Is it ok if I miss school because of anxiety?

This is  from a message I received on the podcast page from a young teen, facing down the start of school and feeling overwhelmed. I don’t have more info from this person about their anxiety like how it started or the shape of it or how they’ve dealt with it so far. I do know that they’re going to be a sophomore this upcoming year and that they are looking for support to tell their parents that it’s ok for them to take a break when they need it.

First, young friend, I’m sorry that you’re struggling. I also struggled with going to school at around your age and used to beg my mom to let me stay home. I want you to know that I hear you and I support you in figuring this out. I hope that you will continue to talk to your parents and I encourage you to think about getting counseling. If your parents aren’t willing or able to help you connect with a counselor, I hope you will reach out to your guidance counselor at school. And if that doesn’t feel accessible or appropriate to you, there are lots of great workbooks about anxiety and you can look on Amazon at reviews or go to the library to check them out. 

The important thing for you to know is that ultimately anxiety needs to be faced. I don’t mean in a pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way or a tough love kind of way, I mean that the cure for anxiety is learning to deal with your anxiety. That’s the crux of it. How you do that is very personal and doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Just hold it in your mind that facing your anxiety is going to ultimately help and then you can think about how best to do it.

Some of us face anxiety in the same way we get into a cold pool — we just jump right in. We let ourselves get kind of smacked in the face with the discomfort and hang in there until we acclimate. 

That is not me. That’s not generally how I do it. I’m a slow to warm person and when I get in a pool, I get in at the shallow end and creep my way towards the deep end slowly, slowly getting used to the water until it feels comfortable.

Both ways are totally legit. Both ways end up with us fully in the pool. So you get to think about the way you want to acclimate to anxiety. Most of us who are anxious are shallow end people. Our anxiety is so big and can feel so overwhelming that we need to start small. That’s just fine.

Which leads me to school. Again, I don’t know the details of your specific anxiety experience so I’m going to take about school refusal in a general way and I hope that you can make sense of it in the context of your unique experience.

Generally school refusal in the teen years is about social anxiety. For me there was some of that and also just a general disillusionment about school. It was hard to feel motivated to go when I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. Looking back, I wish I had reached out to the guidance counselor more and talked to them about what I needed to see if they could help me figure it out. That’s why I mention that as a first step. 

But the social anxiety piece, that was complicated by some bullying I experienced in seventh and eighth grade that colored the way I saw my peers. That may be part of your experience, too, and if so my heart goes out to you. I want you to hear and to know that school is NOT representative of the so-called real world it’s preparing you for. School is school. Yes, there may always be mean people you’ll have to deal with but you’ll have more freedom to figure out HOW you want to deal with it when you’re an adult. OK? It really does get better and the people who say that your teen years are the best years of your life, well, I feel bad for them because their best years are behind them. For most of us, the teen years are tough years and life gets better as we get older. Truly. I’m telling you being a grown up isn’t as scary as you might think and actually is a lot of fun.

All right, back to anxiety. 

Here’s the deal about missing school because of anxiety. When we avoid things because we are anxious about them, we are rewarding that avoidance so it gets harder and harder to face the scary thing. Avoidance begets avoidance. So I’m not able to advocate that as a coping mechanism.

That said, we can also consider what school is offering you. School is about academics and it’s about socializing. If a particular school experience is a poor fit for someone and that’s causing anxiety — like if the bullying is making school unsafe or a child or teen has learning needs that aren’t being addressed by the school — then pulling that person from school might make sense IF we have a plan for academics and socializing.

In other words, I wouldn’t recommend that a child or teen leave school to do fully online school alone at home without any social opportunities. And I do mean face-to-face opportunities, not just online ones.

Being online is fine, having online friends is great, but we all need the practice of socializing in real life.

We need to figure out how to manage social expectations around eye contact and back and forth conversation. That’s not to say that there is just one way to do that. I often talk to families whose children are neurodiverse and their needs are different and that’s fine. An autistic person shouldn’t be forced to mask but they do need to figure out how they want to support themselves while navigating social life. Like do they want to mask, do they want to work on specific social skills, do they want to figure out how to find a community that doesn’t demand this of them. Which is to say learning how and if you want to fit into the mainstream world is part of the job of growing up but also finding the places in the world that loves and accepts you is important, too. And those places do exist. 

For example, sometimes when I’m working with families, we’re talking about ways to find a social support system for their child that will let their child be exactly who they are without demanding that they be different. There are spaces like this. They can be harder to find especially for people who live in small communities, but they’re out there. 

Some of us do best with a wide circle of friends but lots of us are happy to have one or two people who really get us and can support us. That might mean finding a tutor who understands how we learn and can help us work with our skills and talents. That might mean finding a mentor who shares our passion for a specific hobby or topic. 

If leaving school doesn’t make sense or truly isn’t available and you’re going to have to go, I still think looking outside of school for pro-social opportunities can help us deal with the social demands of school. It’s not as painful to eat alone in the cafeteria if we know that after school we’re going to go to the library and hang with our D&D group or go to choir practice or whatever activity where we can remember that school is not the end all and be all of our experience.

I know that’s big work and we’re talking about the day to day coping in going to school when you are anxious and would rather stay home. 

Remember the metaphor of the pool. Think about ways to take baby steps. Again, your guidance counselor can be a help here. I hope they are. And parents can be advocates. And if you have one teacher who seems to get you, reach out to them. Back to baby steps. What do you need to get through your day at school. If you painted your ideal day at school — acknowledging that you’d rather not be at school but let’s just paint your ideal day there — what would help? Is it breaks? Is it being able to listen to your music sometimes? Is it being allowed to wear sunglasses or your hood up? Is there a particular class that is more challenging? Mapping our your day may help you come up with some specific coping tools to ease you into that cold swimming pool. 

But full on avoidance isn’t it. Basically you’re going to need to think about how to face your anxiety as best you can. 

I wish I could give you more specific advice but obviously that’s beyond the scope of a podcast so I hope that I’ve given you some places to start and some ideas. I’m thinking of you and know that other members of the listening audience are thinking of you, too. 

If you need crisis support, please call 988 for local resources and help.

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