How to help your child or teen overcome school refusal due to anxiety

by | Nov 16, 2023 | Anxiety

Every child or teen has days when they grumble about going to school. Some may even ask to stay home occasionally for a break.

But school refusal due to anxiety isn’t about disliking school or having the occasional day where they want to stay home.

Instead, school can feel unbearable. Having to attend or even thinking of attending can cause some kids to feel increasing levels of panic that leave them feeling out of control or scared. It can even contribute to physical signs like shaking, poor concentration, and difficulty thinking clearly.

When your child continuously struggles to go to school or refuses to, it also takes a toll on the whole family. You, your child, and other family members can end up feeling emotionally exhausted by the daily struggles and pleadings not to go. And even when your child does end up attending school, you know you’ll likely face the same challenge and problems again the next morning.

However, you can help your child overcome the anxiety, fears, and panic that may contribute to their anxiety about school and refusal to attend. In this article, we’ll explore school refusal, anxiety’s role, and strategies to help your child overcome their challenges.

What is school refusal?

School refusal is when a child or teen gets highly upset at the idea of going to school. Your morning routine could be a daily struggle of negotiations to try to avoid school, or they often refuse to attend and may miss some or all of most school days. It’s an ongoing struggle, not something that only occurs occasionally.

It’s not about “playing hooky” or a passive not wanting to go to school.

Children experiencing school refusal often display extreme emotional or behavioural reactions when parents or teachers try to get them to go or stay at school.

Additionally, they’re not being intentionally defiant. For many, their anxiety about school builds to a point where they can’t cope. As a result, they don’t want to go to school.

a teenager with anxiety and her school refusal

How does anxiety contribute to school refusal and avoidance?

Children and teens can feel anxious about going to school for various reasons.

Some children and teens feel overwhelmed by the pressure placed on them to perform at a high level — whether from the school, their parents, their peers, themselves, or a combination.

They may report things like:

  • “School is too hard. There’s too much pressure on me.”
  • “I can’t handle it.”
  • “I can’t be as good at it as my peers.”


The pressure to perform well at school or feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork aren’t the only reasons kids can feel anxious about school.

Sometimes, kids are going through difficulties at home, such as a loss, divorce, or illness in the family. These types of events can make it harder for them to settle at school, especially if they’re struggling to deal with their emotions related to the other events.

Some kids may be bullied at school, suffer from social anxiety or other mental illnesses, or have learning difficulties contributing to their anxiety about school. They may struggle socially or have separation anxiety. These situations can make school extra challenging and anxiety-provoking, leaving them feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and out of control.

Signs that anxiety may be fueling your child’s refusal to go to school:

  • Feeling sick or having a stomach ache or headache every morning before school
  • Excessive crying or clinging to a parent when being dropped off at elementary school
  • Repeatedly calling or texting parents that they need to come from school even though they’re not physically ill
  • Panicking at the thought of school or having panic attacks at school
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Reporting frequent bad dreams related to school
  • Not completing homework
  • Drop in their grades
  • Not wanting to get ready for school
  • Withdrawing from activities they used to enjoy

Understanding what your child is experiencing

It can help to understand why they don’t want to go to school and what they’re experiencing. This can help guide what type of strategies and solutions may best help them.

When talking with them, make sure they know you just want to understand and that you’re there for them. Let them know you want to support and help — not judge or criticize.

But it may be hard for kids to express what’s going on, when they started feeling this way, or why, especially young children. So be patient.

You may also consider working with a child psychologist familiar with anxiety and school refusal. They can help you and your child get to the root of the problem and work with you to develop strategies that allow them to overcome the anxiety underlying their refusal to go to school.

Working with your child’s school to overcome their anxiousness about school

When your child struggles to go to school or refuses, it’s important to let the school know what’s going on and why your child doesn’t want to attend school.

Additionally, schools may have specialists on staff that can help. And most schools will work with you and your child as you strive to identify ways to ease your child’s school anxiety and get them comfortable attending school.

Here are ways you can start working with your child’s school:

  • Request to meet with your child’s classroom teacher, counselor, or resource specialist
  • Let them know what’s happening, including any specific triggers your child may have identified
  • Talk with them about any ideas you or your child may already have about ways to make it easier to go to and attend school
  • Ask them about any resources or referrals, such as learning evaluations, that may be helpful or provide clarity on why your child struggles to go to school
  • Arrange a specific date when you will check in with the school again to see if any changes implemented have helped


Strategies that may help your child work through school anxiety

School refusal and anxiety can present itself in various ways.

