One of the most frustrating and concerning experiences parents have is when their child comes to them and says “I hate school.”
Sometimes this hatred for school escalates into a full-blown daily morning battle to get your child out of bed and out the door. Other times your child is coming home in tears and refusing to talk about what’s wrong.
I feel for you. The most important job a tween or teen has is to go to school and try her best, and when there is an obstacle in the way, it’s troubling for all involved.
I know it’s so tempting to respond “Well too bad, you’re going!” Or on the opposite end of the spectrum- throw your hands up and resign yourself to the tears and angst.
But those strategies are not going to solve the problem long term.
Read below for steps you can take to solve this problem.
Empathize with the emotions behind the words
The primary goal is to find out why your child hates school. So you need to empathize and reflect back her feelings so she can calm down and you can have a conversation. It feels good when somebody commiserates with your troubles, right? Reflect back how your child is feeling, rather than what she’s saying.
For example: If your child slams the front door when she comes home screaming “I hate school!” You might reflect back: “It sounds like school is really frustrating right now and something bothers you.”
If she walks in the front door holding back tears and says “I hate school” you might say “It looks like something about school is making you really sad.”
This is guaranteed to engage her in talking to you.
Avoid lecturing or convincing when your child talks
One of my favorite phrases is: “Is it ok if I ask you to share more?” I love asking permission to ask a child a question because it respects the kid’s right to keep feelings to herself. Giving this respect almost always guarantees your child will share with you what’s bothering her.
Once she explains what the problem is I know the first thought on your mind is to lecture her about why she has to go to school. That’s not helpful, because by the tween and teen years, she knows why she has to go to school. She’s just struggling with something about school.
If she’s making statements about not going to school (“I’m not going and you can’t make me!”) trying to convince her to go isn’t effective either. Attempting to convince her of something that is NOT a choice, sends her the message that it is her choice to go to school or not.
So stay away from any phrases like “This is why you HAVE to go” or “This is why you SHOULD go.”
Ask if she wants advice before you offer any
Tweens and teens can be very sensitive to unsolicited advice. She may just want to vent first.
Venting is great. Your child gets stuff off her chest, and you sit with her and empathize. You don’t have to do anything more than give her that safe space to process and calm down. Once she gets it out, this may diffuse the angst, and get things feeling better.
If she wants things to change, then she’s looking for solutions to the problem. I know you’re a great parent and you’re just anxious to help, so if she says she wants ideas for making it better, this is a great space to be in.
Team up together to problem solve
Ask her if she has any ideas for how to create change so school goes better. I have met many insightful children who already know how to make school better, they just have trouble talking about it to the people who can help.
Focus on things your child can do to create change. If tests are overwhelming, discuss relaxation strategies, or time management, for instance. Helping her to increase her capabilities improves self-esteem and feeling of independence.
Discuss with her first if you feel teachers or school counselors need to be involved. Kids don’t like to be talked about behind their back, and they are super sensitive to other adults knowing their business. So they may want to handle it themselves first. If you feel like teachers need to be talked to (for test accommodations or social skills support) let your child know why. If she is old enough, include her in the conversation too.
If your child is being bullied, this requires immediate action by you. If your child is in physical or emotional danger you need to respond quickly by contacting the school, the authorities, or the bully’s parents, if appropriate.
Follow up with your child
Check in with her about how things are going after you have your first conversation. Ask her about progress, if she’s doing anything differently, if she’s feeling better, etc.
Parenting is an evolution, and as the situation evolves, your child will benefit from your continued involvement and support.
If you find that your child hasn’t made the progress you’d like, appears depressed and is shutting down, has poor grades, or is refusing school altogether, don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help.
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health. Her proudest accomplishment is following her dream of opening up a practice that is designed to focus on the whole family. She currently serves families in Southern California.