When introverted kids refuse to go to school, it might mean they’re struggling to spend time in an environment not designed for them.
Has it happened yet?
Waking up with a stomachache. Slothfully getting ready for school. Complaining of a mysterious illness that grows more acute on the commute. It may begin gradually… until they wake up every school day with uncomfortable stomach pain that nothing seems to alleviate.
Nothing — except staying home.
For my introverted kid, it only took one week into the new school year to get “the call.”
“Yes hello, we have your child here in the nurse’s office, complaining he feels like he might throw up.”
It was only a matter of time…
Some might chalk up school refusal to a rite of passage in young development. Others might roll their eyes as the Ferris Bueller tactics live on in yet another generation.
But for our introverted, anxious kids, it’s more than mischief. When your child is complaining of feeling sick day after day, when you notice their deep sense of relief when you give in and give them a day off, it wears on you as a parent.
School refusal requires a process of elimination. Do they actually have a physical ailment? Are they being bullied or mistreated at school? Might they have an undiagnosed learning disability? All of these things should be taken into consideration — and a trip to the pediatrician and a parent-teacher conference can definitely help.
If you’ve dealt with school refusal, you likely know the causes and tips already. Anxiety is the primary culprit. But another possibility exists for introverted children: They may simply not enjoy spending so much time in a place not designed for them.
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When Anxiety Is to Blame
When it comes to anxiety, certain tips really can help. Natasha Daniels, child therapist and curator of the Anxious Toddler Parenting Survival Podcast, reminds parents that anxiety loves avoidance. If your introverted child is struggling with anxiety around attending school, it makes sense that they resort to all kinds of behaviors to avoid it. In fact, she has a video just for kids about dealing with “school freak out,” and you can check it out here.
Avoidance only feeds anxiety’s appetite, so letting kids skip school due to an inexplicable stomachache can quickly turn into a cycle that becomes difficult to break. Dr. Julia Martin Burch, with Harvard Health Publishing, suggests setting health rules around school attendance, such as requiring a fever of 100.4 or higher. She also recommends making home as boring as possible if you do give in to school refusal here and there.
Sick days in our home have become synonymous with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood marathons. This tradition prevents having to negotiate any other screen options and keeps sick days low-key. Even though my son is well past the target age for Mister Rogers, he complies and gets lots of rest.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Rachel Busman advises parents to be proactive from the very start of school refusal tendencies, noting that cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT (which involves changing thinking patterns), and exposure therapy (which involves facing feared objects, situations, or activities) can be helpful interventions in more chronic cases.
Here are some general tips for handling anxiety related to school refusal:
- Start with connection. Validate your child’s feelings, even the “stomachache.” Their plight is real, even if their physical symptoms can’t be proven. This is an important difference from the traditional “You’re going and that’s that!” approach.
- Proceed with confidence. Share your trust in their ability to handle the school day. Co-regulating confidence with your child can help empower them to face their anxiety, which is key to living with it and not under it.
- Shroud them in safety. Reinforce that you and their teacher are there to help, as are other school staff and certain classmates. Teaching our anxious kids how to advocate for themselves and access help when they need it is useful not only in dealing with school refusal, but in managing their anxiety for life.
Introversion and School Refusal
There is a clear difference between my kid’s anxious school refusal and his aversion as an introvert. When anxiety is the culprit, at least I know how to deal with it. I’m speaking to his anxiety, not him. That’s not to say that it makes things any easier. Anxiety yields more emotion — and even though we usually get him to school on time, it’s not without tears and stress. I hate that. But I know, more often than not, he comes home relieved that the thing he was avoiding wasn’t so bad after all.
Note: I really struggle when it’s not anxiety, when my introverted child is just exhausted by an environment that isn’t made for him.
The tips and strategies for school refusal are only to get your child to go to school and make it through the day, not to help them like the experience. The thing is, I’m not sure my child is ever going to like it.
I’m not sure he even should.
It’s no secret that the conventional classroom is not conducive for many kids. For introverts, highly sensitive children, and many neurodivergent kids, a noisy, bright, sensory-dense room — filled with energetic classmates, no less — is simply not ideal.
In Quiet, author Susan Cain recognizes that our current school structure is the result of cost efficiency and necessity. “The structure of the [school] day is almost guaranteed to sap [an introvert’s] energy rather than stimulate it,” writes Cain. “The purpose of school should be to prepare kids for the rest of their lives, but too often what kids need to be prepared for is surviving the school day itself.”
Maybe that’s why my son’s school refusal weighs so heavily on me. He’s right to refuse it! He’s right to recognize that spending seven hours a day in a highly stimulating environment, with almost constant social interaction, isn’t ideal for him.
I’ve spent my whole life trying to mold myself to fit whatever environment I was in. As a highly sensitive introvert, this required a lot of molding. My son has helped me realize the error in that approach. I am determined to model a better way for him.
The trouble is, we must continue living in a world that isn’t designed for us. So, here are a few things I do to help make school better for my introverted child.
