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Advice about a kid refusing to go to school?


TABmom
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I need advice. Please be kind. I homeschooled my 13 yo boy until this year. He was refusing to do any work and we were fighting so much over school, that I made the decision to send him to school this year. He has always been depressed and anxious but the school year started off okay. Not great, but okay. They were hybrid for a long time, only attending in person 2 times a week. They have recently gone to 4 days a week. My son started pretending to be sick to get out of going. Then he gave up pretending and just flat out refused to go. (He’s also refusing to go to TKD which he has loved for years) Our doc referred us to a partial hospitalization program and he went to that for a week and a half. They discharged him on Friday. Well, it’s Monday and he is refusing to go to school again. I have NO idea what to do. He knows if he doesn’t go, he doesn’t get electronics, which is the only thing he cares about. But he’s still refusing to go. It’s not completely a behavior thing- he does have significant depression/anxiety which we are attempting to medicate. But it is partially refusing to even try. I have no idea what to do. Anyone have suggestions? 

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I will say this, with teens, mental health is 100 percent more important than academics. There is nothing wrong with taking the rest of the year to focus on mental health and his "school" can be learning self care, learning strategies to improve his mental health, etc. When my teen (older than yours) went through this we focused on eating, sleeping at a decent hour, and a volunteer job that got him physically active and outdoors, working with animals. I am fairly certain those animals may have saved his life. Suicide is such a real threat, and so many adults have no idea how to support their only mental health. Let hm learn how to be mentally healthy for now, if that is the issue. He can learn other stuff later. Take a few months as a gap year if need be. 

Now, if he is the kind of kid that will respond to "you have to do school, either at the school, or here with me, but you ahve to do it" than do that. But it wouldn't have worked on my kid. 

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The mental health issues are the priority. Did his PHP have a follow up plan? Is he still plugged into outpatient therapy and a psychiatrist? I'd start with them, but I would not focus so much on him going back to school today. He's telling you he still doesn't have the tools to do it yet. Believe him and go from there.

Editing to add: Many kids that age show their pain and fear through oppositional behavior. If he can feel like you have his back, it will help so much. Saying things like "I want to help you get through this. I have your back. I know this is really hard right now. We'll figure it out." Listening closely when he shares any feelings at all and showing understanding of those feelings helps. Use the same language he does to describe the feelings. He is really struggling right now and the more he can build a sense of trust with you, the better.

Edited by livetoread
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Sending some hugs. 

3 minutes ago, ktgrok said:

I will say this, with teens, mental health is 100 percent more important than academics. There is nothing wrong with taking the rest of the year to focus on mental health and his "school" can be learning self care, learning strategies to improve his mental health, etc. When my teen (older than yours) went through this we focused on eating, sleeping at a decent hour, and a volunteer job that got him physically active and outdoors, working with animals. I am fairly certain those animals may have saved his life. Suicide is such a real threat, and so many adults have no idea how to support their only mental health. Let hm learn how to be mentally healthy for now, if that is the issue. He can learn other stuff later. Take a few months as a gap year if need be. 

Now, if he is the kind of kid that will respond to "you have to do school, either at the school, or here with me, but you ahve to do it" than do that. But it wouldn't have worked on my kid. 

I agree with this.   If he just got released on Friday, maybe he needs a bit more time before jumping back into going to school. 

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We have appointments lined up with therapists and a psychiatrist. But the psych can’t see us until May. 
If he doesn’t do school, I don’t know how to keep him busy during the day. All he wants to do is play video games. If we don’t allow that, he will just sit, sometimes rereading the few books he’ll read. He refuses to do anything except youth group at church. Which is positive, but it’s only on Sunday and Wednesday. 

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Also, I AM worried about suicide. While I don’t think it’s an immediate concern, I am afraid of it becoming a concern. There are a lot of mental health issues in my family. 

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TABmom I am so very sorry. I know someone going through this and inpatient therapy is where they are at now. Holding you up in prayer.

Stand fast on the video games, in my experience they just became an escape to not deal with the issues that need to be dealt with and the fights over limiting the screen time were terrible. Finally, the game system mysteriously "broke" (by having a glass of water poured into it one night by me after teen went to bed)

Edited by saraha
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3 minutes ago, TABmom said:

We have appointments lined up with therapists and a psychiatrist. But the psych can’t see us until May. 
If he doesn’t do school, I don’t know how to keep him busy during the day. All he wants to do is play video games. If we don’t allow that, he will just sit, sometimes rereading the few books he’ll read. He refuses to do anything except youth group at church. Which is positive, but it’s only on Sunday and Wednesday. 

