigate.
  3. Explore your fears and identify your limitations; learn how to deal with your own negative voice
  4. Find a few techniques to use yourself and with your kids. Practice daily, see what works and what not; remember to keep it simple. 

Getting help and support is crucial. Finding out what is available to you takes time and effort, yet having trusted professional help and services can help you get some clarity and make a plan. Checking out your options and trying out available programs may be your starting point and with the time, you may need to sift through and choose what best fit you and your family. 

There is rarely only one isolated reason of school refusal and in most cases it may be caused by a combination of anxiety-related symptoms such as social anxiety, separation anxiety, other anxiety disorders, learning challenges, mental disorders, fear of failure, conflicts with educators or peers, family problems and more. 

That is why it is important to build up a team to help you identify your child’s specific struggles, organize personalized treatment, and make helpful arrangements.

a mom hugging her upset child who doesn't want to go to school

Most people first contact the school personnel mental health professionals and school psychologist and start there. You would probably be advised to first look at the child’s basic needs of nutrition, sleep, routines and structure. 

For some people, parenting support courses and coaching may be extremely helpful. Choosing a more holistic approach may lead you to looking into diet, and alternative treatments like energy healing, alternative medicine, homeopathy and aromatherapy, relaxation techniques etc. 

Some families try cognitive behavior therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. Often, group therapy and social skills training programs may be recommended. Sometimes, in addition to exposure-based treatment, working on improving social-emotional skills and executive function skills may be beneficial. 

With the endless options available online, it is now much easier to connect with support groups and services. It is truly important to find out what works best for you and to surround yourself with your people. 

Having a plan and working as a team on it- in the family, at school, with a counselor, and everyone involved- may play an important role in reaching goals and making positive changes. No matter how much support your child gets outside of home or at school, it is extremely important that we, as parents and caregivers, first understand our particular situation and explore the causes of school refusal, then step in to provide additional support. 

And to be able to be there for your family and play your role as a supporter, I gently remind you that you first take care of you! I know it is overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. A simple act that takes a minute or two, or maximum five, goes a long way.

Simple tips to help you battle everyday struggles with School refusal

There are probably a few areas you and your child may need to work on. And on top of your daily responsibilities, it does feel like a lot of work.

If you are like me, one of the many overwhelmed parents out there, you desperately need a simple way to navigate the complexity of everything related to school refusal. I am not proud to admit it, but it is challenging for me in the heat of the moment to come up with the suitable strategies and tips I have been learning, so I came up with this simple idea. All I need to remember is,

Zoom in

or

Zoom out

How do you use these? Super simple. 

There will be times when you need to give yourself the space to zoom in and times when you need to zoom out.

Zoom in- how does it work?

For example, when your thoughts go wild and keep sending you to a dark bleak future: 

  • If my child is not able to do this simple task right now, what would they do when the requirements go up? 
  • How will my kid deal with a bigger class? 
  • In a new school? 
  • How will he learn to make friends? 
  • Will they get kicked out? 
  • Going to university is impossible! 
  • How is he going to find or keep a job? 
  • Find a partner etc. 

Catastrophizing. 

All you need to remember is to zoom in back to yourself. Try to ground yourself first. Zoom in and feel your feet on the ground. Scan your body and observe your sensations for a minute or two. You may be surprised how helpful just a minute of refocusing is. Staying in your body for you may mean a different practice like a still meditation, or yoga stretches, dancing to your favourite song, etc. if you find some time to do more of these practices,  great, if not, do not get discouraged. 

After you have checked your body- some parts feeling cold/hot, or any tingly sensations, stiffness, etc.- move on zooming in and focusing on the environment around you: 

  • What you see in the room, any smells you can name. 
  • What do you hear? 
  • How does your shirt feel today? 

If the situation allows, try going outside to get some fresh air- nature helps us refocus.

The first step is to start with yourself. 

If the timing feels right, as a second step, you may trying zooming in on your child. Ask yourself if they need anything right now, and what your next step may be. 

  • Any basic needs like food or water? 
  • Do they need a safe place to let some steam off? 
  • Do they need gross movement or fidgets? 
  • Maybe offer a hug or a massage. 

You don’t need to rush to meet their needs- just identifying them helps increase your awareness and confidence. If there is anything you can offer them, great, go for it. Your kids will feel taken care of. If you cannot identify any needs, it is still good. Just let go of your own expectations of doing it all. 

