Dear David Coleman: My 12-year-old son refuses to go into school most days

Q My 12-year-old son is in first year in secondary school. He has become highly anxious over the last few months and is now refusing to go into school most days and when he does go, I always get a text by lunchtime demanding that I come and pick him up.

He is a bright young lad and has always excelled in school and at sports. I am at a loss to understand why he has become so fearful of school now, but with the fighting every day to get him in, we are all stressed. Have you any advice?

David replies: Any time children refuse to go to school it can become a real pressure point in families. Most parents alternate between being worried about what is bothering their child and anger at the disruption and fighting that comes with trying to get the child in to school.

Right now it’s the Christmas holidays. It will be interesting to see how your son is over the two-week break, when there is no pressure to go into school. If you feel like he has returned to the “old” boy you knew before secondary school, then it may be that his experiences so far in school have been overwhelming for him.

It is most likely, given the fact that his anxiety has only really emerged since starting secondary school, that there is something about being in that school that is distressing for him. You don’t mention it, but if you haven’t already been in to the school then it is important to go in and meet his year head, or whoever knows him best, to see what their take is on how he is coping on the days he is in school. Working together with the school to support your son is really important.

There are many things that might be difficult for him. At 12 he may be on the younger end of those starting and he may find that challenging, socially. Also, it may be possible that any friendships he may have carried from primary could have shifted changed or been lost, leaving him feeling isolated and a bit vulnerable.

It is also possible that he has found the shift up to secondary school to be a challenge academically. Not that he may find it hard, but more that he may be struggling to excel like in primary school. He may experience an “all or nothing” way of thinking, such that good performance counts as a failure, from his perspective, because he is not able to be the best.

These are all hypotheses that you can explore with him, to try to understand his reasoning for wanting to escape or avoid school. While understanding alone will not get him back in, it may help to create a joint problem-solving approach with him, such that he feels you are genuinely working with him about the issues, rather than just trying to force him to do something that is frightening or distressing him.

Ultimately, he will need to face his fears, knowing he has some effective anxiety management strategies and using a negotiated agreement with the school that offers him a phased return to school. Because it can be “hard to see the wood for the trees”, when you are in the middle of things, this may also be something you might want, or need, some professional help to achieve.

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