As summer draws to a close, the upcoming school year often brings both a wave of excitement and nervousness for many students. School avoidance, also known as school refusal, is a phenomenon characterized by a student’s reluctance to attend school. By understanding the specific fears and concerns driving teen avoidance, parents can develop effective strategies to address and alleviate their own student’s anxiety. While school avoidance can be seen at any point during the year, as you’re thinking about how to best prepare your student for a successful school year, it’s an opportune time to explore the causes behind school avoidance and its association with anxiety with these strategies.
Identify what causes anxiety for your teen
Middle and high school students experiencing school avoidance often grapple with worries about social standing, embarrassment, or feeling singled out by their peers. Social situations that involve larger groups or public areas, such as navigating hallways or eating lunch in the cafeteria, can trigger significant anxiety. It’s crucial to identify and acknowledge these specific fears to provide targeted support and reassurance to your teenager.
Be proactive and preventative
While intervention strategies are vital, prevention also plays a significant role in managing school avoidance. As school approaches, implement a pre-emptive exposure and anxiety reduction plan. Ideally, this plan should be initiated two to four weeks before the start of the new school year. Visiting the school, walking around campus, and seeing where classes are located can help familiarize your teen with the school environment and get them ready for the first day. They could even bring a friend along to make it a more fun, social, and relaxed experience. By proactively addressing anxiety, you can create a positive association with the school experience.
Related: How to Beat Back-to-School Anxiety
Talk about anxiety
According to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 40% of teens reported wanting their parents to “reach out more to ask how [they’re] really doing and to really listen.” It can be helpful to be open and honest with your teen about your own struggles with anxiety. Did you have a hard time going back to school as a kid? Have you had a hard time preparing yourself for the first day at a new job? Talking openly about your own struggles—past or present—can help your students feel less alone and more open to expressing their concerns with you when they arise.
Be thoughtful about re-entry
If your student remains out of school for an extended period, reintegration can become challenging. Proactive communication with your student’s school is important to address this issue head on, so initiate conversations with a principal, teacher, or counselor to devise a personalized "re-entry plan." This usually involves exposing the student to school gradually, like coming to the school office or going in on a weekend or evening when fewer people are around. They can then work up to half days until they feel they’ve mastered their fears and are more confident to return full-time. I’ve seen this gradual exposure technique work, especially when coupled with support and rewards.
Seek professional support if necessary
In some cases, anxiety experienced by a student may require additional assistance. Parents should consider involving a mental health professional who can provide specialized support and guidance. SonderMind providers often work with parents throughout the school year on these sorts of issues. A professional can help identify and address the underlying causes of anxiety, develop tailored anxiety management techniques, and collaborate with your student’s school to create an individualized plan for success.
As the world continues to navigate the challenges of a post-pandemic era, it’s important for parents to be attuned to their teens’ anxiety around returning to school, whether that be on the first day or mid-year. By understanding the distinct concerns felt by teenagers, parents can implement targeted, thoughtful strategies to alleviate anxiety and encourage regular, uninterrupted school attendance.
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