February 17, 2016
Hiding: Exploring School Avoidance in Adolescent Girls
David Whyte’s Hiding, a poem from his book Consolations, illustrates a desire we all feel at times to just check out and regroup. We stay home instead of meeting up with friends, lose ourselves in a book, or distract ourselves rather than focus on a part of our lives that might bring forward something too uncomfortable to bear in the moment. We do this to conserve our strength and nurture ourselves, so that we can ready ourselves to face our problems.
Teens do this, too. They’re “busy” during dinner, they hole up in their rooms, and distract with social media. Navigating school work, changing social relationships, and day to day family tension requires a lot of energy. Sometimes hiding can be a way to refuel, tap into some creative problem solving, and begin anew. However, teens are not known for moderation or temperance, and this natural response can be taken too far. Increasingly, I work with girls who have stopped going to classes or entire school days. Sometimes they are so anxious and agitated that they repeatedly miss the first several periods of school (and parents have to be late to work). I hear of girls withdrawing into the basement or their bedrooms, literally hiding in the dark. These girls talk about feeling overwhelmed, insecure about their ability to face their problems, certain that “coming into the light” will be too much for them.
This pattern of anxious or depressed avoidance is worrisome; every missed day of school means twice the work the following day, and there is no doubt that school refusal is the symptom of a larger problem. It is important, however, to distinguish school refusal from truancy. Truant teens do not experience much anxiety about missing school and show little interest in completing schoolwork. They are typically engaged in other forms of misbehavior, and they attempt to hide their absences from parents. When they skip school, they are usually up to trouble. School refusal, however, is anxiety-driven: teens experience significant emotional distress about school. They may experience temper tantrums, depression, or panic attacks when thinking about school. Somatic complaints are frequent; girls complain of headaches, nausea, dizziness, back pain, heart palpitations, shakiness, and trembling. Severe school-related anxiety can even manifest as extreme physical weakness, even loss of consciousness, with no physical cause. Teens experiencing school refusal are generally compliant with completing homework, so long as they are in the safety of home, and parents are usually well aware of their school absences. These teens are likely to spend time with the school nurse or in a study hall or other low pressure classes when they are at school.
Anxiety and depression lie at the root of school refusal. Girls can become overwhelmed by transitions, either to middle or junior high school from grade school or as they move into high school. Each change presents a range of challenges that can eclipse previous successful transitions. It probably goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that a move to a new city and/or school can be panic-inducing. Less obvious challenges result in the depression and anxiety that cause school refusal; bullying and other social difficulties, perfectionism or pressure to perform, and insecurities about appearance can be crippling. Girls often report that they skip school to avoid “drama;” unfortunately, they can be the very same girls whose lack of emotional savvy perpetuates emotional reactivity in peer relationships. Emotional immaturity, the inability to detect, understand, and manage emotions, plays a significant role in school refusal, and it explains why some girls are more susceptible to stressors than others. Teens need skills to manage their intense feelings, and they need experiences that stimulate growth and prepare them for life challenges. Girls need to develop strength and confidence in their ability to pick themselves up when knocked down by hardship.
The primary goal of managing school refusal is an early return to school. While parents can easily identify the necessity for a truant child to return to school, it can be more difficult to sort through the somatic and other complaints associated with school refusal, especially when symptoms are severe. It may be challenging to require that a child go to school when they are so clearly distressed about it. However, what we know about anxiety is that avoidance of the cause of anxiety perpetuates the problem. In order to resolve anxiety, we have to face what is causing it. Easier said than done, right? If a teen has already established a pattern of school avoidance, there is a strong likelihood that intensive professional help is required. School avoidance is incredibly reinforcing; even though homework builds up, the intense relief teens experience at being able to escape a stressor creates a nearly intractable habit. Acknowledging the seriousness of a problem is often the hardest part. We may feel compelled to excuse school avoidance and instead change what is expected of teens; however, school attendance and completion is part of a major developmental process. Meeting and overcoming the challenges inherent in school includes time management and organization as well as essential life skills. These life skills—perseverance, adaptability, emotion management, and grit—are learned through supportive experiences of hardship; challenges tailored to a teen’s capacity that “restart” a pattern of avoidance and help teens face their problems. Intensive therapeutic intervention that focuses on these life skills via experiences hardship and challenge is most effective at helping teens reestablish a healthy developmental process. As much as we all like to hide sometimes, we also know that life does not rearrange itself to suit our needs; we have to rise to the occasion in order to create the lives we desire.
In the words of David Whyte, “We live in a time of the dissected soul, the immediate disclosure; our thoughts, imaginings and longings exposed to the light too much, too early and too often, our best qualities squeezed too soon into a world already awash with ideas that oppress our sense of self and our sense of others.” Unfortunately, the challenges presented by our increasingly exposed and wired world are not likely to go away soon.