Does your child frequently refuse to go to school? If you answered, “yes” your child could have school phobia. To help understand what school phobia is and how you can help your child overcome school phobia, I have interviewed therapist Elizabeth Lowell Tupa, Ph.D.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I received my Ph.D. in Child and Adolescent Developmental and Clinical Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1995. I’ve done research regarding a variety of clinical topics, including the impact of divorce on young children’s development, children’s social skills and school adjustment, the communication of competent children, and I published a research article on the impact of positive coping strategies and communication skills on substance abuse among pregnant women in the Journal of Addictive Behavior in 1998. My 20 year work experience has spanned settings and age groups, including attachment work with at-risk infants and mothers, individual therapy with children, adolescents, adults, and families, and as the Associate Director of the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan in Denver, Colorado, I oversaw the treatment of seriously mentally ill adult patients. I currently have a private practice treating children, adolescents, and adults in Golden, Colorado. I specialize in relationship issues, depression, and child behavior problems.”
What does school phobia for a child stem from?
“School phobias involve children strongly resisting or even refusing to attend school. They may cry, throw tantrums, or develop physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches (even vomiting) routinely when it’s time to go to school. Children sometimes cite vague problems or multiple problems at school as the reason they don’t want to attend, but there are often misconceptions about how school phobias develop in children. Parents typically believe that negative events at school are causing their child’s resistance to attending school. While this may be the reason in some cases, in most cases of school phobia, the main reason behind the child’s refusal to go to school has to do with events or situations at home. Most often, the child does not want to leave one or more of their caretakers (usually a parent). They may be very anxious about a recent change in their home situation, such as a recent move, illness of a loved one, one parent changing jobs or losing their job, their parents’ marital problems, or problems with other siblings. Whatever the reason, they develop an intense, anxious need to stay near their homes and loved ones.”
What type of impact can school phobia have on a child’s overall life?
“If not treated, school phobias can have a serious negative impact on a child’s life. Non-attendance at school can lead to academic problems, difficulties getting along with peers, and then a spiraling increased resistance to attending school. Additionally, since school phobia tends to be an anxiety-related problem, if left unresolved, a child’s anxiety can worsen and manifest itself in other ways over time.”
What can a parent do to help their child overcome school phobia?
“The first thing parents can and should do is to talk to their child, and really listen. Ask the child why they don’t want to go to school, and ask them if there is anything else that is troubling them. Next, take steps to rule out any true problems at school that could be a factor, such as learning difficulties, being the victim of bullying, teasing or other abuse or intimidation, trouble getting along with their peers, difficulties with a certain teacher, anxiety about academic performance, etc. Parents can take steps to investigate and resolve these issues by requesting a parent-teacher conference or ongoing closer communication with teachers, talking with the principal and/or or school counselors, and, especially if the child is preschool or elementary age, visiting the school on several occasions to observe the child’s social interactions in the lunchroom, on the playground, and in other settings. Another thing parents can do is to become more involved in their child’s school experience. This could include volunteering at the school occasionally, getting the child involved in an after school activity at the school and helping with that activity, or simply helping the child enthusiastically with studying or with projects such as for a science fair. However, as I previously mentioned, the majority of time a school phobia will be more related to what is going on at home for the child instead of what is going on at school. This can be quite difficult for parents to figure out, as they are part of the family system and may not be able to “step back” and see certain family issues with great clarity.”
What type of professional help is available for a child who has school phobia?
“A mental health professional can be of great assistance in figuring out what is truly causing a child’s anxiety and how the parents or family can work to improve the situation. A psychologist, licensed personal counselor, or licensed clinical social worker can meet with the parents and the child to address these issues. When I work with school phobia cases, I usually meet with the parents first to get a thorough family history and a history of the child’s development, and to explore what family issues might be causing the child’s resistance to going to school. Next, I meet with the child, usually for two to four sessions, to assess the situation from their point of view, and then I meet with the parents again to formulate strategies to help improve the situation. After that, families may need a few more follow-up sessions, or children with a great deal of anxiety may require more therapy sessions to help them find ways to cope with and alleviate their anxiety. I also often work with parents and school personnel to develop strategies to improve the child’s experience at school and thereby make going to school more appealing and comfortable. I have found that with active, committed involvement from parents, school phobias can be successfully resolved in a matter of a few months, sometimes sooner.”
Thank you Dr. Tupa for doing the interview on how a parent can help their child overcome school phobia. For more information on Dr. Tupa or her work you can check out her website on www.drtupa.com.
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