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School Phobia

Eight-year old Allison doesn’t want to go to school. Her mom pleads, her dad threatens, and together they try to bargain with her. Allison says her stomach hurts, she has a headache, but they only seem to surface when it’s time to go to school. Sometimes her parents force her into the car, often with her screaming, protesting and generally threatening to run away if they make her go. Once there she says to mom, “You can’t make me get out of the car”. Sometimes her parents give in and let her stay home; at other times they struggle but make her attend.

When her parents ask Allison why she doesn’t want to go, she presents vague statements such as “The kids don’t like me” or “The teacher’s mean”. Her parents talked to the teacher and she said that Allison was quiet or reserved but doesn’t see any bullying and many students seem to like her. She couldn’t remember any problem she’s had with Allison.

In the few months prior to Allison’s school phobia her parents had made job changes, plus there had been some arguing and tension in the house. On one occasion her parents discovered Allison at the doorway as they discussed a worrisome financial situation.

Often school phobia children are sensitive and reserved. They are often highly attuned to one parent or the other. School phobia is not typically about being afraid of school, it’s about protecting, worrying over, trying to be with a parent they feel they need to make okay. All reasoning with this type of child will change nothing, nor will discipline. You can’t discipline a child out of their concerns or worries. You can even reward this child with outings, food or things but when it becomes school time, nothing will logically convince the child to leave home.

What helps? Adults must demonstrate to their child the adequacy and sufficiency of their leadership in order to remove the child’s worry. The child must be required to go to school even if it takes school personnel’s assistance to get them in the building. Protecting a child from the actual going will increase their controlling approach and not allow confidence to develop while being apart from a parent or parents. Often attachment-based treatment is needed to reconnect secure parent leading and compliant child following. An assessment of the child’s functioning can often lead to healthy change allowing this child to move ahead through parent structure and effective challenges, while providing a secure nurturing environment within which these changes can take place.

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