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Back to School: Addressing Refusal and Motivation Issues

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys

The complexities of being a young person today are unprecedented, and many adolescents face challenges with school refusal, truancy, and motivation issues. In this blog, Senior Clinical Therapist Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC explores some of the underlying reasons adolescents might refuse to attend school; how to have fruitful conversations with your child around these topics; and the powerful benefits of wilderness therapy.


What does school refusal look like?

It’s important to look at school refusal on a spectrum. It could start off as physical or somatic complaints. With traditional school, that can look like visits to the school nurse that don’t seem to have a defined medical reason. With virtual school, it can look like sleeping in or napping due to stomach aches or headaches. It can be skipping classes or truancy, whether in person or online.

It’s also important to consult a medical professional to learn if physical symptoms are related to a medical issue or are somatic symptoms resulting from emotional stress. Some indicators may be the timing or regularity of symptoms. For example, is it on the weekend or weekdays? In line with social events? The day before a big test? Did your child have a social challenge with a bully or a friend earlier in the week? These are some of the more obvious indicators. What we’re looking for is, what is behind the refusal, sickness, and apparent lack of motivation? What is really going on?


What are some underlying reasons for school refusal?

Underlying reasons often fall into three different categories: social, romantic, and academic. Sometimes, it can be all three categories to varying degrees. There might be other mental health challenges layered on top of these things, like depression, anxiety, and other disorders. Left unaddressed, these issues get buried in the intensity and chaos of adolescence.


Socially speaking, bullying is perhaps the most common reason for school avoidance. Another common one is social anxiety. On top of everything, social media exacerbates it all. Teens can find out in real-time if they weren’t invited to a party, experience cyberbullying, and have a virtual audience to the rejection or treatment they experience. If they already feel humiliated on the virtual stage, why engage in it further in real life?


Romantically, a young person might be having a hard time following through with a breakup or was just broken up with. Maybe they like someone who doesn’t like them back. The social stressors intertwine with these romantic stressors, and kids feel unable to face what’s going on.


Academics is another common area of stress for adolescents that can lead to school refusal. It can be that a student struggles with the content and fears falling behind their classmates. Perhaps they are very bright but need a little longer to process information. If a student is always the last one to raise their hand, they are often left wondering why and feel frustrated, confused, and incapable. They see it as a weakness and begin to internalize the belief that they are stupid. This could lead kids to dislike school altogether and begin skipping class.


How can I determine what might really be occurring for my child?

I have been working with kids for 18 years and have about 20,000 client contact hours. One thing that’s common for each one of them? They want to be heard. They want to be understood. They want someone else to get what their experience is.

To listen to their children and attune to what they are going through, parents need to first be aware of their own emotions. If kids don’t believe their parents are a stable and inviting presence, they are less likely to trust them and open up to them. Kids are very good at picking up on this!

To hear and understand your child, you’ll want to begin with a conversation about what is going on for them. Remember, this is not a problem-solving conversation. It is important for parents to set aside their own agenda, worries, anxieties, and rescuing tendencies and give space to hear and understand their child. Understanding is the fertile ground for solutions to follow.


What are some tangible tips for making this a fruitful conversation?

The first thing I would recommend before doing anything else is to take three deep breaths. That takes about seven seconds but does wonders internally and leads to a more productive conversation.

The second step is to be curious. Your child may resist opening up at first, so genuine curiosity without assumptions about their school refusal must lead the conversation. At this stage, we simply want to find out what’s really going on. Do your best to avoid offering solutions or letting your worries take control. It might feel like pulling teeth at times, and that is OK. Remember, as closed off as they may seem at first, your child ultimately does want to feel heard and understood.

Then, at the end of the conversation, practice some validation. Again, we are not introducing solutions yet. You might say, “Wow, that does sound really challenging,” or, “It seems like you’re spinning lots of plates.” It’s not about becoming their therapist but rather about using skills to listen, reflect, and validate.

