Sunday Night Blues
“Did I study enough? I can’t possibly walk in late, everyone will notice! I should have studied another hour - I am going to fail. I’ll never get into the college I want. Everyone is judging me! If I leave class, people will notice, and everyone will think I am crazy. What if I panic? I have a stomachache, I can’t make it to school. I'll have no one to talk to. If I miss today, I will be behind, I won’t be able to attend the rest of the week; I will never be caught up! There is no way I am raising my hand in class. I’ll look stupid if I ask for help!”
These are typical thoughts racing a mile a minute when the “Sunday Night Blues” approach or in the early morning hours before school starts. Tears are rolling, stomachaches and headaches feel unmanageable, panic has set in, life feels unbearable and hopeless.
More and more teens are experiencing anxiety about school – often leading to school refusal. On the outside, this school-refusing behavior often fuels several misperceptions about what these highly-anxious teens are thinking and feeling.
One key thing to know about anxiety, whether we're talking about teens or adults or children, is that no one likes to feel it and one of the most effective (yet unhelpful) coping strategies is avoidance. No anxiety trigger means no anxiety, right? Maybe in the short-term that's true, but in the long-term, avoidance is exactly what anxiety feeds on, allowing it to grow into a bigger and broader problem.
Anxious teens often present with what looks like "laziness" or defiance. Hiding under the covers, medication noncompliance, and/or spending excessive time on electronics can feel overwhelmingly frustrating to parents and caregivers. As a result, parents can be late for work, other siblings are ‘left behind’ and stress increases at home.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about these teens is many of them aren't just "lazy punks who don't care about school," they're actually extremely academically-oriented - to a fault. Perfectionism and fear of failure are major contributors to school refusal. Pressures around getting the highest GPA, getting into the best school, excelling at extracurriculars, over-scheduling, career planning and fitting in are some of the stressors teens face that when put into a perfecting-mindset quickly become debilitating.
Another common reason for wanting to skip school is social anxiety, the fear of negative judgment. While this is something every generation of teenagers most likely experiences, today's teens have the added layer of online social pressure - getting lots of likes, keeping up with snap chat streaks, and having the best filter - as well as IRL ("in real life").
There are a variety of reasons as to why teens refuse school. Some of the more obvious reasons include, but are not limited to, learning disabilities, bullying, feeling ill, and/or lack of a supportive peer group. Verbalizing these issues tends to be challenging for teens due to fear of misunderstanding, embarrassment and judgment.
It might seem like the solutions are obvious and easy, especially to adults who haven't had to be teenagers lately: just ask for help, don't pay attention to what others are doing, and don't worry about it.
Think about how often you've been told by someone, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine!” Did you feel better? Did you stop worrying? This is probably the worst thing someone can say to a person struggling with high anxiety. For a short five seconds, this may help, until the anxiety decides to spike again, and the worry is back at it – tormenting the teen struggling to get to school.
Treatment for anxiety, including school and social anxiety, is best supported by evidenced-based therapies such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Utilizing these three therapies allow for teens to avoid avoidance, reduce the need for reassurance to prove they are good enough, and change the racing thoughts into more believable, rational thoughts. Therapy for anxiety is counterintuitive and when it feels odd and against the grain – you’re on track! Stick with it, it’s hard and worth the fight. Remember, anxiety is not dangerous, it’s just incredibly uncomfortable – that is unless you are face-to-face with a bear in the woods.