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What to do when your teen is refusing to go to school.

When your teen tells you they don’t want to go to school, knowing what to do is tough. Should you listen and give them a day off, provide tough love, and tell them they still have to go—or enforce consequences if they stay home? What if they say they don’t want to go to school, not just occasionally, but often?

At Joon, we provide therapy to 13–24 year olds every day. So we understand what’s typical teen stuff versus when to worry, and we can help.

Lauren Hammond, PhD
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
,
Joon Clinical Content Manager

Understanding school refusal.

It’s common for teens to want to skip school on occasion or complain about having to go to school. Sometimes, your teen might just need a break, not feel well, or want to do something they find more enjoyable. 

However, suppose your teen starts refusing to go to school for multiple days in a row or starts missing significantly more school than normal due to illness. In that case, this might indicate something more serious is going on. 

School refusal also differs from skipping classes once at school or truancy. School refusal is when your teen pushes back against going to school in the first place, while school truancy is when your teen skips classes or leaves school early without your knowledge.

Is it time to get support for your 13-24 year old? We’re here to help.

Why would my teen refuse to go to school?

Teens might push back against going to school for several reasons, and it can be hard to determine the underlying cause. Checking in with your teen on these areas may provide some clues as to why they don’t want to go to school. Figuring out the reasons why your teen doesn’t want to go to school as opposed to trying to force them to go to school typically results in less push-back from your teen and often helps them get back to school quicker.

  1. <h3>Recent stressors.</h3>

Many daily stressors can impact your teen’s perception of school. These might include upcoming tests or big assignments, reprimands from teachers, embarrassing social interactions, or pressure from after-school activities. Your teen might be struggling with a stressful event that occurred that week and is avoiding facing it. Figuring out what’s upsetting them will help you determine the best way to help them.

  1. <h3>Interpersonal conflicts or bullying.</h3>

Teens are particularly sensitive to disruptions in their social circle. If your teen is fighting with a friend or is on the outs with their friend group, has gone through a recent break-up, or is experiencing other social upheavals, this interpersonal stress may impact them pretty intensely. Additionally, your teen might also be avoiding school if they are being bullied, whether in person or online, by their peers. Social upheaval or bullying may cause a teen to refuse to go to school.

  1. <h3>Academic struggles or learning disability.</h3>

High school often places more demands on teens than middle school, with an increased workload, social obligations, and after-school activities. If your teen got good grades in middle school but is having difficulty maintaining them in high school, they may try to avoid going to school. Additionally, your teen may be struggling with a learning disability that they were able to work around in middle school but are now unable to do so with the added demands of high school. Struggling with increased workload and demands may lead them to avoid school. (Read our related parent guide on Sudden Academic Decline.)

  1. <h3>Underlying mental health concern.</h3>

Teens in distress may have a hard time putting words to their mental health struggles. They may feel like they’re not being heard or know something is wrong but are unsure why. As such, changes in their behavior, including their desire to attend school, may be indicative of an underlying mental health concern like depression, generalized anxiety, or social anxiety.

Mental health concerns often impact several areas of a teen’s life. You may notice your teen starts spending more time in their room, stops hanging out with their friends, or stops participating in after-school activities and other hobbies they used to enjoy. You might also notice physical changes, such as your teen sleeping more or less or eating more or less than usual. Your teen might also report an increase in nausea, headaches, GI distress, or chest pains. Their mood might shift, and you might notice them experiencing more anger, irritability, anxiety, or sadness. Additionally, your teen might start using substances or start engaging in other risky behaviors, like sneaking out of the house at night. These are all signs there might be an underlying mental health concern driving your teen’s school refusal.

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What to do when your teen is refusing to go to school.

Here are some steps you can take to help your teen right away:

  1. <h3>Communicate your concerns.</h3>

Even if this behavior feels out-of-character, or if you believe it’s related to something specific that recently occurred, it can be helpful to start communicating your concerns with your teen early on. Approach the topic with curiosity and avoid judging or blaming your teen. If your teen feels attacked or criticized, they’ll be less likely to open up to you about what’s going on. 

Additionally, if they feel like you’re forcing them to go to school without first trying to figure out what’s going on, they might further withdraw or lash out. Ask about their grades, their friends, and their activities to try to identify any recent stressors. Check-in about bullying, both in person and online. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to help support them.

  1. <h3>Check in on physical health.</h3>

If your teen misses an increasing number of school days due to illness, it’s important to check for any underlying physical issues. Help your teen schedule an appointment with their primary care provider to ensure they’re physically healthy.

  1. <h3>Get mental health support.</h3>

If underlying anxiety, depression, substance use, or other mental health concerns are contributing to your teen’s school refusal, get them mental health support. Seek therapy that is specifically oriented to teens and young adults and that relies on evidence-based treatments that have shown effectiveness in relieving emotional distress, like therapy at Joon.

  1. <h3>Talk to their school.</h3>

Ask your teen for permission to talk to their school about your concerns. Offer to have them join you in these conversations to avoid them feeling criticized or that you’re talking about them behind their back. The school may be able to help change your teen’s schedule if they’re struggling with a particular class or teacher or provide extra monitoring if they are being bullied. Your teen’s teachers might also have further insights about the reasons for their school refusal.

Joon people in circles

Our care team, just as unique as you.

Meet our licensed therapists, skilled in evidence-based methods and just as diverse as the teens they support.

Therapy works for school refusal.

Therapy can help your teen explore what contributes to their school refusal. Additionally, therapy provides a judgment-free place for your teen to talk about their concerns. Teens can learn how to manage their symptoms, including their thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, and learn coping skills for future stressors. Additionally, therapy can help teens build their support networks and identify the positives of going to school or how attending is tied to their future goals. Therapists can also provide additional referrals, including testing for learning disorders or medication management. 

Look for a therapist who specializes in providing evidence-based care to teens. Therapy at Joon is evidence-based and designed for teens and young adults. They use our mobile platform and are given skill-building practice in the app that is personalized to each individual. 

Bar chart showing recovery rates. On left, label reads "Clinical Anxiety" and shows a green bar with Joon labeled at 75% and a gray bar with "Other therapy in-person" at 43%. On the right the label reads "Clinical Depression" and shows a turquoise bar for Joon labeled 71% and a gray bar labeled "Other therapy in-person" at 27%.
As shown here, recovery data means being below the clinical symptom cutoff at least half the prior four weeks. In comparison, a study in 2017 reported 43% recovery after outpatient CBT for anxiety, and in 2009, 27% recovery after outpatient CBT for depression.

Therapy at Joon helps teens with a wide variety of concerns, including those often related to school refusal. You can read more about our latest data on the effectiveness of Joon for treating 13-24 year olds.

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