Everyone suffers from school phobia at some point in their life: typically the symptoms occur the morning before a tough exam or at the moment you discover your child was supposed to write a 5,000 essay on Julius Caesar and hand it in to their teacher first period. But aside from the histrionics you might expect from any child with a strong desire to stay in bed rather than face detention, what is school phobia and what are the symptoms?
In general terms, school phobia is a genuine anxiety relating to school, which culminates in the child refusing to attend. These days the condition is more commonly referred to as “school refusal”, mainly because it is exactly that: a refusal to go to school. But what makes school refusal different from truancy and how common is the problem amongst school age children?
So What exactly is school phobia and what are it’s symptoms?
School phobia is very different from the occasional refusal to go to school, a typical behaviour in most children from time to time. All kids have days where they don’t want to go to school—usually because they are having problems with a friend or they would rather stay in bed for a few hours. However, unlike this type of commonbehaviour, children exhibiting the signs of school refusal will try to avoid going to school at all costs and will become visibly upset or anxious if their parent forces them to go.
Children of any age can show the symptoms of school refusal, but it tends to be more common in children making the transition from nursery to infant school and junior or middle school to high school, probably because of the increased stress levels associated with such changes. Symptoms of school refusal will vary, but in all cases, there is a genuine anxiety or fear underlying the refusal to attend school, and unlike a child who regularly skips classes or fails to turn up in the morning, a child with school phobia will be ashamed of their inability to go to school.
Complaining of vague physical illnesses is common in children with school phobia. The child might feel sick in the morning or complain of headaches so that their parent allows them to stay at home. Other classic physical symptoms include stomach pain or general tiredness.
Children may also become very anxious or upset if the parent tries to make them go to school and younger children may throw temper tantrums before school. In the case of older children, regularly missing the bus to avoid attending school is a common ploy, or the teenager might set off for school but fail to show up.
What causes school phobia?
Children develop school phobia for all kinds of reasons. Bullying at school or social anxiety issues can lead to a refusal to attend school, as can family problems at home. Younger children may suffer from extreme separation anxiety and older kids may be worried about exams and their performance in class.
Treatment for school phobia will depend on whether there are any underling conditions such as depression of anxiety disorders to deal with, but in general, a treatment plan will try and ensure the child is eased back into the school system as quickly as possible.