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My teenage son is refusing to go to school. What can I do?

Ask Brian: School refusal is a growing problem facing parents and schools - but support is available

I am worried about my teenage son. Since Covid struck, he has progressively disengaged from school and is now refusing to go to school. He spends a lot of time gaming in his room until late and is exhausted in the morning. I’ve tried removing devices, but it doesn’t work. I’m a single mother who works during the day and can’t police everything. Can you advise on what to do?

Your dilemma is a growing problem in school. Every week similar circumstances are recounted at “care team” meetings involving school management.

Parenting on your own is a really challenging role in today’s online world. In an ideal world, you would establish the boundaries of your son’s gaming activities and control the amount of his activity. That may be easier said than done.

Having said all that, I know from having educated young men all my teaching life that they crave order and security above all, even though they will struggle against it. In a school situation the teacher they least respect is the one that attempts to win their co-operation by being their friend.


How do you create boundaries for your son, so he grows into a well-balanced adult who has learned and internalised the values of self-control and deferred enjoyment of favourite activities?

As you have learned, you cannot do it on your own. You will have to draw on the support of a wider family and your son’s school.

Does he have an uncle or grandparent with whom he has a healthy relationship? Would they be prepared to sit down with the two of you and attempt to negotiate a set of rules around the appropriate use of digital devices which would allow him to get a decent night’s sleep and re-engage with his education?

It is likely that there will not be any sudden switch from the present chaotic situation to a perfect solution. All behavioural change is gradual and takes place step by step.

You can be certain that he is unhappy with not being with his peers in school but still can’t resist gaming into the night. Secretly, he too wants a solution, but as a child does not have the maturity to bring it about.

You should also engage with your son’s school. They should have strategies to support your son in modifying his behaviour. If not, they can seek other supports. School refusal can be complex and may require mental health supports or counselling.

Once a strategy is in place, you may find that he has a greater willingness to conform to an agreed weekly schedule of activities which will allow appropriate engagement with his favourite games.