It was the unofficial start of fall when I opened my email and saw the The New York Times headline “Where Are the Students?” sitting in my inbox. In the newsletter, David Leonhardt sounds the alarm on current rates of school absenteeism in the United States
Already? Didn’t the school year just start? After all, this subject line was snuggled between others shouting, “Get ready for the first day of school!” and “Sign up for the PTO newsletter!”
But the truth is, school avoidance in teens is increasing. As a psychologist who primarily works with anxious teens and young adults, I know that it’s never too early to talk about school avoidance.
School Avoidance in Teens
The NYT’s startling newsletter was based in large part on this study conducted by the Stanford economist Thomas Dee. Here are some highlights:
- There has been a 91% increase in chronic school absences between 2018 and 2022. (*Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10% or more of school for any reason.)
- Absenteeism rates have increased in every state.
- Based on fancy data analysis, these changes are not directly due to things such as local COVID rates, school mask policies, or changes in how schools measure a student as “absent.”
Why Is My Teen Avoiding School?
No one knows with 100% certainty, including mental health experts. However, stats like these are often followed by headlines about the decline in adolescent mental health, unfiltered access to social media, and an increasing number of students who report feeling detached from their school.
Yes, there is vital work that needs to happen to move the needle on these important issues. But if you’re the parent of a teen who’s struggling, you don’t have time to wait for a national solution.
Good news. You don’t need to.
David Leonhardt’s take on the absentee data is that kids no longer have the habit of consistent, in-school attendance. Therapists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) would agree. But bad habits can be changed, which is why CBT is a master key to unlocking your teen’s school avoidance.
What CBT Experts Say
Thanks to Christopher Kearney, the country’s leading expert in school anxiety and refusal, we know there are four main reasons why teenagers avoid school:
- To avoid school stress
- To avoid social judgments
- To gain comfort and attention, and
- To gain access to nice things not available in school
We know the situations that can lead to school avoidance:
- School or family transitions
- Academic or social challenges in the classroom
- Social rejection or bullying
- Upcoming exams or public speech
- Having to return after a long break or illness
- Traumatic situations that are experienced directly or seen online
- Unidentified or under-supported learning or attentional differences
We know there are common thinking patterns, or “tricks,” that keep teens stuck at home:
- Mind reading: “Everyone hates me.”
- Catastrophizing: “No school is safe.”
- Labeling: “I’m a failure.”
- Forecasting: “I’ll never be able to handle that class.”
We know that anxiety tells teenagers “School is dangerous. You can’t handle it. Do whatever you can to stay home.” When teens listen to this inner voice, a vicious cycle begins.
The Vicious Anxiety Cycle
When teens avoid school, the relief is immediate and intense. As a parent, you might even feel good about giving them a mental health day. And sure, a day off one or two times a year is not the same thing as problematic school avoidance. But while avoiding that test, friend or gym class might ease the pain for a bit, it’s also keeping your teen from building the emotional muscle they need to get through the highs and lows of high school, and life. What’s that old saying? No pain, no gain?
Plus, if staying home also means a comfy bed, extra sleep, good snacks and some TLC from parents, who wouldn’t choose home over school?
Once the school avoidance cycle starts, the occasional pleas to stay home can quickly turn into more outright refusal. The longer your teen is out of school, the more effort it will take to reverse the cycle. Many families find that it truly takes a village (parents, teachers, school administrators, therapists) to get their teen back into the school habit.
What Can I Do To Help My Teen?
To help you steer clear of this cycle, here are some DOs and DON’Ts to stop school refusal before it starts:
- Make it clear that your expectation is for your teen to attend school.
- Model a sense of calm confidence for your teen. (It’s ok if you’re panicking on the inside.)
- Praise your teen’s “approach” behaviors (finishing homework, going to school on a test day).
- Ignore your teen’s avoidance behaviors (begging to stay home, asking you to email their teacher about that assignment)
- Resist the urge to comfort or “rescue” them from the stress of school.
- Develop a plan to reward brave school behaviors. Decide on natural consequences if the teen skips school. (“If you’re too overwhelmed to turn in that term paper tomorrow, then you’ll need to stay home this weekend and give yourself more time to finish it.”)
- If your teen has already missed some school, collaborate with your teen on gradual but concrete steps for consistent school attendance.
- Be understanding if your teen says they don’t feel good. Just because their stomachache or headache is due to anxiety, that doesn’t mean those symptoms are fake. But you can remind your teen that they are safe and temporary.
- Establish clear house rules about what will happen if your teen stays home. Stack the deck in favor of going to school. If staying home means getting out of bed, finishing homework and doing chores, school starts to look more enticing.
- Provide gentle reminders about coping skills your teen can use. Show pride when they do use them.
- Engage in a debate about whether school attendance is an option.
- Act on or express your own anxiety (even when you have to fake it). Share your anxiety with another adult if you need support in this.
- Criticize avoidance behaviors or ignore smaller-scale “approach” behaviors. Remember that small steps will help your teen reach the finish line.
- Negotiate with your teen when it comes to avoidance behaviors. Their anxiety will do everything to wear you down. Stay strong and consistent with your decision.
- Give a lot of comfort or attention to your teen for avoidance behaviors. Instead, save the attention and comfort for times you see them moving toward their school attendance goals.
- Worry that rewarding your teen for going to school is “bribery.” Bribery is paying someone to do something illegal. Creating a reward system is a tried-and-true behavioral reinforcement strategy.
- Insist on a “my-way-or-the-highway” plan, which can lead to goals your teen might not be ready for (yet).
- Respond to physical anxiety symptoms in the same way that you would respond to physical illness.
- Turn reminders about coping skills into a power struggle. A simple prompt will do. It’s their choice whether to follow through.
And most certainly DO give yourself some grace and compassion as you work through this. School avoidance can be just as hard on the parent as it is the teen.
If you catch school avoidance early, the process can self-correct. If your teen has missed more than a week or two of school, but is otherwise healthy, it might be time to call your pediatrician or a mental health provider to get additional support.
|DO THIS||NOT THAT|
|Set clear expectations about school attendance||Engage in debates about school attendance|
|Model calm confidence||Act on your anxiety in front of your teen|
|Praise brave behaviors||Criticize avoidance behaviors or ignore small brave behaviors|
|Ignore avoidance behaviors||Give in / negotiate|
|Resist the urge to “rescue” your teen||Indulge or overly comfort your teen|
|Develop a reward plan||Worry that you’re “bribing” your teen|
|Establish clear house rules if teen stays home||Let home become overly comforting|
|Collaborate on manageable steps to get back to school||Force a specific plan on your teen|
|Acknowledge that physical anxiety isn’t pleasant||Treat anxiety symptoms as dangerous|
|Give gentle reminders to use coping skills||Badger your teen about skills use|
When Should I Seek Professional Help?
If your teen’s anxiety is persistent and significantly affecting their daily life beyond the first few weeks of school, consider seeking support from a mental health professional who specializes in working with adolescents.
Lumate has expert therapists who specialize in working with teens and young adults. We are currently accepting patients (12-25) in FL, NY, NJ, CT, PA, and CA who may be struggling with anxiety and OCD.