Dear Dr. G.,
My 16-year-old daughter will not go to school. She seems to have a fear of school. We moved from Upstate New York to Southeast Tennessee eight years ago. This is when we started to have problems. Since then it has gotten worse and worse every year. Everything came to a head last year at the beginning of the school year. She would not go to school. We finally had to withdraw her and enroll her in an online home school, in order to stay out of truancy court. After a year of home-schooling, she has decided she wants to go back. We enrolled her in band camp (she enjoys band). After one day, she wouldn't go back. We threatened to take her phone and driving privileges away, so she went the following day. After that she will not go back and states she does not want to go to school either. During the course of this past year she has been seeing a counselor and a psychiatrist. The medicine she is on doesn't seem to make a difference. It has been changed a few times and the dosage has been increased but the counseling doesn't seem to be working. At this point we really don't know what to do. Her goals are to move to California and not go to college. She says she wants to do the home-school thing again, but she did not apply herself last year…and it's not cheap.
We really need help.
–A Concerned Parent
Dear Concerned Parent,
First, my heart goes out to you and your daughter. You clearly have been struggling with a very difficult issue for almost a decade. I understand your frustration. You have not seen results of treatment attempts and are likely at your wit's end.
My suggestions are the following:
1. Take a deep breath.
2. Have your daughter get a good and through psychological evaluation so that you and she become aware of her emotional and intellectual strength and weaknesses. Perhaps this can be done through the school system or privately.
3. Once you have a thorough evaluation you should present the results to your daughter's treatment team and to the school. School refusal is usually the result of several factors and not related to a single factor. Perhaps your daughter has a great deal of separation anxiety coupled with learning issues. Or, perhaps, she is depressed and has social issues. Every case of school refusal needs to be treated individually and with a good assessment so that treatment is focused on the appropriate target areas.
4. I suggest that you have a meeting with the school and work with the school to put a proper plan in place for your daughter. Working as a team has a greater chance of being effective than working either at odds or not working together at all.
5. It is crucial to start family therapy so that each family member can learn how to make the family system a healthier place. Your daughter is more likely to thrive if everyone is taking responsibility for the family's issues.
I wish you luck and urge you to get good and solid support. Just as no man is an island no teen or parent is an island.
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