"Let Me Stay Home"

Our 11-year-old is suddenly not keen on going to school and wants to be with the family more than usual. He’s not able to articulate any concerns or problems to us and his school work does not seem to have changed. Is this typical pre-pubescent behavior?

No, it isn’t. Children of this age normally become increasingly oriented towards the peer group, and the parents’ worry is more about getting them to come home than getting them to go to school.

If your son is wanting to be with the family even in school hours, that probably means something is wrong. The fact that your son can’t articulate any problems or concerns to you may mean either (1) the problem feels so large to him that he’s afraid of how you might react to it; (2) the problem concerns you so he can’t talk about it with you; or (3) he isn’t good at identifying his feelings and what is causing them. If it’s one of the first two, he needs a lot of reassurance that nothing will interfere with your love for him. Don’t pressure him to talk, but hang around him doing other things, so that he can see you’re open and available if he wants to talk. Going for a drive with him might help; kids often talk in the car because they don’t have to look at you directly, but know you’re beside them. If your son doesn’t open up, you need to search for what might be worrying him. Here are some possibilities :

Family Problems – In my experience school refusal is more often related to problems in the family than problems at school. Kids want to stay home when they think something worrisome might happen in the family. For example, if you and your spouse are fighting a lot, they may fear violence or divorce, and may feel a need to stay around to prevent it. Or if a parent is depressed, they may sense the parent’s mood and feel a need to be there to care for them. If there is something like this, it is better to explain to your child what is happening clearly and directly. Do this without “hanging out all your dirty laundry” in front of him. Children shouldn’t have to take on adult problems or become their parents’ caregivers. Reassure your son that present difficulties will be overcome, that both parents still love him, and that adults’ problems belong to the adults and not to the children.

Peer Conflict – Bullying is very common among peer groups at this age, as are power games and exclusion of those who aren’t “cool” enough. If this is happening, your son may need your help to develop strategies to cope with the kids who are giving him a hard time.

Peer Pressure – Sometimes a child of this age is pressured by peers into participating in some unacceptable activity, such as stealing or drug use. He then feels too embarrassed and ashamed to tell his parents, and doesn’t know how to get away from these peers. His self-esteem may fall as he tries to extricate himself without anyone to talk to. Another possibility is that your son feels this kind of pressure, and is resisting it by trying to avoid the kids who are pressuring him. With these situations, it is very important for a parent to be non-judgmental. Reassure him that he won’t get in trouble with you, and you won’t love or respect him any less, if he has done or is pressured to do something you might not approve of. Share some of your own experiences of peer situations at a comparable age, so that he can see you might understand.

Teacher Problems – A child spends five or six hours a day with his teacher. If this person is Perfectionistic, critical, or explosive it can have a big impact on the child’s feeling of security. Although most teachers are caring and skilled, most schools have at least one with a difficult personality. The child usually feels helpless in the face of authority, and may assume it is he who is wrong. Talk to parents of children who have been in your child’s class in previous years and find out about the teacher. Talk to the school counsellor and “read between the lines” of what he or she says. If you find this is a difficult teacher, it helps to identify the problem openly with your child as being with the teacher rather than him. Then you can help him develop strategies to deal with the difficult teacher respectfully but without internalizing blame. Kids have to learn to deal with difficult people sooner or later, and it might be a good learning experience. But you must continuously monitor the situation, to make sure it is not overwhelming for your child. If the situation continues to be too difficult for him to handle (which would almost certainly be the case if he were only five or six, but may not when he is eleven), you must request a transfer to another class, and if that is not possible, to another school.

Some kids just don’t have the ability to identify what is wrong. One of my sons just used to say “I’m not happy,” but he couldn’t say why. When we worked together on what it might be, we could eventually identify the problem, and he felt much better when he recognized what he was unhappy about, because then he could take action to solve it. You may need to give your son some tools to recognize how he feels in relation to various situations in his life. If all fails, and the problem persists, take your son to a qualified psychologist or counsellor. They will be able to help him get to the bottom of what is bothering him, and give him (and you) some skills to cope and to prevent further problems.