You can also practice zooming in your child’s strengths. Remind yourself of their powers: starting from the things they are good at, then slowly moving into seeing their inner beauty and uniqueness, their inner being. For example, they can draw well, they are good at math, their body is so balanced, she is quick; he is amazing at that game; they pet the dog so gently; she said I love you last night. They enjoy looking at the stars. They are inquisitive; they are kind. They are love. They are light. 

black mom and child hugging and smiling at eat other

Zoom out

You are in the heat of the moment dealing with explosive behaviours, a panic attack, extreme frustration, uncontrollable anger; you try so hard to support your child but it is not working. They cannot do their homework, they refuse to eat, they cannot move away from the screen, they cannot even pass by the school gate without screaming and fighting, let alone entering the school. 

Then it is time for you to zoom out. 

Step out of the moment to remind yourself that this is just a moment and it will pass, it will be over. 

Things look hopeless, you feel you have hit the bottom and there is no light. Remind yourself that there is a way and there is hope beyond the despair you are feeling in the moment. Things change. Zoom out and see the bigger picture: kids are resilient, you are resilient. Your kid is doing their best even though it does look like it. You can do this. They will survive it and will come stronger on the other way. You will figure it out. Your kid will find their way to do life. They will be ok, you will be grateful.

Easier said than done, I know. 

Here are a few more grounding techniques that are generally helpful and especially useful for those of us dealing with bigger challenges daily: 

Journaling

Writing down or voice recording your feelings and experiences, even only a few words- any feelings are acceptable and valid; remember your true value and notice your kids’ strengths. Find a small win daily will keep you moving forward.

Visual prompts

Photos of your kids looking calm and happy, excited and successful- post them on the wall, on the bathroom mirror, in the car, anywhere you can easily see them. What I have tried is printing out a photo of my kids looking super confident, cutting it out and sticking it on a stick, and whenever my kid needs some encouragement or a cute distraction, I would pull out this funny little photo of them. 

With an older child, you may try creating a beautiful vision board with places, things, dreams that inspire them and if they don’t mind, photos of themselves relaxing, playing, enjoying the moment. Stay playful and remind them visually how strong and resilient they truly are.

Encouraging words on post-it notes or framed around the house may serve you and your child as a reminder that you are loved. Or you can dedicate a wall for posting kind messages to yourself and your kids to reinforce our strengths.  


Breathing and mindfulness

Practicing breathing techniques and other simple mindful practices are useful in the heat of the moment and they also help us model for our kids the power of small yet powerful self-soothing techniques. We have a set of mindfulness cards for kids here.

a white woman and small boy sat in their living room meditating

To Wrap Up this post about School Refusal

Some of you may be thinking now, wait, you have told me that I need to be proactively working on understanding my child and the situation, supporting them through treatment, making a plan and intentionally creating opportunities to build on their skills and confidence,

And now you tell me to relax and breathe, and be playful?

Right. Exactly right. 

If you go google, you will find some evidence that sometimes school refusal may spontaneously resolve with age and turn out to be this harmless experience of life. Generally speaking, the prognosis is positive. So why stress about it and do the work?

Because in many cases it affects your child deeply- their mental health, their self-image and self-esteem, and confidence. 

They may grow out of it, and they will find ways of dealing with challenges. As time goes by, they may even forget that difficult period of their life. But most probably, they will remember how showed up for them. And even if on a conscious level they forget how you supported them, they keep the memory deep in their body and soul.

They remember that you were there.

How you stepped in when they needed it and how you stepped out when they wanted space. 

They will remember that you are their rock. 

You have watched them build a cocoon around themselves and then push their way out and become a butterfly. 

Nina Kamburova 

Nina is a mom to three wild fun-loving boys and a teacher to many amazing students who inspire her everyday to show up as their biggest fan. She describes herself as a curious learner and a loving supporter, growing stronger through daily challenges. Nina creates language teaching resources for parents and educators to support children love of learning and build a healthy relationship with their family and community. She is the owner at Tiny Hearts Happy Hearts- Growing together with deeper understanding and compassion: Language practice through connection.

Find Nina:

Nina is a long standing Wonder Mom member and you can find her Moms That Rock interview here.

Website here: Tiny Hearts Happy Hearts
Facebook here: Tiny Hearts Happy Hearts – Learn Connect Grow 
Instagram here: ninak_happy_hearts

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