My 13 - 17 year old refuses to go to school

Did you know that school refusal hits around 1-2% of all adolescents and 5-16% of those dealing with mental health issues? It is not just mere reluctance; behind these statistics are real stories of teens struggling with difficult challenges like emotional distress. You are not alone if your 13 to17–year–old refuses to go to school. At Key Healthcare, we understand that understanding teen school refusal is vital for parents and educational institutions. Teen school refusal has the potential for long-term consequences if not addressed early enough.

In this article, we will explore the nuances of teen school refusal, delving into its causes, signs, and symptoms, seeking professional help and effective strategies for support. Let’s dive into the “no” to school challenge among adolescents!

Unpacking School Refusal by 13 to 17-Year-Old Teens

School refusal is when your child or teen regularly refuses to attend or stay at school due to emotional distress. It is common for children to complain and be reluctant to go to school. Some may even temporarily escape school for a while. But this differs from school refusal, which may worsen to the extent of requiring treatment. School refusal is common among children aged between 5 and 17 years old.

School Refusal vs. Truancy

Most people tend to confuse school refusal and truancy, ending up using the two interchangeably. Whereas school refusal is based on the anxiety of a school-going child or adolescent, teen truancy is an intentional, more consistent, unwarranted absence from school by a child or teenager. Most children or teens hide truancy from their parents. Teens or children struggling with school refusal usually want to go to school but can’t because of their distress. School refusal is also difficult to hide; parents always know where their children are and that they have not attended school.

Do not punish your child or teenager for school refusal. If your teen is struggling with school refusal, it might be because of teen depression or anxiety. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help!

Why Does My 13 to 17-Year-Old Refuse to Go to School?

You might wonder what causes the challenge of school refusal in your child or teen. Generally, school refusal is caused by the anxiety of going to school. From the functional model canvassed in the School Refusal Assessment Scale-Revised, developed by Dr. Kearny and Dr. Wendy, the following are some of the behavioral justifications for school refusal:

  • The need to escape from evaluation situations and school aversion.
  • The need for attention from loved ones at home like significant other or parents.
  • The need for tangible reinforcements outside the confines of school.
  • Escape from the negative feelings associated with the school setting, such as depression, nervousness, and sadness.

Your teen’s refusal to go to school may also be caused by anxiety disorders and learning differences like

Other causes of school refusal among children and adolescents are;

  • Moving to a new town/city
  • Bullying at school
  • Family conflict
  • Conflict with friends at school
  • Death of a parent or loved one
  • Toxic new teacher
  • Moving to a new school or classroom changes
  • Prolonged absence from school due to injuries or a long holiday

Recognizing Signs of School Refusal in a 13 to 17-Year-Old Adolescent

Figuring out whether your teen is struggling with school refusal or merely playing hooky can be quite a puzzle. School refusal in teens manifests in many ways, from occasional absence from school to regular absenteeism. Watching for distinct features can help you determine if your 13 to 17-year-old is struggling with school refusal. We will highlight the behavioral, emotional, psychological, and academic indicators of school refusal in your adolescent. Let’s explore!

You can watch for the following indicators to identify school refusal in your teen:

  • Your teen is distressed about attending school and begging you not to let them go.
  • Your child only goes to school after an outburst, reluctance, or crying.
  • Your teen goes to school but leaves to escape other activities like counseling during the day.
  • Your teen completely refuses to go to school and hides in their room.
  • High levels of anxiety and depression in your adolescent
  • Your teen is having trouble sleeping
  • Deteriorating academic performance is a class academic indicator of school refusal.

What is the Danger of School Refusal for My 13 to 17-Year-Old Adolescent?

  • Academic Consequence: For your adolescent, academic failure is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to school refusal. The subsequent effects can be long-term, from deteriorating academic performance to poor overall student well-being.
  • Social Consequences: Teenagers are generally social beings who value friendships. The impacts of school refusal, when woven into your teen’s social life, can have repercussions. Your adolescent avoiding school can lead to broken friendships and detachment from peers. As a result, your teen will miss opportunities for social interactions and skills.
  • Familial Implications: Beyond academic and social consequences, school refusal can have rippling effects on the family. Detachment can lead to loneliness and isolation, impacting the family. Poor academic performance may also cause family stress and concern for parents. In the worst-case scenario, teen school refusal may cause family conflicts and toxic family dynamics.