Can you get him to go outside?  Play basketball, bike ride, go on a walk...

Could he do some volunteer work? 

Could you give him household chores?

A project?  

Spend time with friends and family?

Check out some new books? 

Watch a movie

Cook a meal

 

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Was he willing to do school when it was all online? If he was, then find another online program for him while you deal with the mental health issues.

When I taught at an online charter school (long before Covid) we had many students enrolled who had come for the same type of reason. Most of them would complete school work online when they refused to attend school in person. 

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22 minutes ago, ktgrok said:

I will say this, with teens, mental health is 100 percent more important than academics. There is nothing wrong with taking the rest of the year to focus on mental health and his "school" can be learning self care, learning strategies to improve his mental health, etc. When my teen (older than yours) went through this we focused on eating, sleeping at a decent hour, and a volunteer job that got him physically active and outdoors, working with animals. I am fairly certain those animals may have saved his life. Suicide is such a real threat, and so many adults have no idea how to support their only mental health. Let hm learn how to be mentally healthy for now, if that is the issue. He can learn other stuff later. Take a few months as a gap year if need be. 

Now, if he is the kind of kid that will respond to "you have to do school, either at the school, or here with me, but you ahve to do it" than do that. But it wouldn't have worked on my kid. 

I agree with this.

When things have been rough here, we’ve had no choice but to step back on academics and focus on mental health. If you need to do it, could you do that?  

For us, this meant a lot of the above, along with therapy and meds.  And, our most important component: a version of tomato staking, or “time in.” We spent almost every waking moment with our kid, hanging out, doing projects. DH and I took turns.  DS is an early riser, and I am not, but DH had to work - so this meant me getting up at 6 am every day to watch Umbrella Academy before his little sister got up, drink coffee and hang out.  It meant DH focusing in hard on projects they could do together (my kid is a cosplayer, so they watched YouTube videos together and learned new electronic and lighting techniques, stuff like that).  We cooked together, built things, did some house projects, played games.  Got him outside in sunlight every day.  Increased his extracurriculars that he enjoyed and seemed positive.  Decreased his time with people who brought him down - by doing other fun things and focusing on the positive. We also really limited phone and computer time.

Not sure any of that helps, but thought I’d throw out ideas for you.  I might consider pulling him from PS, in your shoes, taking a break to get his head back on straight, and plan on schooling through the summer if all goes well.

YMMV, of course!

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What do your time commitments for other children and outside work look like (sorry - no signatures on my phone.) How can those be reshuffled to focus on more scaffolding- it's hard to skip and lie about assignments when you're sitting at the table next to mom or dad. A focus on independent work in young teens is often mistaken (even neurotypical and mentally healthy teens).  

I agree with the suggestion to go a different direction for a while. Spend time outside. Tackle some interesting hands on project (build something, join a volunteer group building a trail.or mucking stalls or whatever but something REAL). Focus on cooking and building raised garden beds and learning to play golf or something.  Pull him out and do something else. 

When I had a struggling teen we hiked several times a week. And he built a hydroponic garden system and we did lots of bio labs. And he joined a jiu jitsu gym where he worked HARD every day.

Edited by theelfqueen
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does he dislike the program? have other issues and school is the fall out? or is he anxious?  the "cause" will better determine what can be done.  if he's anxious - you have to do things to help the anxiety.

School refusal is a real thing.   I've got so many articles on it . . . 

You can also look up pathological demand avoidance.   while it's a sub-type of  ASD, there might be something there that you'll find helpful. And that is caused by anxiety.

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many many hugs! I'm walking a similar road although mine hasn't refused school (he likes to go to see friends) getting him to do work this year has been a challenge and I'm ending the year hoping we get credits for all his classes.

I hope that you can get treatment that works for him and he can start feeling better very soon.

I'd consider pulling him to hs as well. If you can't get him to do work or even go to school he will fail classes and not get credit anyway. At home, you can tweak what you do for school and shift the school year as needed. At this point, I'd not even care if the assignments are bs. I'm just aiming for done (we were fairly rigorous when ds was at home and he's in all Honor's at his insistence) but at this point the goals have shifted. Done is good enough. If he was schooling at home I'd do easy and the bare minimum and sit right beside him. If he likes to read that can be history, science, and lit right there. Or do movies as literature class. Basic math and science. Whatever assignments he finds the least annoying and I'd do them together. 

