"I'm not going!"

Dr. Ashley Miller, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist on September 06, 2016

It’s the first day of school.  Yesterday, thirteen year old Jade excitedly picked out her clothes and chatted with her friends.  She had been waiting for years to start high school.  But today, Jade is still in bed, head hidden beneath the covers.  It’s 7:55 and the first bell will ring at 8:15.  There is no amount of reassurance or cheerleading that is going to get her to move.  Her mother sits, despairing, at the kitchen table. “She’s never going to make it. I can’t believe this,” she sighs to herself.

If you’re the caregiver of a child or teen, chances are you’ve experienced refusals at some point.  And, of course they often come exactly at the wrong time. Nothing can feel more frustrating then trying to get a stuck kid unstuck.  It can seem like they’re doing it just to get your goat or prove a point.  But, while sometimes people do dig their heels in for those reasons, most refusals come from a common place: anxiety. 

In essence, refusing to do something is often a “freeze” response to overwhelming stress.  Helping a child out of “freeze” mode isn’t easy, but here are some things to try:

  • Take a moment to wonder what’s going on for the child.  If the child is anxious, remember they may be just as frustrated with themselves as you are.
  • Ensure you’re calm enough to help- if not, see what stress of yours you can put on hold (i.e. give up a less important task, accept slight lateness) or manage (breathe, talk to someone, take a minute to yourself, turn on some good music)
  • Break the anxiety-provoking situation down into smaller parts. (Is it seeing a particular student that’s the problem? Not knowing anyone on the bus?)
  • Try empathizing with your child’s distress, without pressure. Sometimes, this is just sitting with your child or a hug.  The minutes of calm presence might avoid hours of arguing or cajoling.
  • Show understanding of the challenge AND confidence in their ability to do the task.
  • Stay firm on your expectations while offering help or choices to get to end result (“You do need to go to school, but you can choose to take the bus with your friend or get a lift from dad.”)
  • Shift the focus to something else temporarily, just to help get moving and relieve stress (“Let’s start with breakfast”).  If you push or pull too hard, the resistance on the other side can get stronger.
  • Help the child remember the people or parts that make the task manageable or fun. If there are none, consider adding an incentive.
  • Enlist your child’s trusted friends or family members to help them get going- capitalize on relationships.

If nothing works, consider that there may be more to the refusal than meets the eye (i.e. a bigger issue at school than the youth has disclosed or more intense anxiety for child and/or parent).  In this situation, your child may need more guidance to solve the problem and more planning to make the school entry successful. If school refusal persists, it’s important to get help from a mental health professional as soon as possible, because the longer a youth avoids school, the higher the anxiety usually gets.  With a team approach from caregivers, the school and a healthcare provider, children and teens can usually get back to school and back on track.   

After a few minutes, Jade’s mom went back to her room and sat with her on her bed.  She asked calmly about what was going on for Jade.  Sensing the genuine curiosity, Jade told her.  Her mother agreed that having to meet a hundred new kids did sound pretty scary and it made sense that Jade was having doubts despite all her excitement.  Hearing her mom accept her fear, Jade felt a tiny bit of relief.  It was enough so that she remembered her plan to have lunch with her best friend, and that was enough to get her to pull off her covers.  Before running out the door, she blamed her mom for not waking her up earlier, but she made it to school with 2 minutes to spare.   


*Image courtesy of flickr user Homini:) https://www.flickr.com/photos/homini/5108169853


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This is an agency of Provincial Health Services Authority, providing provincial tertiary mental health services to the citizens of British Columbia. Programs include: Adult Tertiary Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatric Services, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Women’s Reproductive Mental Health, as well as the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorders Program for children and youth located at the BC Children’s Hospital.

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