What is School Refusal?

One family's story about mental health

By Fall of 2019 he had officially dropped out and was not doing any more schooling. My son who was a 'straight A' student who loved to learn. What happened?

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Kara Larson

School refusal is something that not a lot of people have heard of. I know I hadn’t. What I am going to say is from OUR personal experience with it. I am not an expert in any way, except of my own experience. With that being said, school refusal is when your child suddenly refuses to go to school. Not because they want to stay home to play, even though they may say that is why. There is usually something else, such as anxiety, going on. Take what I say for what it is: a mom who wants to help those who are also dealing with this. From there, I encourage you to reach out to those who are experts for help.

Our School Refusal Story

For us it started in Kindergarten. At the time we had no idea what school refusal was, or what it would be like as he got older. Our oldest, Connor, was in Kindergarten when all of a sudden he didn’t want to go anymore. He had done preschool and LOVED school and learning. But we were dragging him (literally) into school while he cried. It was hard. His dad had to do it all by himself, too, as I was already at work. Connor loved his teacher, he loved his classmates and he loved to learn. So what was the problem? He was too young to tell us how he was feeling, but my guess is that it was because he didn’t want to leave Grandma.

My mom watched him and his brother when they weren’t at school. He had been with grandma from birth, while we worked. Additionally, he was transitioning from half-days at preschool to full-days in Kindergarten. As the year went on it got better, but there were still bad days. During that year we just figured he was young and it would get better. Which it did. He didn’t get upset the rest of Elementary school. He didn’t fight us, and he loved school.

Photo Credit: Kara Larson

Middle School

Then we got to 6th grade. All of a sudden he was freaking out and not wanting to go to school. He was still unable to vocalize WHY he didn’t want to go to school. I noticed how he was acting and realized it seemed to be anxiety. And he just wanted to be at home. I, myself, have anxiety and could see some of the same signs in him, like his breathing etc. However, with him being older it wasn’t as easy to pick him up and carry him into school screaming and crying. We needed help. We reached out to the school and the counselor.

The counselor started to work with him. They talked about his school refusal, and he taught Connor breathing techniques. Eventually we figured out what the problem was. He was diagnosed with Anxiety and PTSD by his doctor. You see, I had just started staying home that summer, and now when he went to school I was home alone. This seems like no big deal, right? Well, when he was 3-years old, I fell down the stairs and broke my ankle. I was screaming for my husband, which woke him up. Connor witnessed the cops and ambulance medics trying to get me up the steps. He was afraid to leave me.

As a result, he would freak out when he had to go to school. He was worried I was going to hurt myself and no one would be there for me. He would imagine me falling down the stairs, cutting myself, getting into a car accident, etc. Connor knew that even if he WAS there, he couldn’t stop it — but he could help. So, we talked to his doctor and she put him on a low dose of anxiety medication. It helped a lot. In combination with his coping skills, he was going to school with no issues. We got through all of middle school and his freshman year with no big issues.

High School

Freshman year did have a few struggles. For example, his social anxiety seemed to get worse and talking to his teachers felt hard. It’s very difficult to look back on this period, because my mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer around the same time. Mom found out right after school started, and we knew it was bad. She battled it for almost 9 months and passed away that next June.

A Huge Loss

My mom was Connor’s best friend. Like I said before, she watched them when they were born until I stayed home. And even after, they went over to her house sometimes. When he had issues with school, he would go visit with her and she would help calm him down. This news was a huge blow. He had no idea what was going to happen and I think he really just wanted to be with her all the time. He wanted to go see her before school a lot of times. She would talk to him as he cried about going to school.

I reached out the high school and we got him in contact with a Student Assistant Counselor who he could go to, talk to, and sit in their area while he calmed down. The school was AMAZING at helping us try to get him into school. However, it just got worse. He was having anxiety before school and during his classes. His counselor would come out to the car to walk him in because he wouldn’t ride the bus anymore.

Anxiety

In class everything would trigger his anxiety. If a teacher said no one could be on their phones, he would notice kids on their phones and it would set him off. He has always been a rule follower and seeing other kids not following the rules was just too much for him. Connor hated that they would delaying class because other kids weren’t doing what they were supposed to. He wanted to learn, that is what he was there for.

Then, the mornings turned to hell. Let me tell you, it’s a good thing I wasn’t working because the mornings would wipe me out. He just wouldn’t budge. He was anchored to the ground and we could not move him. We tried baby steps. For example, just pick up your bag, now walk to the door, etc. But he would freak out. We tried tough love, being easy going, and we even threatened him.

I don’t know how many times I told him I would take him to the hospital. And the worst? His anxiety set off my anxiety. As a result, my husband had to deal with both of us being a mess. Thank goodness for Xanax (for ME)!

Therapy

Let me tell you right now, we were in communication with the school a lot. And they were AMAZING to work with. They tried everything to help him return to school. At this point we knew we needed to get him into therapy. We talked to our doctor about increasing his medication, or changing it. So, she changed it and also recommended we get into a psychiatrist because he may need different medications or more help. He started therapy but couldn’t get into a psychiatrist until January.

