School-related anxiety is a complex and challenging issue that can cause a great deal of distress to families. But there are solutions and with support, most children and young people go back to a normal pattern of school attendance.
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While dealing with school-related distress and anxiety it is important to be gentle with our child and also with ourselves. School-related anxiety does not mean we are failing as a parent – although it may feel that way. School-related anxiety can put a strain on our emotions and on our relationships and leave us feeling drained. We need to remind ourselves that we are doing our best in a very demanding situation. We are not failing, but we may be stuck for a moment as we work out a way out of the situation. Self-compassion will be more helpful than self-criticism as we navigate our way ahead.
What is School-Related Anxiety?
Sometimes known as school refusal, between 1% and 5% of school students can go through a period of reluctance to attend school, where they do not attend for an extended period of time due to their emotional distress. These strong emotions typically include anxiety or depression. Sometimes these emotions are accompanied by issues at school such as learning difficulties, ADHD, or bullying. And sometimes issues at home such as domestic violence or parental separation can also contribute.
Physical symptoms such as stomach pains, nausea, and headaches can also be a part of school-related anxiety. Your child might make statements such as ‘I don’t like school’ or ‘I don’t want to go today’ but they probably won’t be able to explain why.
School-related anxiety often occurs at critical times of transition such as the early years of primary and high school. It is also most likely to happen at the beginning of the school year, the beginning of a term, or the beginning of the week.
Some young people may skip school and go to the beach, or meet up with friends to skateboard instead of going to school. This sort of behaviour is not considered school-related anxiety but comes under the category of truancy, as it is done without the parent or carer’s knowledge or approval.
Certainly, the disruption to schooling caused by Covid-19 has increased the frequency of school-related anxiety. Covid-19 also led to inconsistent patterns of attendance as schools opened and closed in unpredictable ways, which for many students led to them losing a consistent pattern of attendance. Many students found it hard to keep dealing with the stress of returning to school multiple times, and some of them went on to develop attendance issues.
What can I do?
Firstly, if you think your child is starting to show signs of reluctance to go to school, it is best to act sooner rather than later. We have to strive not to let a child stay home without a very good reason. When we allow a child to stay home they feel a sense of relief, and this feeling tends to lead them to repeat their behaviour the next day.
School-related anxiety requires a team approach- it is difficult to manage it alone. Having the support of mental health professionals, the school, and possibly your own personal support network will give the best possible chance of success.
It is also important to be aware that there are not necessarily any quick fixes, and that there will probably be setbacks along the way. This is a normal part of the process of making things better. We just need to stay hopeful and maintain our belief that things will improve as we work towards a solution.
Mental Health Support
School-related anxiety is very commonly related to a mental health challenge so it is a good idea to get a mental health assessment. Knowing about underlying mental health concerns such as anxiety and depression helps in identifying and treating the underlying cause of the behaviour. Having this understanding also helps us not see this as a behavioural problem. It helps us know that our child is not just being stubborn or uncooperative.
A good starting point for a mental health review is your GP, or directly contacting a service such as Headspace, or reaching out to a psychologist.
One factor that is often present in school-related anxiety is that young people underestimate their ability to cope with returning to school. They worry that everyone will ask where they have been, or that they will not be able to catch up on missed work, or that friends won’t want to be with them.
It is important that your family establishes a trusting working relationship with the school to help your child.
The school can help in many ways:
- Developing an attendance plan to gradually help a young person increase their attendance at school.
- Having someone to warmly meet and welcome the young person to school each day.
- Exploring issues at school that may be contributing to the school-related distress and anxiety such as bullying or learning issues.
- Provide school counsellor support.
- Establish a safe place for the student to go to if they are feeling overwhelmed at any point during the day.
Our role as a parent or carer is critically important. We need to communicate to our child our quiet confidence and belief that they will go to school each day.
This message must not be given in anger or frustration, but with compassion and kindness. But we must be clear to our child that we have a confident expectation that they will go to school, even if they do not really feel like it on any particular day.
As a parent or carer we also have to be aware of how school difficulties impacts on us.
For many of us we can start to have feelings of anxiety and hopelessness in response to our child’s attendance issues. We can start to worry and become distressed when we notice that our child is feeling mentally and physically unwell at the thought of going to school. At times our worry leads us to allow them to stay home or to leave school early if they are there.
When dealing with school reluctance there may be days when we can feel that we are not making progress or are even going backwards, but this is a normal part of the process of things getting better. So at times where our son or daughter does not go to school it is important that we do not lose hope, but accept it as a temporary setback and see tomorrow as chance for things to improve.
Our words are powerful. As a parent or carer what we say can influence how our child feels and behaves. Below are some examples of supportive ways to speak with your child.
However some messages are not helpful. For example:
“I don’t know what to do with you. I’m fed up. You are going to get into serious trouble. How will you ever get a job? You are your life. You are upsetting the whole family.”
A more helpful message would be:
“I know that it is really hard for you to get to school. I know it is not easy. And I am going to support you and do whatever it takes to get you back to school. I know it is hard but I know you can do it.”
This example is best approach. It is a warm and supportive (not angry) message that communicates a clear belief that this is a solvable problem. It also communicates an expectation and confidence that your child will go to school. This has to be the consistent message that we provide our son or daughter. It is not a quick fix to the situation but it is an essential part of the solution.
Both you and your child need kindness when dealing with the challenge of school-related anxiety. We
need to acknowledge that attending school is not easy for a lot of young people who are still developing
their skills to deal with their mental health and the challenges that life provides them. As parents we
must acknowledge the impact of school-related distress on ourselves. We must strive to maintain our
hope and our connection with our son or daughter during this challenge. And we must also believe in
and support ourselves, acknowledging that this is a common struggle for parents and it is not a sign
that we are a failure in some way. With support for your family and support for your child, school
related-anxiety will end.
Parent Line counsellors are available to support and assist families across
NSW with issues such as school-related anxiety and distress.
Phone 1300 1300 52 to speak to a parenting counsellor today.