I know the drawback of him being home is that he will have more free time and that is certainly a concern with depression. I think Spryte and Katy suggested is great. We've been doing many more things together with our teen as well and encouraging more time with friends. He has just taken up skateboarding and went mudding with another friend for the first time. Family game nights are always enjoyed and time outside. He has done some work on the computer and vehicles with dh. Are there any local hs'er groups that he could join? Any thing he is interested in at all that could be nurtured to take the place of games? Any local classes in your area for anything at all? Hands on things? Grandpa or Uncle that has more time and could teach some things? 

 

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What does he say when you ask him, "when do you believe you will be able to return to school?"

If he doesn't have a useful answer to that, then how about "what do you think would help you to be able to do school either here or at ___?"

If he really can't go back, you might be able to get him a medical excuse or home tutoring provided by the school.

Meanwhile, I wonder if there are documentaries he could watch that could bridge some of the gaps?  Or could you take a "field trip"?

Good luck.

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Thanks for the ideas. They are helping me think this through. I also have a 10 year old and a 6 year old that I am homeschooling too. Right now, the plan is to send them to school next year. Not only would I rather the kids all be doing the same thing, but I am *exhausted* from dealing with the oldest and I just am not up to homeschooling anymore.

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I would pull him for the rest of the year and see if he could go on some sort of Outward Bound type program or something similarly challenging. But only if that would be something exciting for him, otherwise he might feel like he was being sent away.
 

Do you live near any ranches or farms? Do you know any woodworkers, glassblowers, potters, cooks, gardeners,  archaeologists, ironmongers? Any activities like that where you live? Like @theelfqueen suggested, something Real for him to do. Preferably physical, preferably outside. 
 

Do you have any alternative schools where you live? Maybe something more like a trade school than a traditional school? What was he interested in when he was little? Maybe try to revive one of those old interests?

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4 hours ago, TABmom said:

We have appointments lined up with therapists and a psychiatrist. But the psych can’t see us until May. 
If he doesn’t do school, I don’t know how to keep him busy during the day. All he wants to do is play video games. If we don’t allow that, he will just sit, sometimes rereading the few books he’ll read. He refuses to do anything except youth group at church. Which is positive, but it’s only on Sunday and Wednesday. 

With my son, I told him that he had to do SOMETHING because video games all day wasn't healthy. Then I picked 4 different volunteer activities, and let him pick one. (I'd tried saying, find a volunteer job but that didn't work. I had to do the work for him of picking a few choices and putting them in a document with links so he could click and see what each one was). Then I drove him there. 

For us, video games were more a symptom than a cause. When we filled his time with other things, the video games took on less importance to him. For him, he needed to do something tangible, physical, where he saw immediate results and was praised for his good work. He fed a hungry animal, and it wasn't hungry anymore. There was MEANING to that, unlike a school assignment, etc. He needed the immediate feedback, the knowledge he'd actually finished an important task. Plus, with the animals there was no judgement, which helped. (he volunteered at an avian rehab center - working mostly with birds of prey)

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I definitely agree. Teen boys often find school work pretty theoretical and thus pointless. Doing school for a potential return someday .... work for which the only purpose is to go on and do more work.

Doing something hands on and practical can go a long way... something that feels like grown up work not more classroom....welding. gardening, caring for animals,  cooking, working on a car, these kinds of things have immediate and tangible rewards and they are challenging. Teenagers often respond to that.

You are six weeks or so from the end of the regular school year. I don't think this is a fight worth fighting and acknowledging his issue can build trust and self confidence.

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3 minutes ago, theelfqueen said:

I definitely agree. Teen boys often find school work pretty theoretical and thus pointless. Doing school for a potential return someday .... work for which the only purpose is to go on and do more work.

Doing something hands on and practical can go a long way... something that feels like grown up work not more classroom....welding. gardening, caring for animals,  cooking, working on a car, these kinds of things have immediate and tangible rewards and they are challenging. Teenagers often respond to that.

You are six weeks or so from the end of the regular school year. I don't think this is a fight worth fighting and acknowledging his issue can build trust and self confidence.

Yes! Exactly! Writing out answers to what they think are dumb questions just to prove they read something they didn't want to read so they can get a good grade to use to apply to college so they can do 4 more years of boring work they don't want to do so they can get a job and someday a decade from now maybe earn a paycheck has the reward SOOOOOOO far removed from the actual effort it basically doesn't even register with their brain. I mean, they can repeat it in theory, but in actual brain chemistry terms, it's not registering. 

