School-Related Anxiety: The Real Reason Your Teen Might Be Refusing to Go to School

What may present itself as laziness, stubbornness, or rebellious noncompliance, could actually be anxiety-driven

by Nancy Reynolds

Written By: Jessica Manning

Post: School-Related Anxiety – The Real Reason Your Teen Might Be Refusing to Go to School

Have you ever called your teen in sick to school, but in actuality, it wasn’t that your teen was sick, you just couldn’t get him or her to go? It’s OK to admit; you’re certainly not alone.

Most parents I know don’t willingly allow their kids to chronically miss school, but instead, they simply feel helpless when faced with their teen who is either begging not to go or who is beyond the point of even trying. Please know, as educators at the high school level, we understand that it’s one thing to drop a teary-eyed four-year-old off at preschool and an entirely different thing to get a 160-pound 17-year-old out the door to school.

Forcing a teenager to do anything is easier said than done. 

School-Related Anxiety: The Real Reason Your Teen Might Be Refusing to Go to School


What I’ve learned from years of experience addressing students with attendance issues is that anxiety is often the root of school refusal.

What may present itself as laziness, stubbornness, or rebellious noncompliance, could actually be anxiety-driven.

Nonetheless, how do we help our kids deal with their anxiety and get them to school?

Please note, in this case, I am not talking about teens with debilitating, diagnosed General Anxiety Disorder. I’m talking about kids who struggle with feelings of anxiousness. 

According to Healthline, “Although there are some similarities between feeling “normally” anxious and having an anxiety disorder, they are not the same. Normal anxiety is typically short-term and related to a stressor, whereas an anxiety disorder isn’t something that simply goes away and persists over time. Treatment is typically necessary to manage it.”

I hate to sound like a callous school counselor, but I hear it all the time from students – “I have anxiety.” Many teenagers don’t understand that there is a difference between feeling anxious, nervous, or stressed and having a diagnosed anxiety disorder.

So, how does a parent help their teen who is struggling but not to the point where he/she needs therapy or medication? 

Let’s be honest, for both parents and schools, navigating the fine line between validating teens’ anxiety and empowering them through tough love is a really tricky task.

Allowing your teen to avoid school can become a slippery slope. The more they miss, the more make-up work accrues, thus stress; not to mention whatever else they’re dealing with with that’s keeping them from school that cannot be fixed through avoidance. 

I empathize with parents who find themselves in this situation with their teens; there is no easy solution. However, I do believe certain efforts can be made to work with schools to make school-related anxiety better. If your child is showing signs of school refusal, consider partnering with his/her school to help work through their feelings. In my experience in education, when schools are made aware of the challenges teens are facing, they are more likely to show grace.  

If your teen is struggling with school-related anxiety, here are a few suggestions that might help.

1. Take a Guess and Tell Me More

Oftentimes, kids can’t pinpoint what’s driving their anxiety. And, we all know most teens aren’t adept at expressing their feelings and thoughts. Thus, if you’re asking clarifying questions to help understand what your teen is feeling and they repeatedly answer, “I don’t know,” they very well might be telling the truth. It’s possible that their anxiety stems from a general feeling about multiple things, and they’re just struggling to identify what in particular is causing it.

When I ask teens questions, and they answer, “I don’t know,” I always follow with, “Take a guess.” For whatever reason, probably because the word, “guess” connotes no wrong or right answer, kids respond better. Try it!

Also, another trick – instead of asking, “Are you struggling with your math teacher? Is it another kid in school?”…try saying, “Tell me more…” For example, “Tell me more about what lunchtime looks like for you.” “Tell me more about your bus rides.” This gives them a chance to open up. Are they overwhelmed with homework? Are they being bullied? Are they having trouble with a teacher?  It’s probably the one phrase I use the most in my office. Tell me more. It’s a great way to help your teen identify what they are avoiding. 

2. Be Transparent With The School

Once you’ve identified what is causing your teen’s anxiety, (or even if you can’t pinpoint the cause), instead of calling your child in sick, be honest with the school about why your child isn’t coming to school. Educators want to be a part of the solution, and we might have strategies that parents haven’t considered. 

Here are just a few of the strategies we’ve tried with kids at my school:

Take 5:

We want students to know that if they’re feeling anxious, they aren’t going to be trapped in class.

Our struggling students know they can simply show their teachers their hands (picture holding up five fingers), and their teachers will know they’re taking a five-minute break. During this time, kids can go to the counseling office or get a drink from the fountain, so we know where they are. 


So many problems arise with teens because of poor communication. If your student is having a conflict with a teacher or another student, maybe it’s because of a misunderstanding. I mediate conversations all the time; sometimes students just need an adult to help guide a productive conversation.

Schedule Requests:

It’s very difficult for most high schools to accommodate schedule requests, but for extenuating circumstances, it can be done. If there is no getting around the anxiety your son or daughter feels about having a certain teacher or peer in class, more than likely, your student could be placed in a different class. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Adjusted Schedule:

For some kids, going to school for an entire day is too taxing. As a dangling carrot to get a struggling student’s foot in the door, we’ve temporarily allowed half days when possible. We’ve also had some students alternate coming in the morning versus the afternoon. 

Alternative Assignments/Assessments:

If a particular assignment, project, or test is giving your teen fits, talk to the teacher! I know many teachers who have allowed students to give speeches to just them instead of the entire class or to finish an exam after school, etc. 

3. Battle It

I have a poster of Bob Dylan in my office with his quote that reads, “Sometimes you just have to bite your upper lip and put your sunglasses on.” As difficult as it may be, there comes a time when we have to use tough love to encourage our kids to battle their anxiety.

This is a blessed, hard life, and we cannot protect them from all things hard. As parents, don’t we all face that dichotomy of wanting to protect our kids from hard things but knowing that doing so is not always in their best interest?

While they’re in your home, model for them how to cope with anxiety and how to use their fight muscles instead of their flight ones.

If we allow our teens to flee now, how can we expect them to become resilient adults? There might come a time when you can no longer call them in sick, meaning they’ll have to take the natural consequence of skipping school. 

Most schools do not function in quite the “black and white” terms as teens think they do. Most often, educators go into the teaching or the academic administrative profession because they have a heart for kids – they really DO want to help and be part of the solution.

If your teen is struggling, reach out to their school; perhaps you can partner to empower your teen to face their school-related anxiety and to thrive in this world where feelings of anxiety are inevitable.


About Jessica Manning

Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis. 


If you enjoyed reading, “School-Related Anxiety: The Real Reason Your Teen Might Be Refusing to Go to School,” here are a few other posts you might enjoy:

What Your Teen Desperately Wants You to Know Before School Starts

Middle School Kinda Sucks: How to Help Your Child Get Through These Tough Years

Sure, Grades Matter, But Here Are the REAL Lessons I Hope My Teen Learns in High School

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Michele January 29, 2024 - 4:40 pm

As a mother with three teenagers, this resonates with me very well. I loved how you said, “This is a blessed, hard life”. Teaching resiliency is one of the most important adult life skills 🙂

Nancy Reynolds January 29, 2024 - 5:37 pm

I’m so happy this article resonates with you! I think this one hits home for a lot of us… xo

Kmg February 9, 2024 - 4:41 pm

Just what I needed to read right now. Thanks


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