What to Do When Your Teen Refuses to Go to School

By Arastou Aminzadeh, M.D., Founder, BNI Treatment Centers

Nothing can be more exasperating to a parent than when their child throws a fit about going to school. When that child is a teenager, the challenge is much more daunting. At that age, they are much more creative about finding ways to evade both school administrators and parents.

Some teens may wear the parent down, ignoring their pleas and simply refusing to comply with their wishes. Parents often succumb to this pressure and provide the school with excuses for the teen’s absence. Some teens, however, just skip school without the parent’s knowledge.

Truancy is a serious issue. It is not only against the law for the child to be skipping school without an excused absence, but there are other repercussions for the teen as well. To gain a better understanding of school policies regarding truancy, as well as the negative impact of missing school on the teen, read on.

When Your Teen Won’t Go to School

It is perfectly natural for your teen to sometimes bemoan going to school. They may just be in need of a break after a stressful week of exams, or simply want to sleep in. This occasional resistance toward attending school is normal and not at all concerning.

However, when the teen repeatedly fights his or her parents about going to school, day after day, there is probably something going on with them. Parents do a disservice to their teen if they do not address this problem head on. School policies are clear; attendance is compulsory until age 18.

Truancy refers to a child’s unauthorized absence from school. State laws dictate the number of days a child is expected to be present and accounted for at school. Unexcused absences can result in stiff penalties, including the teen not being permitted to graduate.

Trying to convince a teen to go to school when he or she is dead-set against it can result in much strife and turmoil in the family home. Even though parents are disciplining the teen appropriately for failing to go to school, nothing seems to work. Getting to the bottom of the underlying problem should be a parent’s top consideration.

7 Issues that May Be Contributing to the Teen Refusing to Go to School

There are several possible reasons why your teenager is so resistant to attend school. Consider these possibilities, which could guide your next steps:

Bullying. Kids that are being bullied at school are obviously going to avoid putting themselves in that situation. Bullying, including cyberbullying by peers, can have a devastating impact on a teen’s mental health.

Behavior Disorder. Some teens struggle with behavioral problems. Their defiant refusal to attend school might be due to the presence of opposition defiance disorder or conduct disorder.

Academic Burnout. Teens are increasingly under intense academic stress. Some teens are overextending themselves, taking too heavy an academic workload, while others are pressured by parents who want their child to be accepted into a prestigious school.

Peer Relation Problems. Social problems are another common reason a teen might resist going to school. Some teens have underdeveloped social skills and struggle to fit in. Others may be involved in a conflict with a certain kid or group at school.

Falling Behind in School. When a teen has fallen behind in their studies and grades are plummeting, they may feel too overwhelmed to even try. Teens may fall through the cracks and simply give up on school altogether.

Mental Health Issues. Increasing numbers of teens are struggling with anxiety and depression. Some may have ADHD or bipolar disorder. Undiagnosed and untreated mental health disorders cause the teen to feel emotionally unstable within a school setting.

Substance Abuse. When a teenager begins to experiment with drugs or alcohol it can have far-reaching effects. The teen may feel too hung-over to get up for school, or they may have acquired a substance use disorder, keeping them stuck in the addiction cycle.

Recognizing the Signs of Trouble

All of the above potential factors involved in a teen refusing to go to school will cause signs and symptoms of distress. Even if a parent doesn’t yet know what the underlying problem is, they will notice changes in their teen. Some of these might include:

Avoids social events; withdrawn; isolates
Engages in self-harming behaviors
Openly rebellious
Negative attitude; lack of pleasure
Neglects personal hygiene
Extreme fatigue
Sleep disturbances
Changes in appetite; sudden weight gain or loss
Loss of interest in usual activities
Engages in illegal activity
Very low self esteem
Feeling worthless or hopeless
Has thought distortions or irrational fear
Mood swings
Angry outbursts
Sudden decline in school performance
Signs of psychosis
Substance abuse

When parents notice that some of these warning signs are present, it is essential that they have the teen evaluated. Initially, a physical exam by a primary care provider can rule out a health condition. If no medical issue is present, the teen will be referred to a mental health provider for further assessment.

What Are Parents to Do When the Battle Lines are Drawn?

Teens that refuse to go to school are placing their futures in jeopardy, and parents are well aware of this. It is important to remember that the parent is still responsible for the teenager and has authority over them. Finding sources of support is key. Here are some actions a parent can take if their teen refuses to go to school.

Meet with the school administrators. Instead of attempting to control the situation by themselves, parents should instead enlist the help of the school administration officials. They may have additional resources to offer the parents and the teen.

Get psychological support. The teen may have an undiagnosed mental health issue that requires therapy. Also, a therapist can utilize motivation enhancement therapy to provide a reward system for complying and going to school.

Consider homeschooling. If the school setting is so dysfunctional or damaging to the teen, then parents who are able to homeschool might want to give that a try. Parents can access curricula and other materials through the school district or select their own books from private sources.

Residential treatment. If the teen is struggling with a worsening mental health disorder, which has impacted their ability to function in a school setting, parents might want to consider a residential program for teens. These programs provide academic support in addition to the multi-modal evidence-based therapies.

About the Author

Dr. Arastou Aminzadeh is a triple board certified physician in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction medicine, and is the co-founder of BNI Treatment Centers in Agoura Hills, California. Dr. Aminzadeh is a fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine and also a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. A well respected leader in the field, he also holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine, where he completed his residency and fellowship.


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