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5 Tips to Help Introverted Kids With School Refusal
1. Plan “mental health days” off from school with your child.
Every few months, my son and I take a look at the school calendar and plan some options for “mental health days” off school. We aim for one every quarter. He is learning to utilize his days off, whether by elongating a holiday weekend or breaking up a stretch of full, 5-day school weeks. Not only that, he has to discern whether he can save the day for later or if he really needs a break as soon as possible.
He also gets a say in what we do on his days off. I have no qualms about indulging him, so he can see the benefit in mental health days over unnecessary sick days. Sometimes, he’ll opt for a day when a beloved auntie or uncle is available to take him out to the trampoline park or just for a donut. Other days, he has a lazy morning while I work, and then we go out to lunch. I try to infuse a little of what I suspect he needs, like a walk outside, quality time with me or a loved one, or just time to himself. He’s learning these are all ways to recharge from school burnout. I definitely do not overschedule him; quite the contrary.
Because these days are few and far between, I rest easy knowing that his anxiety won’t slip into the school avoidance cycle.
2. Model self-care so your child can learn through osmosis.
I recently went to eat lunch with my son at school and was taken aback by the noise echoing throughout the cafeteria. I told him, “It must be hard sitting in this noisy cafeteria every day!” He wholeheartedly agreed. I explained that the noise made me feel keyed-up, so I was going to do some deep breathing to help myself relax — and left it at that.
Introverted or not, we all have to learn how to deal with environments that aren’t ideal for us. Modeling our own ways of caring for ourselves in suboptimal conditions can help our kids do the same thing. They may copy our strategies or forge their own. For example, my son has a quiet spot on the playground where he relaxes at recess instead of running around with peers.
By being open about my self-care strategies, and why they help me, I am laying the groundwork to help my son prioritize his well-being, however that looks for him.
3. Advocate for your child (and realize that you are advocating for more than just your own kid!).
Most of us worry about being “that” parent to our kid’s teacher. We know they are already overloaded, and making special requests for our introverted kids may not be well-received. Still, it’s worth feeling out the situation. If the teacher seems open, just making them aware of your child’s struggles can help exponentially.
My son’s teacher recently told me she altered a few of their group activities specifically with him in mind. Making lesson plans more introvert-friendly no doubt helps other students in my son’s class, as well. Speaking up is definitely worth a shot (even though I know we introverts don’t love to!).
4. Teach your introverted child to advocate for themselves.
This is where I get empowered about our whole predicament. I want to promote my child’s sense of control over his environment, something I never felt as a kid.
When my son comes home in a huff over a frustrating situation at school, I look for opportunities for him to speak out about it — if he wants to. Of course, sometimes all he can do is focus on his reaction. But, where possible, I want him to see ways he can advocate for himself and others.
He has taken to writing his teacher notes to help him express things he has trouble communicating in the classroom. He has written to explain situations where he felt he was treated unfairly, as well as things he simply wants his teacher to know about him (including his preference to rest during recess so they stop asking him if something is wrong). So far, these notes have gone over well. His teachers prefer to hear from him — rather than me — on these issues, and he is learning how to advocate for himself in his own way.
5. Explore other schooling options with an open mind.
This one is hard for me. Given our current situation, it feels utterly out of reach that we could give our introverted kid a different schooling option, which leaves me feeling dejected.
If you’re in the same boat, it’s still worth exploring what options are available. My state offers a tuition-free virtual public school option, and that may be the route we take in the future. Introverts are often self-learners by nature, so taking a more independent approach to education may be the right fit for many of them.
However, the barriers to homeschooling go beyond accessibility for us. My son comes home from school almost every day with tales of things I would never think to expose him to. I also wonder about supplementing the built-in socializing that conventional school provides. The idea of piling that responsibility on my shoulders, all while I maintain a job, feels utterly out of reach for me. Other parents might be able to handle it. As a highly sensitive introvert, I know my limits.
These are real concerns, but I’m trying to see the possibilities as equally real. We have open, honest conversations with our son about his desire to homeschool, and we are charting the requirements to make it a reality down the road.
Advocacy as the Antidote for School Refusal — and Beyond
Conventional schooling is just one system of many not designed for introverts. There are real barriers that make systemic change seem impossible. But I am awakened to the possibility that those of us who have never thrived in those systems can advocate for inclusive change for our introverted children.
My son and I have been fortunate to be learning the ropes of self-advocacy in a nurturing environment of caring teachers and a supportive school staff. I am grateful that teachers continue to implement unique strategies that nurture our unique kids, whatever their strengths and struggles.
Still, systems not designed for us will continue to induce stomachaches. I grew up with the notion that this is just how it is. My son is growing up asking, “What isn’t working for me and what can I do about it?”
My fellow parents, have you had your introverted child refuse to go to school? How did you handle it? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
You might like:
- What Are Introverts Like as Children? Here Are 7 Common Characteristics
- Introverted Kids Have Amazing Potential — Here’s How to Support Their Education
- How Not to Overschedule Your Introverted Child
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