Using Empathy With Your School Refusing Teenager

I can’t begin to explain the stress that a parent can experience when their teenager refuses to attend school. It's even a term - “school refusal”, and it's often tinged with a feeling of failure and judgement for both the teens themselves as well as their parents and caregivers, who are just trying to get them there.

Author: Melinda Pfueller

There are some problems with having this situation that your average parents of school attending teens may not think about.   Firstly, most teens work out sooner or later, that no one can “make” them do anything. The external influence you previously had on them, to be able to “get them to do things” pretty much disappears at some point between the ages of 12-15 years. And let’s face it, you can’t exactly pick them up and pop them in the car any more than you could give them a shoulder ride. If they are in bed with that quilt being pulled back over their heads, you are in trouble.

Secondly, teenagers see many other teens who seem to miss school and “get away with it”, and will not only quote this to you, but will thoroughly believe they can also do this if they feel they need to. And that’s the point, there is something making them feel as though they need to miss school.

Most specialists and educators will tell you that you need to ensure from the get go that you don’t fall into the trap of having your teen think they can stay home. This is because, once teens get into the habit of staying home, it can often become a chronic problem. Unfortunately, this view adds more pressure on the parents, because you are in the position of trying to avoid this scenario at all costs, and “nip it in the bud” as soon as it starts to rear its “ugly head”. And I know, the teenager refusing to lift their head from under that quilt is not always particularly “beautiful” in how they might respond to your attempts to get them moving. Many parents tell me stories of being hit and sworn at by their teens in the morning before school, then having to dust themselves off to go to work or get on with their day, as if nothing had happened.

Empathy

I’m going to suggest genuine, accurate and well-timed empathy as a support mechanism for yourself, in addition to providing a way for you to connect with your teenager about this problem. For the purpose of this particular exercise, the reason why your teen won’t attend school is less important, what is important is your delivery of empathy. In fact, once you show empathy to yourself and then your teen, you may find they tell you more, or can explore more openly why they don’t attend.

First of all, remember, we are all “bozos on the same bus” as John Briere, the Psychotherapist and author stated many years ago at a workshop I attended. By this, he meant that we all just want to find our own version of comfort and happiness. Your child is not doing this to ruin your life, or theirs for that matter. It somehow feels like the right choice for them at the time, even if everyone around them thinks it isn’t.

Next, take time to write down all of the impacts of this on you. You, in particular, not your husband or wife or your other kids, what has this been like for you? Why does it hurt so much? What’s it like to feel so powerless but try so hard to get it right? Do this with utmost compassion for yourself, with kindness in your heart as you would when supporting a good friend with a similar set of circumstances. Follow this up with an actual self care treat for yourself, get yourself a massage, meet a favourite friend for dinner or go for a beach walk. Tell everyone you are doing this to look after yourself.

The next step is to remember, your teen is their own person and makes their own choices, and your job now they are older, is to help them to think about their own choices and feelings, and start to reflect on them. See yourself as someone who facilitates them finding their own answers to questions raised, rather than you having to be the one with the solution, even if they do expect that from you. As a Psychologist, often my job with both clients and supervisees is to get them to answer their own questions.

Here is the empathy formula to try with your teenager on the morning of school refusal:

  1. Reflect on what you see in front of you in that moment (don’t mention yesterday or tomorrow, don’t ask any questions)

So what do you see right now when your child is not going to school?

Example:

“I can see you tried to get ready for school today, and part of you wanted to go, but couldn’t quite make it”.

“I can see you are pulling those covers up over your head, and you aren’t getting up today”   (Don’t ask if they are getting up or if they are going, its clear they aren’t by this stage).

  1.  Reflect on what you suppose their difficulty/struggle might be right now

What do you think their struggle is? Speak about it in parts – part of them knows they are supposed to go to school and the other part is fighting and avoiding it.

Example:

“I can imagine it’s really hard for you as you kinda know you should go but just feel like you can’t get there” 

“You know I really want you to go, and you probably feel bad about not going, but then on the other hand something is really stopping you”

“Part of you might know its getting harder every day, the more you avoid it the harder it is to get there, but another part of you just feels you can’t do it”

If you get it “wrong” and they correct you, just listen. You’ve given them the space to talk.

  1. Give them space.

Example:

Allow space, give them physical space, don’t sit on their bed, but sit away at a distance, don’t stand over them or move things around in their room. Just be there. Don’t expect anything or ask any questions, don’t touch them, just let them simmer. This allows them to process on their own. This is the first step in them taking responsibility for themselves.

  1. Gently offer support.

Example:

“If you want to talk, I’m here”. 

“If you need help, I’m here”

Simple as that, no big speeches here.

  1. Tell them what you will do (don’t tell them what to do).

What are you going to do to help in this situation?

Example:

“I’m going to work now, I’ll be home about 5 pm. I’ll message you later to check in.”

“I’ll need to ring the school, I’ll do that today”

“I’ve got some jobs to do, I’ll check in with you later”.

Important: Don’t give them any directives, don’t ask them to do anything or make any threats or ultimatums. If you do this, they will focus on their response to you or their own guilt rather than reflecting on their own feelings. We want them to establish the space to reflect and reach out for the support you have offered. 

Leave the room.

What next?

During the day, act “as normal”, ask them to help out when they are up, if there is a school meeting, be matter-of-fact about it and only talk about it once rather than repeatedly as they will take this as pressure and switch off from it or get defensive. If they refuse to attend the school meeting, tell them when it is and that you will attend.

Try this practice on repeat for as many days as you can, you can mix it up a bit, but you will see it may relieve some of the burden from your shoulders whilst putting a bit gently back on theirs. It also removes the power struggles and heightened emotions that can occur in the mornings before school. 

Give it a try!

Better Self Psychology specialises in helping children, teenagers, and young adults.

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