The question this week is a big one and it’s specific. Should I homeschool my child because of their social anxiety? I have also heard this question as should I homeschool my child because of their separation anxiety and these are the same question. Separation anxiety in young children if left untreated tends to turn into social anxiety in older children and teens. In either case, my answer is going to be the same.
Before I give you my answer, I want you to know that that my husband and I homeschooled both our kids. Our son, who is now an adult, went all the way through as a homeschooler until graduation. And our daughter, who is going to graduate this spring, decided to drop into school starting in 7th grade. In other words, I am a fan of homeschooling. We loved homeschooling and I know that it can be a great fit for some families.
That said, people should homeschool because they want to homeschool. If you want to homeschool your kids, go for it! But if you are considering it because your child is struggling in school and you’re feeling trapped, then let’s stop a minute and consider your situation.
If you are thinking about homeschooling because your child is struggling with social anxiety or separation anxiety let me tell you that homeschooling is NOT going to cure that. In fact, it might make it worse. At least you’re going to have to plan ways for them to confront their social anxiety and separate from you in other ways.
Anxiety drives avoidance and anxiety disorders are diagnosed when the avoidance gets so bad that the child is missing out or struggling to function. A child who is homeschooling to avoid social interaction or separating from caregivers is by definition suffering from an anxiety disorder. That that anxiety disorder is not going to get better unless the family is committed to creating ways for that child to get social and separate.
Our goal as parents needs to be to push for our children’s lives to get bigger and more expansive as they grow. We want them to become more independent and better able to function without our help. Our decision making needs to remember that. It’s not just about coping in the here and now. Pulling a child who is socially anxious out of school or letting them stay home because they’re afraid to be away from us may make them feel better in the short term but we need to consider how that’s going to benefit them in the long term.
Again, I’m a big fan of homeschooling and if a family decides it will be easier to handle the anxiety by homeschooling and creating different kinds of opportunities then that’s fine. But if the plan is that the child will come home and not have to deal with peers, or friends, or other adults then that’s not going to serve them well. I have met families who have decided to homeschool temporarily, hoping their child will grow out of their anxiety, but without a plan to confront the anxiety, this doesn’t work. And in fact, the anxiety gets worse or starts showing up in other areas of their lives.
If the anxiety is severe enough that you are thinking about homeschooling, then I encourage you to reach out to a therapist. You’ll want a therapist who understands the value of homeschooling and isn’t going to just knee-jerk tell you it’s bad for a kid because that’s not necessarily true. But you also need one who can help you figure out if what you’re offering is an accommodation or a support. An accommodation is something that sinks your children more deeply in their anxiety and a support is something that’s meant to help them grow out of it. But it’s not always easy to tell the difference especially when we’re in it with our kids. Oftentimes we need an outsider who understands anxiety and anxiety treatment to help us come up with ways to lift the child out of their anxiety.
The right therapist can also help you figure out whether or not your child’s anxiety is caused by a poor fit educational environment that can be changed in ways to make it more appropriate for your child. Anxiety often shows up with other diagnoses like ADHD, learning disabilities, giftedness and autism spectrum disorders. Those things need to be appropriately diagnosed and addressed. If they’re not then of course that’s not going to be a good environment for your child and we shouldn’t be surprised if the result is school refusal.
If you are in the United States, and your child has a formal anxiety diagnosis or one of these other diagnoses then they may be eligible for a 504 plan or IEP or individualized education plan. 504s are a plan for how schools will support children with a diagnosed disability. IEPs focus on special education so, for example, a pull-out program or an aid. How these might look depend on the needs of the child and the policies of the school district. Getting an IEP or 504 can be challenging and if that’s something you’re interested in exploring, I encourage you to reach out to your child’s school counselor and again a therapist may be able to help you navigate that. Although most likely you will need a thorough assessment by a neuropsychologist. Sometimes masters level counselors or social workers are trained to do this work but most often it’s a doctoral level psychologist.
I’ll be doing a future episode about working with your child’s school that will go into this in more detail. But for now I want you to know that there may be options that can keep your child in school even if they have a social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder or school refusal.
But back to homeschooling. it may be that the anxiety is not the primary issue or not the only issue that’s leading you to consider home education, which may mean it is the right choice for your family. Maybe the issue is not avoidance but creating a better experience for your child. That’s certainly possible. It may be that your school options just aren’t a good fit for other reasons. You may not like the culture of the school, or want to travel during the school year, or feel that your child would be better served with a different kind of educational experience. Those things might be what is bringing you to homeschooling and your child’s anxiety may just be part of it.
In that case I encourage you to consider what your child might need in order to support them in learning to manage and grow through their anxiety.
Remember anxiety is about avoidance so anxiety treatment is about confrontation. That doesn’t mean you’re going to take your socially anxious child and enroll them in toastmasters, the program for public speaking. But you do need to look for social opportunities and opportunities for them to separate from you and learn to be around other people.
Fortunately many communities have options and resources for homeschooling families. Rec centers and libraries may offer classes. There are group tutoring programs. Churches, mosques and synagogues have activities for young children and teens. Or you might look for a social skills group through an occupational therapist or counseling practice. You can also look locally for homeschool co-ops. Connecting with local homeschool families on Facebook or on other social media may help you find these resources. Also programs like 4H, Girl Scouts, or Junior Achievement may be open to homeschool students.
Homeschooling is a lot of work for parents and while it can be a wonderful gift for kids, there may be other more appropriate answers for the children who’s struggling to stay in school because of anxiety.
I welcome your thoughts and questions on this topic. Reach out if you have something to share or something to ask! See you next week!