I'm still convinced teen boys should work - not go to school. Or at the very least do project based schooling, or a half day of JUST the very basics of academics and practical work the rest of the day. Otherwise so many end up depressed and demotivated from what I'm almost certain is a lack of dopamine and such. Honestly, it's very similar to how stay at home moms can end up depressed - the work never really ends, it doesn't feel meaningful, and the light of the tunnel is SO far away you can't really even see it. (not all moms feel that way, but I think it is acknowledged more than what teens go through)

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Op, I hope some of the info here resonates and is helpful to you. The depression and anxiety will make it where he doesn't want to do school or try, btdt. It will be hard to unravel what is him not wanting to do things is due to that and what is due to a teen boy who finds school pointless. Until the depression and anxiety are treated it might be impossible. Does he have any opinion on staying in school or hsing? It is a shame mental health services and treatment are so difficult. 

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7 hours ago, Spryte said:

I agree with this.

When things have been rough here, we’ve had no choice but to step back on academics and focus on mental health. If you need to do it, could you do that?  

For us, this meant a lot of the above, along with therapy and meds.  And, our most important component: a version of tomato staking, or “time in.” We spent almost every waking moment with our kid, hanging out, doing projects. DH and I took turns.  DS is an early riser, and I am not, but DH had to work - so this meant me getting up at 6 am every day to watch Umbrella Academy before his little sister got up, drink coffee and hang out.  It meant DH focusing in hard on projects they could do together (my kid is a cosplayer, so they watched YouTube videos together and learned new electronic and lighting techniques, stuff like that).  We cooked together, built things, did some house projects, played games.  Got him outside in sunlight every day.  Increased his extracurriculars that he enjoyed and seemed positive.  Decreased his time with people who brought him down - by doing other fun things and focusing on the positive. We also really limited phone and computer time.

Not sure any of that helps, but thought I’d throw out ideas for you.  I might consider pulling him from PS, in your shoes, taking a break to get his head back on straight, and plan on schooling through the summer if all goes well.

YMMV, of course!

Yes, this.

Stand fast on the screen time.  Making  a rule of only 1 hour a day and never after dinner made a huge difference in mental health in our family. I read a book about how for some kids the electronic time causes depression and, oh boy, it is so true of my oldest.  Rereading books can be soothing, but yes, to the above paragraph on finding things to do with him.  Find things to get him out of the house.  Don't let him spend  hours in his room alone (and no electronics in his room.) 

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Oh, and another thing.  When we had mental health struggles here, I found it helpful to make sure I focused also on what was going well.  For example, you downplayed youth group a bit.  Instead say, he is going to youth group.  That is going well.  Especially if you tend to get anxious about him, it helps to look around and see what has gone well or an area he is handling well and list them or write them down.

I also can not recommend more that you try to see a therapist to help you navigate this yourself.  I can be very clear minded with giving advice for other people's kids, but I have a tendency to panic about mental health issues with my own kids.  It helped me so much to have someone to brianstorm with and help me respond instead of react.

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1 hour ago, ktgrok said:

Yes! Exactly! Writing out answers to what they think are dumb questions just to prove they read something they didn't want to read so they can get a good grade to use to apply to college so they can do 4 more years of boring work they don't want to do so they can get a job and someday a decade from now maybe earn a paycheck has the reward SOOOOOOO far removed from the actual effort it basically doesn't even register with their brain. I mean, they can repeat it in theory, but in actual brain chemistry terms, it's not registering. 

I'm still convinced teen boys should work - not go to school. Or at the very least do project based schooling, or a half day of JUST the very basics of academics and practical work the rest of the day. Otherwise so many end up depressed and demotivated from what I'm almost certain is a lack of dopamine and such. Honestly, it's very similar to how stay at home moms can end up depressed - the work never really ends, it doesn't feel meaningful, and the light of the tunnel is SO far away you can't really even see it. (not all moms feel that way, but I think it is acknowledged more than what teens go through)

This is so my son! I mean, he has practically preached that first paragraph word for word to me😂 Although he enjoyed enough about school to get him successfully through middle school. High school was a challenge. He’s graduating this spring and has done the bare minimum in school work and worked full time his senior year. Much happier situation for him. 
13 is young for a regular job, but maybe you could find something? Around here we do have hands on technical schools but I don’t think those start until sophomore year. 
I agree with everyone else, mental health needs to come first. Regular school isn’t a good fit for a lot of kids. Finding a way for him to be productive and proud of himself could go a long way. 
Hugs to you! 

