Emotional Challenges & School Refusal: What's a Parent to Do?
One of the more challenging things for a parent is to have a teenager who experiences emotional challenges. As parents, we understand that parenting our kids through the teenage years will present with unique challenges on its own. When emotional challenges are thrown in the mix, the complexity of parenting increases by orders of magnitude.
As parents or teenagers who struggle with emotional challenges, there are not many times during the day where this isn't weighing us down. We do the best with our knowledge and understanding. We research effective approaches to help. We reach out to friends, family, and professionals.
We search for those answers that will:
Help our teenager with depression be able to get out of bed in the morning. Feel good about themselves. And experience happiness in and hope for the future.
Help our teenager with anxiety, social anxiety, or who experience panic attacks find ways to build their self-esteem and self-confidence. We want them to see the bright, capable teenager that we and so many others see.
Help our teenager with ADHD/ADD first accept that they struggle with ADHD/ADD and may be required to learn and use additional skills and tools that other teenagers don't have to. Then when given the tools, finding ways to help our teenagers use those skills.
These emotional challenges and more sometimes translates into our teenagers "refusing" to attend school. Teens with depression, anxiety, and/or ADHD/ADD carry additional weight that other teenagers do not have to carry.
Is It School Refusal or Emotional Avoidance?
Teenagers struggling with emotional challenges carry around with them a large emotional backpack. This 50, 100, 150-pound backpack doesn't get lighter over time. Their emotional muscles do not build to allow them to better adjust to the weight.
This is also a backpack that is never taken off. Our teens sleep with it, wake up with it, eat with it, go to school with it, etc. The more stressors and pressures the teenager experiences, the heavier the emotional weight seems to get.
And sometimes it may seem easier to avoid the thing that increases the stressors and pressures in a teenager's life. And that one thing can be school.
As parents, the normal thing to do with a teenager who is refusing to go to school is to punish the teenager. We may take things away like phones, video games, or ground them from friends.
We may start off this way and find that the punishments have little to no effect. Despite what we do to try to motivate them, they still refuse school. So, we may go the other route.
We may try to reward them for going to school. But it seems that no matter the reward, it does not produce long lasting changes.
A hallmark of your teenager's school refusal being due to emotional challenges is when the punishments and rewards do not help them attend school regularly.
A teenager who is simply being oppositional would likely respond to a combination of those approaches. A teenager who is not attending school because of emotional challenges will often not respond to those approaches alone.
What Can Parents Do?
Like most things, there is not "one thing" that will help. It will be a combination of things that can help your teenager go to school.
Below are suggestions that when used together, can help a teenager who struggles with emotional challenges return to school.
Work With the School to Develop a 504 Plan
A 504 plan is based on an antidiscrimination law enacted in the United States in 1973. The specific law is called the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 section 504. This plan helps provide school accommodations for teenagers struggling with emotional challenges.
A 504 plan will put into place services that the school can provide to help overcome obstacles to the teenager's success in school. It will take into account their struggle with anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, depression, ADHD/ADD. and other challenges.
Examples of accommodations that the school would need to provide vary based on the specific challenge the teenager is experiencing.
A teenager with ADHD/ADD:
Being allowed to sit at the front of the classroom during class time
Being able to take tests in a quiet room
Being able to have more time to complete homework, quizzes, and tests
A teenager with anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks:
Being able to leave the classroom to go to the counselor's office
Being able to bring to class fidget toys to help reduce anxiety
Being able to leave one class early so that they are walking to the next class with fewer people in the hall
A teenager with depression:
Being able to come to 1st period late if they struggle to get up and out of bed in the morning
Classes arranged so that a friend is in many of their classes
Lunch arranged to ensure it is with friends
The accommodations can be as many and as creative as needed to help remove barriers to the teenager's success. Teenagers with emotional challenges experience barriers that teenagers without emotional challenges do not. The 504 plan can help level the playing field for your teenager.
Find a Therapist Who Specializes in Teen Counseling
If you have a teenager who is struggling to the point of not being able to attend school, it's time to find a therapist who specializes in teen counseling. It's important to find a teen counselor who works with teenagers versus a counselor who tends to work with everyone.
Providing counseling to teenagers requires a different and nuanced approach than working with adults. Teenagers are faced with a wide variety of unique pressures and experiences. A therapist who specializes in working with teenagers can address those needs better than a therapist who is a generalist in practice.
