I'm Not Going Back: Dealing with School Refusal

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Updated on Aug 25, 2009

You can hardly wait to hear about your daughter’s first day of school. But as soon as she walks in the door, she bursts into tears and says, “I’m not going back!”

What do you do now? “There are several things you should do,” says Robyn Silverman, Ph.D., creator of the Powerful Words Character Development Program, a resource for after-school teachers, coaches, and instructors. “There are also a number of things you shouldn’t do.”

Here are Silverman’s Do’s and Don’ts for helping your child recover from a miserable first day at school.

The Don’ts

Don’t overreact. It’s natural for you to want to respond emotionally. But you won’t help your child by getting upset with him, or by storming back to the school to vent at the teacher or kid who made him cry. Your child needs your calm support, not a scene that will embarrass him further.

Don’t belittle her. Your wisdom and caring will help her to manage this misery now and become a stronger person later. Criticizing her will only cause her to shut down, not pull up.

Don’t overwhelm him with questions. Although you want to have all the details immediately, what he really needs is to express how he’s feeling and hear you validate him. The facts can wait; his emotions can’t.

Don’t cuddle, coddle or cry. “I call these the 3 C’s,” says Silverman. “Especially for younger kids, these emotional responses from you only feed into their fears.” Your child needs to see that you’re bigger and braver than the things that upset her.

Don’t let him stay home. This may be your child’s suggestion, but it’s no solution. As the saying goes, he needs to get back on the horse and try again.

Don’t bribe or coax her to go back. “Remember that she doesn’t go to school as a personal favor to you,” Silverman says.

In general, don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Your child needs to see that you’re in control. “You won’t do him any good by being a card carrying member of the Fears and Tears Club,” says Silverman.

The Do’s

Help him label his feelings. Kids often struggle to understand how they feel, especially in unpleasant situations. Suggest labels for him if necessary, such as, “Did that make you feel mad, or scared, or embarrassed?” The more he understands what he’s feeling, the better he’ll be able to work through the situation that caused those feelings.

Offer encouragement. Sometimes, reassuring words alone are all your child may need. Address her situation directly, with statements such as, “I know you feel lonely right now, but people always like you when they get to know you. That will certainly happen here, too.”

Help him to move on. Kids tend to linger over unpleasant experiences (just like grownups). After the appropriate discussion, give your child a quick hug and then talk about something else. “Your child will gain confidence for the future by seeing your confidence now,” Silverman says.

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