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Parenting Advice: What if My Child Won't Go to School?

Jun 8, 2008
"My nine-year old daughter has started to dread going to school. She always has a head or tummy ache, and ends up missing two or three days a week. When I tell her she has to go, she acts as if she's truly afraid, and cries and screams. We don't know what to do."

Situations like this require a firm hand. Do not be tempted to wait and hope that she will eventually go to school by herself. If left too long, she may never go back.

However, don't be angry with her as her anxiety and distress are real.

Try to work out if her fear is about going to school (school phobia), leaving you or home (separation anxiety), or going into crowded public places (agoraphobia).

If someone is bullying, teasing, embarrassing, or abusing her, then it could be the first diagnosis. Talk to her teachers to find out what they know and to inform them of your experiences with your daughter.

Take her to the doctor for a complete physical examination. Tell the doctor the whole story and ask him to rule out any serious illnesses.

Once the doctor has done this, believe him! Do not chase after ever more expensive tests. From this point onwards your assumption is that the child is well and so should be in school. Give her firm and confident reassurance that both she and you will be fine when she is there. If she complains again of being unwell you then have two options:

First, get her to school unless you determine that she truly is sick. In that case she would be running a fever, or have nausea and/ or diarrhea, etc. If she just tells you she doesn't feel well, that isn't enough to let her stay home. Adults often go to work with uncomfortable symptoms.

Option two is to believe what she says. If she claims to be too sick to attend school, then she is too sick to be up at home. Make sure she gets into bed. Turn off the lights, close the curtains, don't let her watch TV and don't bring her any snacks. Just maintain your daily routine. Make staying home a complete bore. If she isn't asleep then she could be doing her homework. She definitely shouldn't have friends visit.

Along with this, set up clear incentives (rewards, privileges) for getting to school.

Resolve to stick to your guns, but do it calmly. Make it known that you expect her to attend school but don't fight with her. Your goal is to make her want to go, and soon. As soon as she goes and learns that both of you are doing fine while she is there, then her depression and anxiety should go away.

If none of this works, or if you are concerned about a serious depression or anxiety disorder, seek professional help through your family doctor.
About the Author
More expert advice on children's behavioral problems is available from Dr. Noel Swanson's website, which is all about correcting Child Behavior Problems.
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