It used to be called “playing hooky” when a teen skipped school, an occasional event in order to do something fun. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer were the masters of skipping school in their day, with Ferris Buehler brilliantly reinventing the practice in the 80s. But in my work with adolescents over the past twenty years, these rascally and humorous examples of skipping school have given way to a disturbing epidemic. Adolescents are no longer just occasionally playing hooky to get a taste of freedom and mild mischief. Many teens are chronically skipping school to the point that they are failing classes, losing touch with peers and becoming terribly isolated.
In most cases, these teens either refuse to get out of bed in the morning, refuse to leave the house or pretend to go to school only to end up whiling away their day at a coffee shop, park or shopping mall. This kind of chronic skipping usually has a serious social/emotional cause and has become so pervasive that it now even has a diagnostic label: “school avoidance.” The peer, academic and parental demands on American teens are arguably higher now than ever before, leading some teens to do whatever they can to escape them.
Whether your child is engaged in a pattern of school avoidance or is showing early signs of it such as chronic lateness, frequent claims of illness, skipping certain classes regularly, etcetera it may be a sign of a social/emotional disturbance requiring therapy, medication or treatment. Many parents miss the underlying root of school avoidance because they treat it as simple defiance. If your child skips school chronically, you’re unlikely to get very far by raising your voice or issuing consequences. Observation and genuine, compassionate curiosity are two good places to start if you suspect your child has school avoidance issues that may require treatment.
A trip to your local therapist, psychologist or educational consultant can be a good next step; these professionals can conduct assessments that might shed light on both the cause of and treatment for your child’s school avoidance. Some common causes of chronic school avoidance include the following.
Depression: Adolescent depression is rampant today. Signs of depression include listlessness, loss of interest in normal activities, withdrawal, talk of self harm, excessive sleeping and hopeless sounding speech. Depression may have chemical, environmental and/or even seasonal causes.
Bullying: Teens frequently create exclusive and, in some cases, abusive cliques that establish social territory by bullying. Bullying may be verbal or physical and may be delivered in person or electronically, through threatening or abusive Facebook posts or emails, etcetera. Bullying is a serious problem and can lead to severe anxiety, depression and avoidance of situations in which the bullying takes place. Often, the shame that accompanies being bullied makes teens reluctant to discuss it with their parents or peers.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Some teens struggle with a heightened and pervasive sense of overall anxiety. This may have biological and/or environmental causes. For these students the academic and/or social pressure of school may push that generalized anxiety to a very uncomfortable level, even without a specific causal factor.
Social Anxiety: Social anxiety disorder is a condition in which an anxiety response is triggered by social interaction. Often social anxiety is caused by a combination of brain chemistry, neurological predisposition and/or social conditioning or trauma.
Agoraphobia: Agoraphobia literally means a fear of public places. The term is used to describe a disabling anxiety related to any of a number of public settings or situations. Because agoraphobic tendencies can generalize to many settings, agoraphobia sometimes manifests as a refusal to leave one’s house or even one’s bedroom or bed. Agoraphobia is a specific form of anxiety disorder.
Sleep Issues: Sleep is a big issue for teens, who not only need more of it than they typically get, but who also need it at the right times. Once a teen’s sleep cycle is disrupted, it can lead to chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression and/or anxiety.
Insomnia: Some adolescents simply just can’t get to sleep. This may be caused by their daily or evening routine, consumption of caffeinated sodas, internet addiction, depression or anxiety, or even the amount and timing of their daily sun exposure.
Sneaking Out: Many adolescents have a secret night life that has them out and about late at night while their parents are asleep. This may signal substance abuse, oppositional tendencies and/or promiscuity.
Substance Abuse: Abusing substances can interrupt sleep cycles, reduce motivation or simply eclipse other interests.
Low Self Esteem: Poor school performance, social awkwardness, the physical changes of adolescence, problems at home and many other factors can precipitate low self esteem. Teens with low self-esteem may avoid any setting that is highly social or that brings attention to things about themselves they do not like.
Trauma: If school avoidance is sudden and extreme, and your child will not talk about it, don’t rule out the possibility that a trauma has occurred. Trauma may include any frightening or violating event that is severe enough to create extreme anxiety.
Despite the length of the preceding list, it’s only partial. There are many reasons that students may choose to chronically skip school. In most cases of school avoidance, it’s important to remember that the teen feels he or she has a compelling emotional reason for this behavior. Most often the roots of chronic school avoidance boil down to intense depression and/or anxiety; both of which are highly treatable. So balancing your attempts to compel school attendance with a compassionate desire to understand your child’s emotional state can help you discover the root causes of their school avoidance. Understanding these causes is a first step to engaging your child in a manner that is effective and to identifying the kind of help they may need.