How to Navigate the Storm of School Refusal in Your 13 to 17-Year-Old Adolescent

School refusal is a multifaceted challenge with various underlying issues. Dealing with your teen who refuses to go to school can be heartening as a parent. So, how do we navigate this challenge? Here are the key strategies to implement:

Talking to Your Teen

The cornerstone to addressing school refusal is talking to your adolescent. Talking to your teen can help you understand the challenges that may be causing school refusal. Below are some of the tips to consider when talking to your teenager:

  • Inform your teen of your observations and concerns.
  • Approach the conversation with empathy.
  • Encourage your teen to talk with you their challenges like peer presuure.
  •  Actively listen to your teen’s emotions and concerns.
  • Assure your teen that their feelings are valid.

Coordinating With the School

Collaborating with the school can help you comprehensively understand your teen’s school refusal. Consider visiting your teen’s school to talk to their administrators, teachers, and counselors. As you share your observations from home, you will also gain the school’s perspective on your teen’s school refusal challenge. With a holistic understanding, you can all work to help your teen successfully return to school.

Ask the school to offer assistance and help to your teen. Such help may include: 

  • Protecting your teen from bullying
  • Offering guidance and counseling sessions
  • Encouraging your teen to enroll in student support groups
  • Helping your teen with a gradual return to school

Individualized Education Plans and 504 Plans

You can also talk to the school to consider individualized education plans (IEPs) and 504 plans for your teen. Such tailored plans can help address your teen’s challenges leading to school refusal, whether mental or learning disabilities. Seek professional help and coordinate with the school to help successfully establish such plans.

Home and Online Schooling

Sometimes, alternative education options may be the way for your teenager. Consider alternatives like homeschooling and online learning, which are more personalized and flexible. These alternatives can help address your teen’s specific needs. They are also more comforting and accommodating.

Can School Refusal be Treated?

When all else fails, professional help becomes essential. Mental health specialists, therapists, and counselors can offer insights and expertise on the underlying issues causing school refusal. They can also develop effective strategies to overcome school refusal and related challenges.

It is better to intervene as soon as possible because the longer your teen misses school, the harder it becomes to get them back on track. School refusal treatment aims to help teens change their negative thoughts and feelings about attending school. It also helps adolescents overcome their fears and anxiety. Let’s look at some of the treatment interventions used for teen school refusal:

Pharmacological Interventions

Pharmacological interventions are primarily used to treat underlying social phobias, anxiety, and depression. In most cases, physicians use drugs that affect the mind and behavior. For instance, serotonin reuptake inhibitors like fluoxetine may be used to treat depression. However, such medicines are used with much caution when administered to adolescents since they can increase the risk of depression becoming severe. They may also induce manic depression. Sudden discontinuation may also cause withdrawal-like symptoms like insomnia, dizziness, headache, and anxiety.

Other medicines, like propanol, can be used to reduce anxiety. Sudden discontinuation of propanol is dangerous as it can cause a sudden increase in blood pressure with the potential of leading to stroke.

Therapeutic Interventions

Evidence-based therapeutic models like CBT, DBT, individual therapies, and exposure therapy are used in teen school refusal treatment. Let’s explore:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Among behavioral therapies, teen cognitive behavioral therapy is considered effective in treating school refusal. If your 13 to 17-year-old refuses school because of anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy can help them manage their anxious behaviors. Teen CBT offers your teen the opportunity to see that they can attend school without their fears occurring.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)

DBT is a form of CBT that is effective for adolescents struggling with school refusal. The main focus of DBT is to help the teenager develop effective and healthy coping mechanisms to manage their behaviors, like avoiding school and emotions. Your adolescent will learn emotional regulation, mindfulness, interpersonal, and distress tolerance skills while undergoing teen DBT.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is praised for being very effective in addressing school refusal among teenagers. It focuses on reintroducing adolescents back to school gradually. Exposure therapy allows adolescents to return to school at their own pace and build confidence. The early stages of exposure therapy are spent exposing your teen to the school setting. Your teen may walk around the school when it is empty or simply pass by to familiarize themself with its environment. With growing confidence, your teen can gradually start attending a few classes a day until they fully return to school.

