Back to School Doldrums, Or…

School’s back in session. Alarm clocks are going off earlier, with mad dashes to fill lunch bags and stuff backpacks on the way out the door. It’s normal to hear complaining and dragging feet, especially while trying to re-establish the school rhythm after several months without it. But sometimes those complaints sound more substantive or more urgent. Or the complaints have stopped and have been replaced with silence. All parents at some point, and sometimes for extended periods, struggle with getting their kids motivated about school. We start to tune out the whining and dramatic groans; we also have to survive monotony and un-enticing adult responsibilities, it’s all a part of our human reality.

At some point, though, we might want to tune back in. Pediatrician Ned Ketyer says that when he hears the phrase “I hate school,” it’s a red flag. Certainly, most kids will use this phrase in a over-dramatic appeal of resistance, but if your child is saying it frequently, it’s worth some investigation. In this article, Dr. Ketyer translates common meanings of “I hate school.” Sometimes kids use the phrase to fit in with a peer group, sometimes they truly just don’t like school, and sometimes the phrase means “I feel like I can’t succeed.” All of these uses need addressing and discussion.

Peer pressure is a usual suspect for poor decision making in adolescents. But unchecked micro-cultures in cliches can truly become toxic. “I hate school” could be the first clue you ever receive that your kid feels out of their depth socially. In worst case scenarios, they may actually feel unsafe, a very scary and stressful experience. Engaging with your child about these pressures can help them identify how their values may be in conflict with the people they’re socializing with. It’s a great opportunity to learn personal boundaries, set limits, and make decisions for themselves.

These days most parents also understand the risk to a child who feels they can’t succeed. Self-identification as a failure can have long lasting repercussions that can last well into adulthood. These kids can develop a mental block to the very idea that they are capable of learning. As grades suffer, their belief that they are incapable of success is reinforced. This identity as a failure can lead to frustration and bursts of anger, risky and defiant behaviors, or anxiety and depression.

Less obvious is the kid who doesn’t feel like they fit in at school and struggles with feeling like an outsider. This can be caused by an number of things from being highly intelligent, having a mental or physical abnormality, being LGBTQ, or a minority student. Feelings of isolation or frustration at having to work within a society doesn’t recognize or address these children’s individual needs also carries risk factors of depression, anxiety, and disruptive or risky behaviors.

All of the kids in these situations could persistently “hate school.” However, younger kids struggling at school may not say the words they hate school. For them, warning signs of school stress could manifest as complaints of headaches and stomach aches; they might struggle with sleep and decision making. These are all signs of stress. If the symptoms are new, it may just be a particularly stressful time that you can help them work through. But if it’s regular pattern, you may need to recruit help. Whether it’s a social issue such as bullying or an intellectual issue such as a latent learning disability, chronic stress is bad for kids. Kids Health has some strategies on helping your child with school related stress. If the stress is persistent, talk with your child’s doctor. Feeling successful in society and as a student is an important part of a child’s life and health.