Like any other behavior, school refusal does not have a singular cause. This is pretty self-evident, but in the heat of the moment when your child is having a tantrum, this fact is quickly forgotten. It is simply too easy to conclude that you have raised a “bad child.” Sadly, much of society might wrongly agree with you.
For many, the term “school refusal” has automatic negative connotations. Although school refusal is a behavior that has many different potential causes, it often gets lumped together with rebelliousness, conduct problems, and oppositionality. This is unfortunate because many cases of school refusal do not actually involve any of these factors.
Am I a Bad Parent? Parent Social Stigma in School Refusal.
Regardless of the origins of your child’s school refusal, it is important to consider a separate parent-related factor that maintains school refusal: your fear of being perceived as a “bad parent”. Although parental stigma does not cause the development of school refusal, it can certainly feed the problem. Your fear of how others might perceive you or your parenting skills might unwittingly cause you to reinforce your child’s school refusal.
Because many parents value education and pride themselves on having well-behaved, well-adjusted children, it can feel embarrassing when your child is refusing to go to school. Parents of school refusing children often feel isolated and frustrated and may attribute school refusal to their own parenting failures rather than to outside factors that may be contributing to the situation. For many first-time parents (or even “experienced parents” who have younger children who are temperamentally different than their older siblings), school refusal can cause one to question his/her own fitness to parent. Shame, guilt, and fear of personal embarrassment then leads parents to be less-than-forthcoming with school staff about the true reasons for their child’s excessive absences. On school refusing days, they may call their child in “sick” in order to avoid contributing to academic difficulties (e.g., receiving zeros on assignments).
Many parents also errantly assume that all other households are more harmonious than their own, and they often won’t disclose school refusal issues to other parents and friends for fear of being viewed as incompetent. The fear of being perceived as a bad or ineffective parent can cause many parents to make poor in-the-moment decisions that ultimately backfire. If your child’s carpool is waiting outside, desperation can lead to the use of ineffective strategies like bribery or bargaining to get your child out the door. Although these strategies may appear to work on any given day, they actually reinforce school refusal and increase the likelihood of encountering a similar situation tomorrow. Moreover, these strategies undermine your parental authority and frequently lead to unnecessary parenting crises in the future.
Ask yourself the following questions to self-assess your sensitivity to parental stigma related to school refusal:
- Do I keep my child’s school refusal a secret?
- Do I support my child’s school refusal indirectly by helping them avoid natural consequences (e.g., calling them in “sick”, making other excuses for them)?
- Do I engage in unhealthy parenting strategies like bribery or bargaining to avoid potential personal embarrassment?
- Have I enlisted the help of school personnel in addressing my child’s school refusal?
- Am I overly concerned with how teachers or other parents might view my parenting skills?
For help in addressing these or other factors, seek the advice of a therapist or psychologist trained in dealing with school refusal treatment issues. I am available for consultation and treatment in the Palm Beach (Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Boynton Beach, Boca Raton), Fort Lauderdale, and Miami communities. Also, feel free to read my previous post about possible causes and contributers to school refusal here.
Questions? Comments? Strategies for dealing with parental stigma surrounding school refusal? Sound off below.