School anxiety and refusal: How to help your child

As parents, we want nothing more than to see our children thrive in their education. However, it's not uncommon for children to experience anxiety or even refuse to attend school at some point in their academic journey. School anxiety and refusal can be incredibly challenging for children and their parents. Fortunately, some strategies and approaches can help your child overcome these obstacles and succeed in their education. In this blog, we'll explore the causes and signs of school anxiety and provide practical tips on supporting your child through this challenging time.


Identify the causes

Identifying the causes of your child's school anxiety is a critical and nuanced process. It requires careful observation, open communication, and a willingness to consider multiple factors contributing to their distress. 

Social anxiety and peer relationships

  • Social skills: Some children struggle with social interactions or have difficulty making friends. They might fear rejection, ridicule, or embarrassment in front of their peers.
  • Bullying: In some cases, children may be experiencing bullying or harassment at school, which can understandably lead to anxiety and a desire to avoid the situation.
  • Cliques and exclusion: The feeling of not fitting in or being excluded from social groups can be deeply distressing for children, leading to school-related anxiety.

Academic stress and performance

  • Academic pressure: High expectations, whether self-imposed or from parents, teachers, or peers, can create significant stress for students. The fear of not meeting these expectations can lead to school avoidance.
  • Learning challenges: Children with learning disabilities or those who find certain subjects challenging may feel overwhelmed and anxious about their academic performance.
  • Test anxiety: The pressure of upcoming exams, especially high-stakes tests, can trigger anxiety in some students. Fear of failure or poor performance can cause them to avoid school.

Emotional and psychological factors

  • Separation anxiety: Younger children, in particular, may experience separation anxiety when leaving their caregivers to attend school. The fear of being away from their safe and familiar environment can be intense.
  • Trauma or negative experiences: Past traumatic experiences can create a strong aversion to the school environment, whether at school or outside. It's essential to consider any recent traumatic events that might be affecting your child's attitude toward school.
  • Perfectionism: Children who set unrealistically high standards for themselves may develop anxiety around school due to the fear of not meeting these self-imposed expectations.

Health-related factors

  • Physical health issues: Chronic illnesses, pain, or unaddressed health concerns can make attending school physically challenging and lead to anxiety about falling behind academically.
  • Mental health conditions: Conditions like generalised anxiety disorder, depression, or social anxiety disorder can significantly contribute to school-related anxiety.

Environmental and transitional factors

  • Major transitions: Entering a new school, transitioning from elementary to middle school, or moving to a new neighbourhood can be particularly stressful periods for children. The unfamiliarity and uncertainty of these transitions can trigger anxiety.
  • Family issues: Family-related stressors, such as divorce, financial problems, or other significant disruptions at home, can affect a child's school life and contribute to anxiety.

Personality and temperament

Some children are naturally more sensitive or prone to anxiety due to their personality and temperament. Understanding your child's disposition can help tailor your approach to addressing their anxiety.

It's important to remember that these causes are not mutually exclusive, and multiple factors may be at play in your child's school-related anxiety.

The signs of school anxiety

To identify the specific causes, engage in open and empathetic conversations with your child, involve teachers and school counsellors if necessary, and consider seeking professional help if the anxiety persists. The more you understand the underlying factors, the better equipped you will be to provide the required support and interventions for your child.

Recognising the signs of school anxiety in your child is essential for early intervention and support. While children may not always express their feelings directly, they often communicate their distress through behaviours and physical symptoms. Here, we'll expand on how to recognise the signs of school anxiety:

Physical complaints

Frequent headaches, stomachaches, or other physical complaints, especially in the morning before school, can indicate school-related anxiety. These physical symptoms may not have an underlying medical cause but are instead manifestations of emotional distress.

Emotional indicators

  • Mood swings: Your child may exhibit sudden and intense mood swings, ranging from irritability and anger to tearfulness or sadness.
  • Increased worry: Anxiety often leads to excessive worrying, and your child may express concerns about school, friendships, or academic performance more frequently.

Sleep disturbances

  • Difficulty falling asleep: School anxiety can make it hard for children to fall asleep due to racing thoughts and worry about the upcoming school day.
  • Nightmares: Frequent nightmares, particularly related to school or school-related situations, can indicate anxiety.

