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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

When Fear Keeps Kids From School, School Phobia

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 26th 2013

When Fear Keeps Kids From School, School PhobiaMost parents are familiar with the old story. Your child feigns a headache or sore throat so they don't have to go to school. They do it with a twinkle in their eye but go off merrily to school, their friends and teachers. However, this is not the scenario for a type of child who truly does not want to leave the house. They are not malingering and, if forced to go, become hysterical with crying and yelling. They have also thrown up and truly appear sick. This type of child might be one of those who has a phobia about school. Another word for it is school refusal and it's a serious problem for the chid and his parents. It's been estimated that 5% of school age kids from ages five to 12 suffer from school phobia although it can last well beyond the age of 12. Why does this happen?

There have been a variety of explanations given why some children fear school. One of them has to do with what is happening at home. If home life is unstable with mother and father constantly arguing and one of them about to move out, some children believe they must stay home in order to be sure that mom and dad will still be together. They may want to protect their mother or make sure Dad does not leave. For some youngsters this may really be a form of agoraphobia where the child is afraid of the outside world. For these youngsters, home feels safe while life outside feels threatening. The constant conflict at home can fill the child with separation anxiety.

According to child psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartsteing, one of the most common causes of school phobia is performance anxiety. Kids who are perfectionists, or who are concerned about their schoolwork will often suffer. "That is a huge weight for kids," says Hartstein, "and not to be underestimated. Kids feel pressure, just as greatly as adults do, if not more so. Perhaps they have been absent for a substantial illness, and are concerned they won’t catch up. Perhaps they are very intense about success which causes a real concern about failure."

Other causes could be a recent or impending family trauma, such as a move or a divorce. Or, perhaps it's caused by a recent traumatizing transition, such as a move from middle to High School, or a school transfer. If they go to school, they will lose control.

Another cause of school refusal could be bullying. Perhaps there is a specific reason that your child would refuse to go school such as being picked on, or avoiding a confrontation or fight. It can be difficult for a child’s mind to find perspective when their friends turn on them, or they are being humiliated by a bully.

Whatever the causes of school refusal, it's a serious emotional problem for kids and their parents. That is why it must be addressed quickly. It makes no sense to try to force a child to go to school when their level of fear is intolerable. It's important for parents to talk to the teachers, school administrator, school psychologist and guidance counselor. It is also recommended that, when trying to encourage a child go to school that they start with a very shortened day so that they can ease back in. Ultimately, if nothing else works, then it's a good idea to see the child's pediatrician and get a referral to a child psychologist. The school might have a list of practitioners in the community, especially the school psychologist.

It's important for parents to be very patient and understanding with their child. It's also important to act quickly so that the fears do not have a chance to really set in.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD





Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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