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Although I've dealt with school refusal before, dd2 really responded well to distance education with weekly time on campus, so that's no help to you. 

I will say, though, that you can't force a teen to school, and that the anxiety around school is 100% real. If you are committed to school, try the smallest steps you can in the process of getting there. For some families, it's sitting outside school in the car, for others it's waking teen at normal 'school time'. With the aim of progressing a little each time, and not allowing complete avoidance to make school anxiety even worse. This did not work for us! But does for some.

I also know families who have had some success bringing a teacher or tutor to the home (hard in Covid times).

Re suicide risk, does ds have a safety plan? Do you know what the safety plan is?  Both important. 

~

OK. 

Now let me share the story of my ds, who went into a bad place from 14-16, partly due to anxiety, partly to other health issues. He did almost no school during this time, at home or otherwise. He went to see his psychiatrist, he listened to music, overslept, and spent way too much time on his computer. It was bad. I could barely get him out of the house. He had a few online friends, and sometimes I could get him to do art projects with us. I spent as much time as I could learning about the music he liked, talking about it with him, listening with him...one solid point of connection. This is a kid who, prior to 14, was active, energised, interested and engaged with learning, inside and outside the home. 

He is 17 now. He has a job, and is a valued team member. He's good with money, knows how to budget and save. He's got IRL friends. He's interested in politics and justice issues. He feels that working has helped enormously with his anxiety - "can talk to anyone!" 

There's a way out for kids with anxiety, there really is. But it may not look like the typical teen, and in our case, we did sacrifice academics for mental health. It wasn't possible to do otherwise, frankly. I trust ds is going to find his way anyway. 

Best of luck. Stick with therapy. Like Freesia, I'd recommend your own therapist or counsellor.  Don't allow school to become such a focus of anxiety in the family that it overshadows everything else. Find points of connection with ds. Have faith this too will pass. 

 

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Have you asked him what he is interested in?  What he wants to learn?  Even if it's only a couple of things, find him resources in terms of books, magazines, classes, supplies, community members, and let him spend his time focused on those things.  If he doesn't know what kinds of productive things he likes doing, get some adult hobby catalogs like Dick Blick, Edmund Scientifics, Pitsco.

One of my kids was similar to yours, and instead of trying to put them into school where I knew the refusals would result in failure, I asked those ^^ questions.  We had been very WTM/rigorous academics until that particular year.  But that kid had worn me out with the complaining, arguing, and refusing, and I had younger kids who needed my homeschooling attention.  So we agreed to try something different - I insisted on time spent in a productive manner, but that kid got to choose their own projects.

They ended up spending 13yo year learning Mandarin through an online program, learning to play the drums mostly self-taught with a tutor who came to the house once per month, improving at soccer by practicing on their own in the off-season, and reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy books of their choosing.  We participated in homeschool ski club.  Played with Legos.  Did some 4-H projects - "learn by doing" - which meant learning to cook with friends, sewing a civil war style jacket, doing a trade-show style presentation on drum notation including posters & speaking with people who came by the table, hiking with friends, raising a lamb and showing it at the fair, working at the ice cream booth at the fair and helping set up a hot air balloon.  And participating in family activities such as swimming in the local river, making Christmas cookies, etc.

Lo and behold, the following year they decided they wanted to learn some math!

This particular kid just did better with a more "unschooling" child-led style education than some of my other kids.  They chose to end their homeschooling career with a graduate equivalency diploma at age 17 just to prove that they were done; I had not done any formal work with them since they were 12, yet they maxed out all of the subtests except writing, on which they scored only a couple of points below max.

There are so many things to learn, and so many ways to learn them.  I've come to the conclusion, after 20+ years homeschooling, that learning in relationship through meaningful hands-on projects just works better for many (most?) people.  I don't regret for one minute having loosened the reins on academics.

Another sibling stuck with WTM, and did very well. Another decided to take in-person vocational education/trade school starting at age 15, and works too many hours now as a young adult.  They're all different!  They're adults now, and successful in their own ways.  And we continue to have a great relationship!

Adding - we did experience some mental health challenges.  I decided that relationship & mental health were more important than the academics I had planned when they were born.  The kids with mental health challenges (which run in my family) went through some counseling, and continue to take medication for anxiety & depression. 

 

Edited by Amy in NH
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