It's akin to going to a family doctor for a specific heart problem. They will be able to provide help however, a cardiologist is going to have the training and specialization to help at a different level.
Parenting a teenager with depression, anxiety, ADHD/ADD, or other challenges and who also are not attending school because of that will take support. A teen counselor can provide you the support you need as a parent while also helping your teenager overcome those emotional challenges.
There is a place for logical consequences (not punishment) in parenting a teenager struggling with emotional challenges. The balance is knowing when and how to use them.
And this is where the support and help from a teen counselor can come in. As teen counselors, we work often with these types of struggles. We can help parents navigate the logical consequence tightrope.
We don't want to consequence the depression, anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, or ADHD/ADD. It's much like consequencing someone who is in a wheelchair for not getting up and walking.
Yet it's important that the teenager understand that life has logical consequences. Logical consequences are those things that come as a result of doing/not doing something.
Not going to school may mean that they have to forgo video games that night to get caught up on what they missed as school that day.
Missing the group project and their part in that may mean not going out with friends that night to get their part of the project completed.
We are not "punishing" them for not going to school or for missing the group project. We are not "punishing" them for their emotional challenges.
We are teaching them that life goes on even though they didn't attend school and they have a responsibility to catch up in school. And sometimes this means sacrificing video game time to do so.
It's also important to not consequence for longer than is logical. Having them miss video games for a week straight due to missing school for one day is not logical. Consequences that are not logical is punishment. Logical consequences teach. Punishment does not.
They may feel it's "punishment". But explain the difference and how you are not punishing them for their emotional challenge but simply ensuring they continue to succeed in life.
You may explain that if you don't go to work because you are sick, you have to stay later the next day to get caught up. You're not getting punished for being sick. You have a responsibility to ensure you stay caught up. The same is true when taking a week-long vacation. Often, we return to a mountain of work that requires long days when we return.
Rewarding or Reinforcing Desired Behavior
And it's okay to reward or reinforce behavior that is desirable. When you have a teenager that is in tears because they want to go to school but the panic attack prevents them from doing so, finding ways to reward them can be a good thing.
If you have a teenager who won't get in the car in the morning because of panic attacks and one morning gets in the car, find ways to reward them.
If they get in the car, make it to the school carpool lane, but can't go into the school. Find ways to reward them.
If they get in the car, make it through the carpool lane, and attend school for half a day. Find ways to reward them.
Consistency Over Time
I wish I could say that the combination of these things will bring about quick change. When the emotional challenges like these, it usually takes time. Be patient and consistent.
It's important that as you are working your 504 plan that you review it regularly. Changes can be made to the plan.
Work with a teen therapist who specializes in teen depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, ADHD/ADD or other challenges. This too takes time.
And be consistent and logical in your consequences and your rewards. Talk with your teenager about the reasons for the consequences. Talk with them also about meaningful rewards and what those might look like.
We do see teenagers and families succeed. While it may seem insurmountable now, it can and will get better.
Katy Teen & Family Counseling: Providing Teen Counseling & Family Therapy in Katy, Tx & Houston
With 70+ years of combined experience in teen therapy and family counseling, our teen and family therapists are here to help. We can support parents in the complexity of parenting a teenager with emotional challenges. And we are here to help your teenager learn to overcome the emotional obstacles that stand in their way.
If you are ready to start teen counseling at our Katy, Tx location at Katy Teen & Family Counseling, all you need to do is follow these three simple steps:
Contact Katy Teen & Family Counseling
Talk with one of our caring therapists
Start the healing today
Other Therapy and Counseling Services Offered at Katy Teen & Family Counseling
At Katy Teen & Family Counseling, we provide a variety of therapy approaches that are supported by research and shown to be effective. Some of the teen therapy and young adult counseling we offer are:
Board Certified Neurofeedback Therapy
Peak performance (optimal academic brain performance)
Peak performance (optimal athletic brain performance)
Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR Therapy)
Group Therapy for Teens
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Couples Therapy & Marriage Counseling
To succeed in any relationship takes work. This is a common understanding that many of us have.
However, sometimes life will throw challenges at us that create situations that put strain on our marriage or relationship. It may be due to:
Choices and actions that have been made by one partner.
Financial downturn in the economy creating financial strain.
Feeling like you're growing apart.
Feeling like you don't have as much in common as you used to.
Whatever the reason may be, marriage counseling and couples therapy can help. Couples therapy and marriage counseling has also been found to work in less time than individual therapy can.