WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
-Stay cool. Yelling and threatening will pull their covers up even higher.
-Share some coffee and calmly probe their reason. A “catch up on sleep/work day” might be OK; an “anxiety day” can’t be OK.
-Know that every consecutive “anxiety day” absence increases the odds that they’ll be increasingly absent and anxious, perhaps for years.
-Insist upon some in-school time, even if just to sit in the counselor’s office.
-Know that once inside that door they’ll likely be fine.
-ASAP get them to a licensed mental health professional (push hard for a same-day -appointment).
-Call the school’s counseling department to ask their help. They often have good systems in place to get her back in and to address her fear.
WHAT YOU DON'T DO
-Use fear to fight fear. Your anger will only explode their anxiety.
-Think that they can beat their fear by avoiding the thing they fear.
-Just brush off their request without listening well (see COMMUNICATION/
EMPATHY in CRAZY-STRESSED: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens with Love, Laughter and the Science of Resilience. Amacom, 2017.)
-Underestimate how scary this might be for them.
-Underestimate how crippling this can be if their fears come to rule their choices.
After canceling your own morning, allow them to talk about why they don’t want to face their own. See if they can identify a specific reason for their avoidance. Hold them close if they’ll allow, and tell them that you know this is very hard for them.
Ask exactly what they’re afraid of (e.g., “mean girls”) then ask if that thing is a horror or a frustration. When they answer “Horror” ask them to name a horror that’s happened recently in the world. When they pick one (e.g. millions dying from Covid or a mass shooting) ask softly, “Now do you think mean girls are a horror or a frustration?”
When they mumble, “I guess that’s a frustration” give them a hug and say, “That’s very grown up of you to say”! Then add:
“Frustrations can paralyze us if we don’t stand up to them”.
“That terrible, anxious feeling will grow if you let it make your life decisions”.
“That terrible anxious feeling will shrink if you can gut this out. Just getting in the door of the school will knock it down a lot!”.
That terrible anxious feeling can be treated by helpers (licensed mental health professionals).
Be supportive but firm, telling them that they must face their fear or it might come to own them. Give ground very slowly if they’re really dug in but keep that dialogue running about the consequences of concessions to fear. Softly remind them that the law requires them to attend school (this is not a volunteer army) and that you love them far too much to bail them out with a phony illness that could morph into a huge one.
Offer generous anti-anxiety incentives (bribes) since this is a high stakes game. Suggest that you can pick them up early if they don’t feel better after attending the morning. At the very least insist upon some form of them being in school, even if just to be in the counselor’s office (call ahead---the counselor should know this drill very well).
Be sure to make clear the fact that missing school for fear equates to serious illness---no other “play” privileges can be had until they recover. If you hit a total brick wall, get on the phone to helpers and press to have them seen today if at all possible. Some helpers keep emergency slots open for such emergencies since they know how quickly school avoidance can snowball.
Finally, if they make it to class that day, be all over them that night about how incredibly courageous they are and how incredibly proud you are to have them as your “young adult”.
Most kids want to bag school at some point, but your first task is figuring out what is at the root of their request. If you’re thinking of giving them a “mental health day” almost any reason is OK except, ironically, for fear/anxiety. That’s when you must work the hardest to get their “face in the place” since fear grows exponentially with every day we give in to it (think about negotiating with terrorists and you get the idea).
Conversely, once they get into that building, their fear will likely begin to diminish quickly. Pull out all the stops (e.g. bribes) to get them there if at all possible, and yes, this is a situation that warrants you missing your own obligations since allowing them a “fear day” could be the start of a “fear year” or worse.
Have other teen concerns?
Contact Dr. Bradley to discuss creating a program tailor-made for your specific needs
Dr. Michael J. Bradley Adolescent Psychologist
Suite 15-B, 1200 Bustleton Pike Feasterville PA 19053
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