Dominion Hospital - February 20, 2019

Refusing to go to school isn't a new problem, but it has gotten new attention from parents who are struggling with normally great and cooperative kids who, because of fear, anxiety or other circumstances, now refuse to go to school — and in some cases to stay for the full day at school. Experts says grounding doesn't work for anxiety and may even make it worse.

Two approaches help you understand what's going on — and the steps to take instead of punishment.

Biology and psychology

This approach takes refusal down to its roots. Under stress, our bodies are preprogrammed with instinctual fight or flight responses. So, if anxiety is telling your child there's something to fear (rational or not), then it's not a matter of "won't," it's a matter of "can't." Reason flies out the window. Rewards are lost in high emotions. The brain is so triggered that consequences have no meaning.

The response isn't always fly away — sometimes it's also stay and fight, which might look like defiance.

A power struggle at 7 a.m. is the last thing parents want, so understanding what's going on in your child's mind can help you let go of your own frustration.

Instead of punishment, insist on a few sessions with a counselor to understand what is triggering the anxiety and to make a plan to get back to school.

Call in coaching

Even if your child is able to articulate what's bothering him or her at school, change doesn't happen overnight. This approach starts where your child is right now and looks to make incremental changes and small victories over time. These baby steps require patience and acknowledgement that two steps forward might be followed by a step back.

Coaching your child forward requires accountability. Incentives should be positive, like screen time only on days when your child gets up on their own. Or a sleepover with friends if your teen stayed at school four out of five days for the week.

Instead of punishment, try a meeting with the school counselor to enlist help and positive reinforcement at school. If they get up and make it to the school without a meltdown, they can have lunch in a teacher's room instead of the cafeteria.

If you're experiencing some seriously defiant behavior or struggling with refusal for more than two weeks, then it's time to reach out for more support. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor for additional resources, like support groups for parents, peer groups for kids, mentors for teens.

Dominion Hospital, in Fall Church, can be a source of support. Talk to one of our specialists to see if the Choices School Refusal Program is right for your family. Our First Step Counselors are available 24/7. Find answers at our Dominion Hospital website.