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

September 25th, 2020

Back to School, Pt. 2: School Refusal and Truancy

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

School refusal, truancy, and motivation issues may be exacerbated by this most unconventional school year. In the following Q&A, clinical therapist Jonathan Mitchell addresses these topics. Whether your child is skipping Zoom classes, ditching in-person school, or consistently withdrawing from school and extracurriculars, Jonathan shares tips to help families during these unprecedented times. (If school is virtual for your child at this time, be sure to check out “Back to School, Pt. 1: Navigating Virtual School with your Adolescent Child.”)

School refusal and truancy may be exacerbated by COVID-19. Therapist Jonathan Mitchell shares tips to help families during these unprecedented times.


Q: What does school refusal look like?

A: Of course, my answer to this today is much different than it would’ve been six months ago. Regardless, it’s important to look at school refusal on a spectrum. It could start off as physical, or somatic complaints. In traditional school, that could look like visits to the school nurse that don’t seem to have a defined medical reason. With virtual school, it could look like sleeping in or napping due to stomach aches or headaches. It could be skipping classes or truancy—whether in person or online.

It’s important to consult a medical professional to find out if any physical symptoms are related to a medical issue. Most parents I talk to can just tell between something purely physical versus somatic symptoms resulting from emotional stress. Some indicators may be the timing or regularity of physical symptoms. For example, is it on the weekend or weekdays? In line with social events? The day before a big test? Did they have a social challenge with a bully or a friend earlier in the week? These are some of the more obvious indicators.

If you’re parenting a child who is in online school, you may be discovering or suspecting other reasons for somatic symptoms and school refusal. The learning environment is completely different in all respects and perhaps the student is feeling left behind academically. They don’t get as much physical activity with moving classes and P.E. class, so they aren’t able to focus as well. Maybe they have a harder time speaking up and don’t ask questions when they don’t understand something. Maybe there is more of a “comparison game” going on with seeing inside each other’s homes. Not to mention, the potential for cyberbullying and virtual ostracization continues to run rampant.

Really what we’re looking for is, what is behind the refusal, sickness, and apparent lack of motivation? What is really going on?


Q: What are some common (and perhaps not so obvious) reasons for school refusal?

A: Generally speaking, underlying reasons fall into three different categories: social, academic, and romantic. Sometimes, it could 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; especially with the added mayhem of COVID-19.

Socially speaking, bullying is perhaps the most common reason we see for school avoidance. Another common one is social anxiety. And on top of everything, social media exacerbates it all. Kids find out in real-time if they weren’t invited to a party, they experience cyberbullying, and there is 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, maybe a young person is 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 then intertwine with these romantic stressors, and kids aren’t able to face what’s going on.

Academics is another common area of stress for adolescents that can lead to school refusal. And again, the stress may be heightened with virtual school and brand new learning and testing formats. Learning differences show up in a variety of ways. It could be that a student struggles with the content and fears falling behind his or her classmates. Perhaps they are actually very bright and just need five minutes longer than everyone else 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 this belief that they are stupid. This could lead kids to dislike school altogether and begin skipping class.


Q: In some ways, it may seem like virtual school should be the perfect reprieve for my child who struggles socially or relationally. Is this the case, or will this worsen the issues?

It depends. Usually, it creates more issues as it “relieves” students in ways that are unhelpful. My suggestion is to find creative ways to connect with peers through local engagement and activities – especially those outside. I know parents often get frustrated with their teens who spend too much on video games, but this is often the only place their children have social connections, so I think it is important to acknowledge this critical piece of these sometimes-addictive habits. I’ve heard of some parents who plan socially-distanced camping weekends with family friends or local groups who socially distance in parks or outside areas.


Q: How can I determine what might really be occurring for my son or daughter?

A: I have been working with kids for 18 years and probably have about 20,000 client contact hours. One thing that’s common for each one of them? They want to be heard. In order to listen to your child and attune to what they are going through, parents need to first be able to 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 and open up to them. Kids are really good at picking up on this!

Secondly, they want to be understood. They want value. They want someone else to get what their experience is in the purest sense. Understanding is the fertile ground for solutions to follow.

In order to hear and understand your child, you’ll want to begin with a conversation about what is going on for them. This is not a problem-solving conversation. It’s so important for the parent to tuck aside their own agenda, worries, anxieties, and rescuing tendencies. These are all quite natural and instinctual urges and I have great compassion for parents in these situations. But it is an absolutely necessary first step to pause and give space to hear and understand the child.


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

A: 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 is what’s really going on. Do your best to avoid offering solutions or letting your worries take control. It will feel like pulling teeth at times, and that is okay. Remember, as closed off as they may seem at first, they ultimately do 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 sounds 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.

School refusal and truancy may be exacerbated by COVID-19. Therapist Jonathan Mitchell shares tips to help families during these unprecedented times.


Q: How do we move to the next conversation? Because obviously, my child needs to go to school! Is there a way to involve my child in the problem-solving?  

A: This is the art of parenting and therapy! Each situation is different with unique nuances. Generally speaking, the standard that we’re aiming for is that everyone is on the same team, focused on achieving the same goals. And for the most part, these goals will be to experience social, academic, and even romantic success! You’ll also have goals for the child to build resiliency, which does come from failure or disappointment. We’re striving toward an environment where the child feels confident and encouraged to return to school and/or resume attending their online classes 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 in order 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 them know you’re holding firm moving forward. 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 kind of hard 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 the child’s level of resilience. In general, many of the children we’re referring to with this topic have not developed a great sense of resiliency. For example, let’s say your child has skipped school this week and still 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 just have a friend come over beforehand. Hold to the boundary that in order 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.


Q: What if, despite parents’ best efforts and open conversations, the child still refuses to attend traditional or virtual school?

A: This is where you really seek help from professionals. Previously, perhaps this was just an option. 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.


Q: How can wilderness therapy help?

A: First, we could just look at the basic health benefits that come from being in this contained and structured setting: nutritious food, regular exercise, quality sleep, and sobriety from substances (if that was part of the equation for them). These important health components might be especially neglected if kids are at home and/or without constant supervision doing virtual schooling. Second, the immense therapeutic support and relationship breed emotional openness and resilience. Third, the assessment that occurs with the separation from distractions or social/family dynamics can shed so much light on some underlying factors. This all occurs with stringent COVID-19 health and hygiene protocols in place.

Another huge thing is the opportunity to experience success and build self-efficacy. Whether through 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, these kids learn that they are capable, strong, and valuable.

An added benefit of wilderness therapy at Open Sky is that students can actually earn 3.5 academic high school credits! So, while they are growing holistically from this therapeutic experience, educational growth is woven in as well.

Wilderness therapy is powerful because it gives students the awareness and knowledge of what their issues actually are. So instead of internalizing, 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 empowered to address these things at home, know their own strengths and weaknesses, and build confidence to face future challenges in their lives.

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

September 25th, 2020

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