As you understand the triggers or reasons for the school anxiety, you can work with your child and their school to develop specific strategies to help them overcome the underlying issues. Additionally, your child’s school may also be able to set up accommodations to help.

Here are some common scenarios that occur when children are refusing to attend school and some strategies that may help.

Difficulty and anxiousness about arriving at school

Young children may display crying, screaming, or clinging behaviour when having to leave their parents once they arrive at school. Older kids may report feeling anxious, sick, or start to panic as they arrive at school.

In these situations, it may help to:

  • See if the school will allow for a flexible start time to help reduce the pressure of attending at a specific time
  • If the crowd, noise, or bustle of people arriving all at once is contributing to your child’s stress, see if they can arrive before or after others or enter the building in a less busy entryway
  • See if there’s a quiet, calm, and safe spot where your child or teen can start the day, such as with a mentor or staff member

Trouble leaving their parents

Younger children starting school for the first time may initially struggle with going to school. They may cry when dropped off or want their parents to stay. But typically, they get engaged in the school day and have a good time. Also, these behaviours fade out sometime in the first week of school.

But for some kids, this anxiety about being away from their parents doesn’t stop. Or it may develop during the school year, even after they are used to the school routines. In these situations, there may have been a change at home, something that happened at school, or an underlying issue, like a learning difficulty.

Understanding the reason for the anxiety can provide insights into what strategies can help. But in the meantime, it may help to:

  • Let the child keep something of their parents with them, like a sweater in their backpack or wearing a bracelet
  • Have a teacher or staff member they like meet them before the parent leaves

Anxiousness that builds throughout the day

For some kids, the anxiety may strike them at some point during the day. In this case, some strategies that may help include:

  • Having a safe place they can go to when they start to feel anxious or overwhelmed, like a room near the nurse
  • Connecting with a school counselor, resource specialist, or specific staff member who they feel comfortable talking to, and encouraging them to check in with them regularly
  • Giving them a special pass that they can use if they start to feel too anxious that lets them go to a particular safe place
  • Giving them permission to engage in calming activities, like mediation or breathing exercises, when feeling overwhelmed or anxious

Strategies to help at home

  • Create a consistent morning routine to build a sense of normalcy and security and to reduce the stress of getting ready
  • Incorporate using a worry box, where they write down or draw their worries and place it in the box, each day, such as before or after school
  • Do breathing or meditation exercises every morning to help your child feel calm before school starts
  • Let them know you see them trying and point out the small steps and successes that they’re making
  • Provide time for them to relax at home after school with no pressures

Should I force my child to go to school even when they refuse?

When your child is upset, screaming, crying, or panicking about going to school, it can be hard to know what’s the right thing to do.

You know they need to attend school. But you don’t want to cause them too much distress or for them to feel unsupported.

If you’re at the point that your child is refusing to attend, you should:

  • Talk to the school so they understand what’s going on
  • Reach out to a professional, like a child psychologist, to guide you through the process of getting your child attending school while reducing and addressing their anxiety
  • Talk to the specialist and the school about ways to handle days when your child refuses even when you’re following the strategies and plan in place


The ultimate goal is to help your child work through their anxiety so they attend school regularly — and without feeling anxious.

But this is a process. There will be days that go well and days that are hard. But with the proper support and plan, your child will make progress.

happy child

Your support and encouragement help

It’s heartbreaking to see your child struggling to make themselves go to school. But they don’t want to fail — they do ultimately want to overcome the anxiety holding them back and succeed.

While it can take time and patience, your child or teen can work through their challenges. And your support, warmth, and encouragement do make a difference in how they feel and see themselves. Working with them and helping them through their difficulties can make a difference in helping them achieve their goals and overcome their anxiety.

But the process can be emotionally exhausting and hard to handle. So it’s important for you to look after yourself during this time too.

  • Reach out to supportive friends and family or a mental health professional.
  • Make time for yourself to enjoy a hobby, read a book, or have quiet time to yourself.
  • Take care of your health by sleeping regularly, eating healthy foods, and exercising.
  • Set aside time for you, your child, and your family to do activities together that you enjoy.

What can I do if my child’s anxiety and school refusal isn’t improving?

Anxiety can take time to work through. If your child is struggling, a child psychologist who specializes in counseling for anxiety and school refusal can help.

They will work with you, your child, and their school to help develop strategies tailored to your child’s situation. They will work with your child to help them better understand their anxiety and how they can work through it. Additionally, they will support your child and you throughout the process.