Alternative Education

In November he just stopped going to school after Thanksgiving break. We tried to get him into an online school called Connections Academy. Let’s just say if you don’t sign up when it’s open, it’s hard to get in. This is because in Iowa they only allow so many kids to sign up online through them. But we spent MONTHS trying to get it. We tried everything, but nothing worked.

Trying again

So we tried to get him to go back to the high school in February, but he just went back to school refusal. For instance, he would get to school and would not be able to cross the door into the class. He couldn’t make himself go in. We decided to try baby steps. We got him to go to the school and sit in the commons just reading while kids walked around him. One of his fears was that everyone was judging him still. Some teachers would let him sit out in the hallway to do work. However, it got bad again.

I was picking him up an hour or two after he had been dropped off. So then we talked to them about doing online schooling at the end of the school year and through the summer. He started doing his online courses, but then mom my passed away. As a result, he fell into depression again and just couldn’t focus on his school work. He had gotten through a few months before this happened.

Connections Academy

In 2019 (11th grade) we registered him for Connections Academy, and he started school online. He was doing it, but he was home by himself, all day. He started getting depressed again and after talking to the principal of the school, we thought it best for him to drop out. By Fall of 2019 he had officially dropped out and was not doing any more schooling.

My son who was a ‘straight A’ student who loved to learn. He is so smart and would talk about a future. What happened?

Our Truths

Since he has gotten well, thanks to the right medication, EMDR therapy, and talk therapy, we have had a lot of conversations about high school. At the time anxiety made it so he couldn’t think, he couldn’t explain exactly what was going on. He wanted me to be in every therapy session with him, so we talked about a lot. I learned a lot as well.

He thought he had to be perfect, he thought he had to be a role model for his siblings. Neither of these things we had ever told him. We never pressured him to get good grades. Heck, I was not a good student. He admits it was his own pressures. He thought these things all the time. Negative self-talk, thinking he was no good to anyone.

His social anxiety was bad. He has always had social anxiety but never that bad. He thought people were judging him or out to get him. I can relate because I have been there myself. He was so afraid of doing anything wrong. He was terrified of trying anything. I never told him at the time, but I am sure I said “bad” things to him. There were times I hated him. There were times I wanted to drop him off at my mom’s house. And there were times I wanted to push him out of the car when he would freak out.

What you need to do

School refusal is different for everyone. Some will never get as severe as Connor did. I wonder if mom hadn’t gotten sick if it wouldn’t have been as bad.

Communicate with the school

You need to talk to the school. Let them know this is real and not just your child wanting to stay home to play with toys. Many kids who experience school refusal criteria have anxiety. I have talked to many parents, and that’s been the case. Some schools will help walk your kid in, acting as an ally. Use them!

Medication

Don’t be afraid of medication. It’s how my four kids and I function, mostly, like normal people. Depression and anxiety can be based on a situation or event that happened. However, sometimes it’s hereditary, like in my family. All four of my kids have anxiety. Connor has depression, and my daughter shows signs sometimes. Connor was learning coping skills but he couldn’t USE them because his anxiety was so bad. Once the medication helped him he could use his coping skills!

Covenant Family Solutions has a team of experienced and compassionate mental health nurse practitioners. Call for medication management services.

Grounding Techniques

Meditation helps too. The Calm or Headspace apps are great ones to use. I personally use the free versions. It helps you get to a calm place where you can think again.

Therapy

Sometimes kids just need to talk. Sure, it helps to figure out what is going on. It can teach them that not everything is the end of the world. Therapists are much better at doing this than I am. Connor was in therapy for quite awhile until he started doing a lot better. Then again, he wasn’t in school so he didn’t have his trigger. We still try and get him into social situations. It’s a work in progress.

Find support

YOU ARE NOT ALONE! Trust me when I say that. It’s happening to so many people. More than others know. People are afraid of talking about it. They are worried they are the only one. Some parents I have talked to are worried because they feel like they hate their kid. It’s OKAY to feel that way, but not to act on it. You may need help or therapy yourself.

How can you get started?

Talk to your kids, talk to your school, and talk to your doctor. Maintain open communication about anxiety and remind them that it’s okay to feel that way. Ask them if they need to talk to someone besides mom or dad, or how you can help them. Sometimes they won’t know. It’s okay. Everyone you reach out to will have their own advice and opinion.

You have to do what feels right to you. Find a group on Facebook, maybe there is a local group to talk to. Or a trusted friend. But NEVER think you are a horrible parent. School Refusal is HARD and no one trained us on how to handle it perfectly.

This story was first published on Kara Larson’s Facebook page.

Author

Kara Larson
Kara Larson
Kara Larson is the Executive Assistant over Financing at Covenant Family Solutions. She is also a wife and mother of four humans and a "few" guinea pigs. Having faced mental health challenges first hand, she is passionate about mental health and advocating for all people to seek help when needed.
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Kara Larson
Kara Larson
Kara Larson is the Executive Assistant over Financing at Covenant Family Solutions. She is also a wife and mother of four humans and a "few" guinea pigs. Having faced mental health challenges first hand, she is passionate about mental health and advocating for all people to seek help when needed.
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