After this conversation, sleep on it! Let the feelings of understanding and validation sink in for your child and take time to reflect on what you learned from their situation.


How do I move to the next conversation? Is there a way to involve my child in the problem-solving?

Each situation is different with unique nuances. The standard we’re aiming for is that everyone is on the same team and focused on achieving the same goals. For the most part, these goals will be to experience social, academic, and even romantic success. You’ll also have goals for your child to build resiliency, which does come from failure or disappointment. We’re striving toward an environment where your child feels confident and encouraged to return to school and gain the proper skills for development. Ideally, parent and child can come to an agreement, which the previous conversation has helped to promote.

However, it is to be expected that kids may have different goals than their parents. This is where boundaries and consequences come in. Kids need consistent, reliable, and predictable boundaries to build trust. If parents haven’t been consistent in the past, own up to it! Name when you’ve made a mistake and let your child know you’re holding firm moving forward. For example, you can say, “I know I’ve been lax on this in the past, but I’m going to be holding the line going forward.” Your transparency will speak volumes. You could even express your feelings as you hold the boundary: “This is difficult for me to do because I really care about you. Part of me wants to just let you skip calculus because I see the anxiety it’s causing you. But you need to do this.”

Think of consequences as an equation that involves your child’s level of resilience. For example, let’s say your child has skipped school this week and really wants to watch their favorite NFL football team with friends over the weekend. You know the consequence should involve missing the football game, but you also know they are struggling with social connection and could benefit from this social time. So, what is the boundary?

I like to encourage parents in this type of situation to come to their child with transparency, explaining the conflicting thoughts they’re having. From there, you can determine together the plan of action and the consequence for future school refusal. Perhaps you both decide they can go for the first half of the game or have a friend come over beforehand. Hold to the boundary that to have the full viewing experience of the football game, they will need to attend school all week long. It’s in those moments that resilience is born because kids are involved in the process, experience the disappointment, and try to get it right next week.


What if, despite my best efforts and open conversations, my child still refuses to attend school?

This is when you can seek help from professionals. At this point, it’s a requirement for growth. It could be therapy, outpatient programs, or some other sort of programmatic support. Talk to an educational consultant about local resources to utilize. If you exhaust those local resources and still don’t see change, then it might be appropriate to explore something outside the home, like wilderness therapy.


How can wilderness therapy help?

First, being in a contained and structured setting provides a variety of basic health benefits: nutritious food, regular exercise, quality sleep, and sobriety from substances (if that was part of the equation for your child). Second, the immense therapeutic support and relationship-building that happens in wilderness therapy breed emotional openness and resilience. Third, the assessment that occurs with the separation from distractions or social and family dynamics can shed so much light on underlying factors.

Wilderness therapy also provides the opportunity to experience success and build self-efficacy. Whether they are starting a fire with a bow drill set, setting up a shelter, navigating a difficult conversation with a peer, leading a hike, or expressing feelings to their parents on a phone call, kids learn that they are capable, strong, and valuable.

Wilderness therapy is powerful because it gives students the awareness and knowledge of what their issues are. So instead of internalizing thoughts like, “I’m stupid,” or, “No one likes me,” they realize that they just need a few extra minutes to process information, or that they don’t need to be liked by every person. By identifying what’s really going on, they leave feeling empowered to address these things at home, know their own strengths and weaknesses, and build confidence to face future challenges in their lives.

Finally, an added benefit of wilderness therapy at Open Sky is that educational growth is woven into the holistic therapeutic experience. Adolescent students can earn 3.5 academic high school credits as well as have the option to earn college credit and use college savings to pay for a portion of their treatment and education.

For more information on how to support your child as they navigate their school life, check out Jonathan’s blog Back to School: Creating a Supportive and Structured Environment for Adolescents.

Article originally published September 2020. 

August 30th, 2022

Jonathan Mitchell, MA, LPC | Senior Clinical Therapist | Adolescent Boys