Multifamily Therapy (MFT)

Multifamily therapy combines the aspects of family therapy and group therapy to address teen school refusal. Considering the impact of school refusal on the family, the involvement of families in treatment is crucial. Adolescents learn from each other by sharing their experiences with their families and peers. Multifamily therapy also helps address toxic family dynamics that may have been caused by school refusal. The key principle behind MFT is creating a supportive environment for intervention.

Operant Behavioral Techniques (OBT)

OBT is more practical and enticing to most teenagers. Operant behavioral techniques involve rewarding the adolescent for good behaviors like attending school without trouble. The goal is to increase the frequency of such goals. It motivates adolescents since they will be expecting goodies for their good behavior.

At Key Healthcare, we understand the significance of professional help in addressing school refusal. Here is a glimpse of our treatment options for 3 to 7-year-old adolescents struggling with school refusal:

  • Intensive outpatient treatment for teens: Our IOP runs for 4 to 2 weeks, 9 hours a day. We will engage your 13 to 17-year-old teen in therapy sessions to help them identify the reasons for school refusal.
  • Partial hospitalization treatment for teens: Our PHP runs for 3 to 4 weeks, 8 hours a day. Here, we treat your adolescent’s underlying mental health issues and help them develop coping mechanisms to get back to school.
  • Teen residential treatment: Your 13 to 17-year-old will receive 24/7 care and supervision while undergoing holistic treatment to address school refusal. Our program runs between 45 and 60 days. It is highly intensive and led by qualified experts. Among the interventions we use are cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy.

We are here to help your teen get back on track with their schooling. Schedule a consultation to discuss how we can help your 3 to 7-year-old adolescent overcome school refusal.

Reintegration and Relapse Prevention

Getting your teen back to school requires a gradual plan. At this stage, patience is key for your teen’s adjustment success. Consider the following tips;

  • You can start with small, manageable steps to help your teen return to school.
  • Allow your adolescent to transition at their own pace. This will help them build confidence to navigate school.
  • Make regular check-ins with your teen and adjust the plan accordingly.
  • Consider getting someone else to drop your teen to school. Separation at home is better than at school; it is easier to cope with.
  • Acknowledge your teen’s progress and achievement. Praise your adolescent for getting to school.

Preparing for Potential Relapse

Even as you help your teen successfully reintegrate, it’s important to prepare for potential relapse. It’s common for teenagers to experience setbacks. Do not lose hope; approach these obstacles with understanding, adaptability, and flexibility.

  • Communicate openly with your teen at all times.
  • Request the school to create a supportive environment for your teen.
  • Continue seeking professional help for your teenager.
  • Have a proactive mindset and continuously reassure your teen of your support and understanding.


As a parent, navigating the challenges of your teen’s school refusal can be tough. But remember, we are with you on this journey. Whether it is family conflicts, anxiety, or bullying, addressing the root cause of school refusal is the key. Talk to your teen. Collaborate with educators. Don’t forget to seek professional help where necessary. Ultimately, make your teen’s well-being your priority.

Don’t deny your teenager the chance at a better future; don’t hesitate to contact us. Let’s help your teen overcome school refusal together.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Yes, teen school refusal can be an indicator of underlying depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. This is why professional help is necessary for a holistic and effective intervention.

Engage your teen in open communication and collaborate with the school fraternity. This will give you a holistic understanding of your teen’s school refusal. With this, you can find a perfect balance between supporting your teen and maintaining expectations.

Some communities have support groups, counseling services, and mental health programs for teens struggling with school refusal. Tapping into the power of these initiatives can help your teen get back to school.

Yes, your teen can still suffer relapse even after returning to school. Provide continued support and foster open communication. Also, ensuring continued professional help for your teen can help achieve a sustained treatment.

It is important to know the laws of your State regarding school refusal. Some jurisdictions have legal penalties against parents whose adolescents refuse school.