School Phobia/School Refusal

Although we’re still in the middle of the school holidays, I’d like to talk about the dread that comes along with the return to school.
Most people feel reluctant to go back to school after the holidays but for some, the reluctance can be so overwhelming and so strong that they’ll do anything they can not to have to go to school.
This is something I experienced during my schooldays (and still do to a certain extent) – at the time it was called “school phobia” but now it’s referred to as “school refusal”.

Teacher = Authority?
I first remember starting to feel anxious about going to school when I was about 7 or 8 years old. As far as I can remember, I never had a problem going to school before then and I’m still not completely sure what triggered it at that point.
The teacher I had that year was the strictest of the teachers that I’d had so far and because of that, I found her a little scary. My theory is that this is when I first started to see teachers as authority figures, as people who were in charge and could tell me what to do and I think that frightened me.
All of a sudden, I had this intense feeling that I didn’t want to go to school and I was absolutely determined that I wasn’t going. When I was at school, I felt imprisoned, like I was at the mercy of the teachers as soon as I walked through the doors. I should point out that apart from my teacher being strict, I had no reason to feel like this but obviously, that didn’t make the feeling any less real.

Pretending to be sick
 I couldn’t understand myself why I felt like I just need to be at home so I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone else. I started pretending to be sick so I would be allowed to stay at home or with my grandparents. I was so much happier when I could stay home from school and do things with my grandparents or just watch TV. I was very careful to pick ailments that meant I wouldn’t be completely housebound!
Eventually, people worked out that I wasn’t really sick all of the times that I said I was but no one could understand why I was avoiding school because I didn’t have a reason, or at least I couldn’t explain the reason – I just felt like I couldn’t be there and I needed to be at home.
This continued throughout the remainder of my years at primary school – I would pretend to be sick to get out of school but it never lasted long. The more times it happened, the more vigilant people were with me and the less I was believed when I claimed to be sick.
It even got to a point where I had to be bribed and tricked into going to school. I remember once being offered a doll if I went to school every day for a month and I tried to negotiate it down to two weeks!
There were occasions where I was picked on and that became the reason not to go to school but most of the time, it was this school phobia/refusal. I had no idea at the time that that’s what it was called, I just felt like I was crazy and that no one would ever understand.

When I moved up to grammar school, I was excited – I was going to be at the same school as my sisters and I thought that this was when everything would change for the better. Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out.
On my first day, I had what I now know was a panic attack and felt like I had to go home right away. Knowing that I had to stay at school made me feel trapped again.
The pattern began again as it had before. It followed me all through my seven years at the school. I had no explanation to offer anyone for why I was like this – I wasn’t being bullied, I wasn’t struggling academically and I had friends.
Every summer, the last half of my holidays would be ruined because I was already panicking about how I would feel when September came around. Even the weekends would be enough to trigger the anxiety on the Monday morning. As well as being anxious about being trapped at school, I was starting to feel anxious about the anxiety itself and what it meant.
When I got to my sixth year (the point at which I was no longer legally had to go to school), I was terrified. Education has always been very important to me and I wanted to go to university so I needed to stay at school. However, I was terrified that the next time my school phobia hit, I would leave school altogether because I knew that I could now. Thankfully, I managed to stay on but the frequent absences continued.
I dread to think how many school days I missed and I have no idea how I managed to get away without there being any serious consequences. I’m also extremely lucky that it didn’t affect my exam results because I always worked so hard to catch up on what I missed.

The only time I never really felt the anxiety was when I was at university. There, no one was checking up on me, I could come and go as I pleased; no one was in charge of me. Essentially, there was no real authority figured for me to fear. On a side note, university was where I started to develop OCD but that’s for a different post!

The beginning of my anxiety
Looking back now, I can see that this was probably the beginning of my battles with anxiety. Even now, I still feel the ‘school phobia/refusal’ at work. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how I avoid taking days off work because I’m so afraid of how I’ll feel when I go back.
I wish I had been able to explain to someone how I was feeling. I wasn’t afraid of how my parents would react because I knew they would do anything they could to help me. I just didn’t know how to bring it up or put how I felt into words.

I’m not a professional therapist or counsellor so I’m not in any position to offer advice but, if you are a young person reading this and you can identify with my experience then please, please speak up.
If you’re not sure how to bring it up, maybe you could print out this post and give it to your parents or guardian or another adult to help start the conversation.


Above all, don’t suffer alone with this. People often say that your schooldays are some of the best days of your life - they should be, but for some us they’re ruined by school phobia/refusal because we don’t ask for help.

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