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School refusal is a common condition amongst children and adolescents. Sometimes, your child may refuse to go to school because of some specific fear such as bullying or victimization at school. This condition may be appropriately described as school phobia.

School refusal is different from truancy. In the case of school refusal, the parents usually know about the problem and the child stays at home instead of being at school. In truancy, the child pretends to attend school by putting on the appropriate uniform and leaving home at the usual time. However, instead of attending school, the child then spends the day in activities that they enjoy such as hanging around the shopping center, watching movies and going to the beach. The parents are usually unaware of their children’s behaviour, at least initially.

The causes of school refusal

Non-attendance at school may be due to one or more of the following causes:

  1. Separation anxiety
  2. Rebelliousness
  3. Depression
  4. Early stage of a psychotic illness
  5. Drug abuse
  6. Family which objects to the education system
  7. Family problems
  8. School problems

Separation anxiety

The child who suffers from separation anxiety is usually from a family where there is a strong family history of anxiety disorders. The child is usually brought up in a family where the parent-child relationship is based on mutual dependency. In severe cases, the relationship may be a symbiotic one where the parents and child need each other to survive psychologically.

The parent may suffer from an anxiety disorder such as social phobia, panic disorder or agoraphobia. The child picks up the anxiety of the parent and feels painfully powerless to help the parent except to stay at home. The school refusal may be precipitated by events such as a change of school or teacher, a minor unpleasant incident with a teacher or peers, a bout of illness with the child or the parent and the death of a family member.


Sometimes, the child may express his/her sense of rebelliousness and anger by refusing to comply with the school which is the symbol of adult authority and power. In cases such as these, the child is usually a high school student. The child feels that he/she does not need to conform to any rules and regulations. School refusal in this case is just the culmination of a series of incidents of noncompliant behaviour such as refusing to wear the school uniform, failure to hand in assignments and habitual lateness to school.

In such cases, the child is either from a family in which there is little or no boundary in matters such as autonomy and accountability, or from a family where there is a rigid boundary and with no room for independence. In the former case, the child believes that he/she can act without due consideration for others. In the latter case, the child’s behaviour is an outward manifestation of the inner anger and resentment for authority figures.


In such cases, the child suffers from a depression that affects his/her sleep, energy and motivation. The child wakes up in the morning feeling physically tired and psychologically unmotivated to attend school. As the day progresses, the child may feel better and can become quite animated and bright. Sometimes, the child may be mistaken as a malingerer.

Early stage of a psychotic illness:

Sometimes, the child may be suffering form an impending psychotic illness. In the early phases, the child usually has a subjective awareness that his/her thinking and emotions are not functioning normally. The child usually keeps this to themselves. School refusal may be the sign that the child is not coping.

Drug abuse

Some children who abuse illicit drugs may be too sedate to get up in the morning and attend school. Marijuana affects the motivation of a person. Many good and conscientious students become so unmotivated that they refuse to attend school after prolonged use of marijuana.

Family which objects to the education system

Sometimes, the child refuses to attend school because their parents have an objection to the education system. In this case, the child is merely acting as the spokesperson for the parents.

Family problems

This is not an uncommon cause. The child may be from a family where there is a great range of relationship problems or from a family where a family member is suffering from a psychiatric illness. This includes parents who have a long standing marital conflict, domestic violence, a father who is an alcoholic or a mother who is severely depressed. The child becomes so stressed to the point that school cannot be attended.

School problems

This is another common cause. Sometimes, the child may be the target of bullying by the peers. Occasionally, victimization by the teachers may be the cause. With some high school students, academic difficulties may be responsible for school refusal.

How can I help my child?

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Talk to your child without condemning him/her.
  2. Determine the causes for the school refusal.
  3. Deal with those causes that you are responsible for. For example, if you have an anxiety disorder or relationship problem with your spouse, then you should seek help for yourself.
  4. Talk to the school authority to deal with the school problems.
  5. Get help for your child’s anxiety, depression or drug abuse problems.
  6. Change the family culture if it is contributing to your child’s problem.
  7. Build up your child’s self-esteem.

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