My Teen with Depression Won’t Go to School. What Do I Do?
August 12, 2022
Have you been dreading the return to school with your teen? We have some advice for parents – especially those navigating school avoidance with teens who are finding school harder due to their depression.
“School refusal” or “school avoidance” are not when teens sneak off and skip school to go have fun with friends. Instead, it’s when students resist going to school or shut down while at school because of an underlying mental health issue.
It’s a serious problem. Missed school can lead to social isolation, a snowball effect with missed schoolwork, and conflicts within family. Long-term, it can harm a teen’s prospects for college and careers.
For this post, I tapped into advice from clinicians and invited my children, Davis (age 18, just graduated high school) and Jane (age 14, 9th grade), to share their thoughts. Our teens are intelligent, funny, dog-loving people. They both experience depression, anxiety, and have learning disabilities that make school extra challenging. And they often find it hard to go to school, especially since the time at home during the pandemic.
How Parents Can Help
Cognitive behavioral therapy and in-school counseling can help teens struggling to get to school. These approaches are more effective when combined with consistent actions from the parent or caregiver at home. Studies suggest that parent involvement plays an important role in addressing school avoidance.
Here is some advice as you navigate school avoidance with your teens.
Remember that every kid is different. Some enjoy going to school, seeing friends, playing sports, and going to club meetings. For kids struggling with depression or anxiety, walking into school can be an attack on the senses. Schoolwork is often grueling. Even positive social interactions can be draining. I learned to measure our kids’ school progress taking into account where they are emotionally. We try to keep the focus on effort – getting to school, keeping up with their work – and on their mental and physical wellbeing. It’s not that we don’t care about good grades; it’s just not what is most important to us right now.
As Adam “Jay” Geyer pointed out to me, what motivates one kid to get to school won’t necessarily work for another. Jay worked as a Clinical Social Worker for the Center for Children with Special Needs at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. He explained that as kids grow and change, their relationships with school may change, too. Your child who loved middle school may find it extremely difficult to go to high school. Staying open and tuned in to your kid’s current mindset can help you figure out the best way to support them.
Set clear expectations around school. Talk with your kids (ideally NOT on a school day) about your expectations for school. Teens with mental health conditions may have real physical symptoms. Drawing a hard line like, “You must go every school day unless you have a fever,” may not fit your teen. We have worked out with Jane that she can take an occasional “mental health day” to recharge, as long as she’s going to school most days.
Also, discuss ahead of time what will happen on the days they do miss school. Every professional we spoke with recommended that no school should equal no phone and no screens. The idea is to make staying at home so boring, that going to school feels better.
Urge kids to go to school. Even if it makes them – and you – uncomfortable. Experts say that teens need to learn to work through the discomfort at school and help their brain learn that they can survive a day in the classroom. If your kid says a day at school is too much, remind them tomorrow may also feel difficult, even more so if they are behind. If all else fails, try to get them to go for at least part of the day – something is better than nothing. Therapists have taught us to ask, “If you can’t do it all, what could you do?”
Focus ahead to something positive. “It really helps me to know I have something to look forward to,” Jane says. Having her plan something fun for Friday night with her friends helps her get to school through the end of the week. Or helping her get ready for an activity like crazy hat day for spirit week will get her over the hump to get out the door that morning. For Davis, there were times when completing a big assignment or getting to the next level in a class motivated him. Jay Geyer advises parents to talk with their kids about what they are working toward, whether that’s long-term goals like the kind of job they want to have, or more immediate ones, like completing their science project or trying out for a play.
Build resilience through healthy habits. An earlier bedtime and good sleep hygiene mean better rest, which can make a huge difference in our ability to cope. Encourage your teens to go to bed and get up within the same hour every day and stop screens at least an hour before sleep. Regular exercise, deep breathing, and meditation all improve mood and reduce anxiety. Apps are a great way for kids to integrate their positive habits into their days. A short way to remember this is to think of “SEEM”: Sleep, Exercise, Eating, and Mindfulness.
Create a positive, calm morning routine. This can be rough when you are rushing to get yourself to work, but it has helped us a lot. Jane says she does much better when she has time to chill in bed for an hour before she gets up for school. It helped Davis to have time for a coffee before heading to school. I try to be ready for the day well ahead of the time we need to leave. And more time means I am less rushed, which leads me to my next tip.
Notice your own emotions. I often arrived late to work because I was trying to get my kids to school. As it got later and later, I would get more stressed. Sometimes I’d lose my patience and yell at them – not ideal. As Davis told me once, “When you yell it just makes me more anxious. There is no chance I am going to school after that.” A step out to my front porch or even just several deep breaths before I walked into their rooms helped.
Invest time in the family fun bank. Jay Geyer recommends finding an activity where you can connect with your teens. Even though it can be tempting, don’t bring up school, chores, or other charged topics. Focus on listening and having fun. For Jay’s family, it was playing pool. For us, it’s taking a swim or playing with our dog. Strengthening your relationships can help you find common ground and remember you are on the same team. What’s your family’s version of fun?
Get supports in place at school. If this is an ongoing situation, getting additional student accommodations in place can make a big difference. This can be through special education accommodations or simply making suggestions to caring teachers. “It has helped me to sit in the back of the room, have a quiet room where I can go for breaks or to do work, and listen to music with headphones to screen out extra noise,” Jane told me. “It also helps me to talk once a week with our school counselor, someone who I am comfortable with and who knows what’s happening with me at school.”
Celebrate successes. Every time your teen feels low and still makes it to school, it builds their persistence muscles. The more they go, the more their confidence will grow. One of Davis’s therapists told him, “The days you feel it’s the hardest are the days you are making the most progress.” Work for small wins and good trends over time. And take time to recognize the progress they are making.
I wish all you parents a smooth transition back to school. Good luck and make sure to take time for your own needs as you support your kids.