Changes in behaviour

  • Avoidance: Your child might actively avoid going to school by intentionally feigning illness, throwing tantrums, or missing the bus.
  • School refusal: School refusal is a severe form of school anxiety where a child consistently refuses to attend school or experiences extreme distress when forced to go.

Academic performance

A noticeable drop in academic performance can indicate your child struggles with school-related anxiety. This may manifest as difficulty concentrating, completing assignments, or participating in class.

Social withdrawal

  • Isolation: If your child becomes increasingly withdrawn and avoids social interactions with peers, it could be a sign of social anxiety or difficulty navigating social situations at school.
  • Loss of interest: They may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, preferring to stay home instead.

Physical symptoms of anxiety

  • Restlessness: Anxiety often manifests as restlessness, with your child appearing fidgety or unable to sit still.
  • Muscle tension: Tense muscles, especially in the neck and shoulders, can physically manifest anxiety.
  • Rapid heartbeat and sweating: In some cases, children may experience a racing heartbeat, sweating, or shortness of breath when facing school-related situations.

Changes in eating habits

  • Appetite changes: Anxiety can affect appetite, leading to increased or decreased food intake.
  • Weight changes: Noticeable weight gain or loss can result from significant school-related stress.

Resistance to morning routine

Suppose your child consistently exhibits extreme resistance during the morning routine, such as refusal to get dressed, eat breakfast, or leave for school. In that case, it may signal anxiety about the school day ahead.

Verbal expressions

Listen carefully to what your child says. They may indirectly express their fears, worries, or concerns about school through comments like, "I hate school" or "I don't want to go."

It's important to remember that every child is unique, and the signs of school anxiety may vary from one individual to another. Additionally, some children may try to hide their anxiety, making it even more crucial for parents to be observant and attentive to changes in behaviour and mood.

How to deal with school anxiety and refusal

If you notice persistent school anxiety in your child, consider initiating open and empathetic conversations to better understand their feelings and concerns. Seeking support from teachers, school counsellors, or mental health professionals can also be beneficial in addressing and managing school-related anxiety effectively.

Open communication

Encourage open and honest communication with your child. Create a safe space to express their feelings and concerns about school. Ask open-ended questions and listen without judgment.

Seek professional help

Consider consulting a mental health professional or counsellor if your child's school anxiety persists. They can provide valuable insights and strategies tailored to your child's needs.

Establish a routine

Consistency and predictability can help alleviate anxiety. Create a daily routine that includes regular wake-up and bedtime hours and structured homework and playtime.

Develop coping strategies

Teach your child coping strategies to manage their anxiety. Deep breathing exercises, affirmations, mindfulness techniques, and positive visualisation can be effective tools.

Address academic challenges

If your child is struggling academically, work with their teachers to identify areas of improvement and implement strategies to support their learning.

Encourage social skills

Help your child build positive social skills to navigate peer relationships more confidently. Role-play scenarios and provide guidance on conflict resolution.

Promote a healthy lifestyle

Ensure your child gets enough sleep, eats a balanced diet, and engages in regular physical activity. A healthy body contributes to a healthy mind.

Monitor screen time

Limit excessive screen time, especially before bedtime, as it can contribute to sleep disturbances and exacerbate anxiety.

In conclusion, addressing school anxiety and refusal in your child requires patience, understanding, and proactive support. It's not an easy journey, but it's a journey worth taking to ensure your child's emotional well-being and academic success. We've explored various facets of this challenge, from identifying the underlying causes to recognising the signs that your child might be struggling.

Remember, you are not alone in this. Many families face similar challenges, and a wealth of resources and professional help is available to guide you through this process. 

In your journey to help your child overcome school anxiety, remember that progress may be gradual, and setbacks can occur. Stay patient and persistent, and celebrate small victories along the way. By addressing the underlying causes, maintaining open communication, and fostering a supportive environment, you can empower your child to face their fears and confidently embrace school.

Ultimately, your unwavering support and commitment to your child's well-being will make a lasting and positive impact on their educational journey. Together, you can navigate the challenges of school anxiety and pave the way for a brighter, more confident future.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3
Written by Hope Therapy & Counselling Services, Offering Counselling, CBT, Hypnotherapy, EMDR & Mindfulness.
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such the 'Hope Agency' was born and its counselling team now offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK.

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