Updated: Feb 16
Ever struggle to get a tween out of bed or out of the house?
"I'm Not Going"
It’s the first day of school. Yesterday, thirteen year old Jade excitedly picked out her clothes and chatted with her friends. She had been waiting for years to start high school. But today, Jade is still in bed, head hidden beneath the covers. It’s 7:55 and the first bell will ring at 8:15. There is no amount of reassurance or "cheerleading" that is going to get her to move. Her mother sits, despairing, at the kitchen table. “She’s never going to make it. I can’t believe this,” she sighs to herself.
If you’re the caregiver of a child or teen, chances are you’ve experienced refusals at some point. And, of course they often come exactly at the wrong time. Nothing can feel more frustrating then trying to get a stuck kid unstuck. It can seem like they’re doing it just to get your goat or prove a point. But, while sometimes people do dig their heels in for those reasons, most refusals come from a common place: anxiety.
In essence, refusing to do something is often a “freeze” response to overwhelming stress. Helping a child out of “freeze” mode isn’t easy, but here are some things to try:
· Take a moment to wonder what’s going on for the child. If the child is anxious, remember they may be just as frustrated with themselves as you are.
· Ensure you’re calm enough to help- if not, see what stress of yours you can put on hold (i.e. give up a less important task, accept slight lateness) or manage (breathe, talk to someone, take a minute to yourself, turn on some good music)
· Break the anxiety-provoking situation down into smaller parts. (Is it seeing a particular student that’s the problem? Not knowing anyone on the bus?)
· Try empathizing with your child’s distress, without pressure. Sometimes, this is just sitting with your child or a hug. The minutes of calm presence might avoid hours of arguing or cajoling.
· Show understanding of the challenge AND confidence in their ability to do the task.
· Stay firm on your expectations while offering help or choices to get to end result (“You do need to go to school, but you can choose to take the bus with your friend or get a lift from dad.”)
· Shift the focus to something else temporarily, just to help get moving and relieve stress (“Let’s start with breakfast”). If you push or pull too hard, the resistance on the other side can get stronger.
· Help the child remember the people or parts that make the task manageable or fun. If there are none, consider adding an incentive.
· Enlist your child’s trusted friends or family members to help them get going- capitalize on relationships.
If nothing works, consider that there may be more to the refusal than meets the eye (i.e. a bigger issue at school than the youth has disclosed or more intense anxiety for child and/or parent). In this situation, your child may need more guidance to solve the problem and more planning to make the school entry successful. If school refusal persists, it’s important to get help from a mental health professional as soon as possible, because the longer a youth avoids school, the higher the anxiety usually gets. Check out our book for more tips on managing refusals, anxiety and helping kids get "unstuck". (originally published at https://keltymentalhealth.ca/blog/2016/09/im-not-going, Sept 2016)