Supporting your child when they are avoiding school

Parents and carers can feel isolated and alone when they have a child that struggles to attend school. Parents say that they often feel judged, blamed, misunderstood and frustrated. You do not deserve to feel any of these feelings.

You are not alone

Going through issues around school-avoiding behaviour with your child is full of challenges and tensions. As a parent it is very challenging to have your child’s needs and well-being as your main concern, while at the same time experiencing pressures to get your child back into school.

You may find yourself struggling with how to strike the right balance between how much  your child is capable of and how much you should challenge or push them. You may feel that the school is judging you and that the wider system is monitoring you. You may feel that your child is a problem to be managed rather than a person who needs care, love and understanding. You might find yourself feeling frustrated or angry at your child for not going to school. It might have an effect on your relationship with them or others in your family. It can be overwhelming juggling all this along with work and other family commitments. Know that if your child is avoiding school, it is not your fault. You are not alone in this.

You, the parent, should be at the centre of the response schools and other services provide to support your child back to school. They need to do this to create a positive relationship with you. School-avoiding behaviour is often a signal that all is not well in your child’s world; it can be a symptom of a bigger difficulty. It is important to explore what is going on for your child and look for help if you need it. Generally, the earlier a parent does this, the better.

Supporting your child to express their feelings

It is helpful to encourage your child to express what they are feeling about school. However, children can often find it hard to respond to direct questions about what’s going on. They may not be able to identify exactly what their feelings are and why they are feeling them.

When helping your child explore their thoughts and feelings about school try to create a relaxed atmosphere. Listen carefully and recognise that your child’s feelings are valid. Even if they may feel like small things to you, or not a reason why you yourself wouldn’t go to school, they may feel big to your child. Let your child know that you believe in them, you are there for them and you will figure this out together.

You will feel your own stress as well as the distress of watching your child going through a time of difficulty. As best you can, try not to allow your normal and natural concerns for your child’s future to take over the present situation. Try to stay calm and reassure your child, even though you might be feeling stressed.

Remember: Your child’s experience is an understandable reaction to a stressful time or environment. Try to remind yourself, and help your child to know, that the experiences you are going through now will pass. They won’t last forever.

Perhaps you can describe the experiences to your child as a key learning opportunity where you and your child might learn important life lessons like how to manage stress, how to take care of emotional and physical well-being and who to get support from when needed.

Invest in the relationship with your child

First and most important, you help by investing in your relationships with your child. Parenting is the most important, but also the hardest, job you will ever have. We know from research that by far the most protective and influential factor in a child’s life is a safe, caring and supportive parent-child relationship.

Within this safe, loving relationship, you can help your child develop the skills needed to adapt to the challenges life can bring. So, prioritise spending quality time together doing things that you both enjoy. Laugh and have fun together, show an interest in your child’s hobbies, and be available to listen, support and empathise.

Trust in yourself

As a parent or carer, you have a unique insight into your child’s history, relationships, behaviours and emotions. Don’t be afraid to advocate for what you believe your child needs.

Your child’s school has a duty to respond to your concerns. Don’t be afraid to speak up for yourself. If you need help, or guidance, there are supports available for parents. If you need help working through this or other documents, ask someone you trust to go through them with you.

Make sure to look after yourself. School-avoiding behaviour can be incredibly stressful and exhausting. Reach out to trusted family and friends and say “Yes” to any offers of help.

This article was drawn from Working with your child to address school avoidance: A resource for parents, a Limerick-developed resource launched at Limerick School Attendance Conference. You can download the resource at