Doctors are asked all the time to write notes excusing kids from school for illnesses, but what if your child is making themselves sick so they don't have to go to school? We'll tackle school phobia today on The Scope. I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner.
What is School Phobia?
A child with school phobia stays home from school and is missing a lot of school days because of vague physical symptoms, usually the type people get when they're upset or worried such as stomach aches, headaches, nausea, tiredness or dizziness, and the symptoms mainly occur in the morning and they worsen when it's time to leave for school.
Often, these symptoms are only present on school days. Your child may also have trouble falling asleep the night before a test or other stressful school event. Your child will also otherwise seem healthy and is usually symptom-free on the weekends, during the summer or during school breaks.
A school-phobic child is usually afraid of leaving home in general rather than afraid of anything particular at school. Aside from poor attendance, these children are usually good students and they're well-behaved at school. The parents are typically good parents who are conscientious and loving and the child finds it difficult to separate from them. Yes, separation anxiety isn't just an issue for toddlers. It can persist through the school years.
Sometimes a change of schools, a strict teacher, hard tests, a learning problem or your child may not feel as good as other students, or a bully may appear to be the cause of the child's fear of going to school. These issues may only be part of the problem and they are not a reason for your child to miss school while these problems are being resolved. If daily school attendance is enforced, the problem of school phobia should improve in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, if you do not require your child to attend school every day, the physical symptoms and the desire to stay home will become more frequent.
How Parents Can Help Their Child Get Through School Phobia
So how can you as a parent prevent school phobia from interfering with school attendance? The best therapy for school phobia is to make sure your child is in school every day. Fears are overcome by facing them as soon as possible. Daily school attendance will cause most of your child's physical symptoms to improve. They will become less severe and happen less often, and your child will eventually enjoy school again.
At first, however, your child will test your determination to send them every day, amping up their symptoms and making you feel guilty about making them go to school when they don't feel good, but you must make school attendance a non-negotiable role. Be optimistic with your child and reassure them that they will feel better as soon as they get to school. Be extra firm on school mornings. In the beginning mornings may be a difficult time, especially on Mondays.
You should never ask your child how they feel because it will encourage them to complain. If they are well enough to get up and be around the house or well enough to watch TV and play video games, they are well enough to go to school. If your child is late, they should go to school anyways.
Sometimes a child may cry and scream, absolutely refusing to go to school. In that case, after talking with them about their worries, your child needs to be taken to school.
If your child has a new symptom or seems quite sick, you will probably want them to stay home and try to have your child seen by their pediatrician that morning. If the symptom is caused by a disease appropriate treatment can be started, but if the symptoms are from worry or anxiety, your child should go back to school before noon. Working closely with your child's pediatrician in this way can solve even the most difficult of school phobia problems.
Schools are usually very understanding about school phobia because it's a common problem. However, they are understanding to a point. If your child is missing too much school then the truancy police get involved. There's more paperwork and there are even court dates.
Remember, for the majority of children who have school phobia, there is no physical reason for them to stay home. You must be strong and reaffirm that missing school when they are not truly sick is not an option.
updated: March 9, 2023
originally published: March 2, 2016
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