My Mentally Ill Child and School Refusal

August 31, 2014 Christina Halli

School refusal is the most arduous test I've encountered while parenting my mentally ill son. Middle school is difficult for most adolescents. Seventh grade was the worst year for me and my son Bob. That is the year he refused to go to school.

What Does School Refusal Look Like?

On the first day of seventh grade I was nervous. Bob missed the last four months of sixth grade because of the onset of his bipolar disorder. The school convened an Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting which placed Bob in Homebound Study for those last four months of sixth grade. The IEP then placed Bob in the Emotional Support classroom for seventh grade. This class had ten students, two teachers and provided a safe environment for Bob to learn. I was satisfied with the placement, but apprehensive about how Bob would handle it because his social anxiety had worsened over the summer.School refusal can be challenging. Read how this parent of a socially anxious child handled school refusal by her mentally ill child.

I took pictures of Bob that first morning then waved goodbye as he got on the bus for school. When Bob got off the bus that afternoon, the first words out of his mouth were, "I'm not going back." Then he lost it.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was a roller coaster of emotions, arguments, and tantrums as Bob begged me not to make him go to school. He even put a knife to his chest.

Exposure Therapy for School Refusal

Bob's therapist recommended exposure therapy and breaking it down into baby steps. She told me not to push Bob. He had to "drive the bus," which means he had to make the decision to go on his own. He would use his coping skills and self-talk to get to school. As a parent of a student with school refusal, my job was to be patient and supportive.

By the third week of school Bob mastered the fight, flight, or freeze response. He delayed coming downstairs by changing his clothes over and over. When it was time to leave for school, he slowly walked past the car and took off down the street. When we eventually arrived at school, he bravely exited the vehicle only to spin around and begin walking towards our neighborhood. When I caught up with him in the neighborhood, he yelled at me, spit at me, and threw my keys in a ravine.

Fighting School Refusal Takes Persistence

The anxiety gained strength as the weeks passed. One morning as I drove away from school, I looked in the rear-view mirror to see Bob running after my vehicle followed by the principal and the vice principal. Bob looked terrified. The principal looked irate.

The battle climaxed a few days later when Bob left the school grounds and the police were called. When I arrived on the scene, a police officer secured Bob's hands behind his back. Bob was face down on the police car. I was horrified.

At the consequent emergency IEP meeting, we made changes to the behavior plan and added a crisis procedure.

Exposure therapy continued. Bob worked really hard. Over many months he figured out what didn't work for him and tried using the skills his therapist suggested. Slowly but surely, he did it. Bob made it into his classroom.

Once he was physically in the emotional support classroom, his anxiety decreased and his school day was uneventful.

Bob starts eleventh grade this week. He knows his social anxiety will challenge him as it always does. But now he has the skills to push through his fears. He also has several years of hard-earned daily victories to boost his confidence.

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APA Reference
Halli, C. (2014, August 31). My Mentally Ill Child and School Refusal, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Author: Christina Halli

January, 30 2018 at 8:06 am

Wow, My experience with school refusal an exposure therapy was a cake walk compared to yours. Bravo. I feel that the difference was that he 2 things at school that he always felt safe with. 1. His school counselor who was an MFT and did his weekly one on one and his social skills group and stayed with him from third grade to 8th grade (this happened in 7th grade) and the secretary in the office. he loved those 2 ladies. Ad 2 I had just had surgery so I had 2 months off from work so I was able to stay at the school with him and sit right by him in the initial stages where he would only go to the office and not go to his classes. Had I had to drive away from the begining I think it would have been the same thing with him chasing my car. I never would have thought that having surgery and getting 2 month of disability to stay home would be such a blessing. For us it started with-he would agree to go in for his therapy sessions that were part of his IEP, then after a week he would do his therapy and do some work in the office while I stayed with him. Then after a little over a week he would work in the office I would sit in my car in the parking lot-this is were his awesome bond with his school secretary made this work. He still had a designated safe person right there. Then he started to attend homeroom while I sat in the car-he could track my phone and know that I still right there. Then he agreed to do a couple classes but he refused to be in the hall during passing period where he might run into his bullies so he left class early and helped the secretary in the office and then went to his next class late. Then he let me leave and he did 5 classes. Then he was finally willing to stay the whole day. It was no picnic at yet-it seems like it compared to what you went through. How scary for him to be hand cuffed! law enforcmnt would be a massive trigger for my son-if he was struggling before they called them he would have lot it on a whole other level if police had come to take him away.

June, 12 2017 at 2:05 pm

When I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify
me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I recieve 4 emails with the exact same comment.
There has to be a means you are able to remove
me from that service? Thanks a lot!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 14 2017 at 12:02 am

I don't seem to have this option on my end. I think it may be in your own settings. I'll ask others at HealthyPlace, and if anyone knows, I'll pass that along.

Myra Brosius
November, 18 2014 at 3:58 am

Hello Halli,
Thanks for sharing about school refusal. I have a similar situation with my 15 year old daughter and am coming to terms with the fact that she needs to want to go back to school before anything is going to happen and so the comment about how "he had to drive the bus" was affirming to me after years of "pushing." My daughter is in exposure therapy also, but we are starting with a less-intense Obsession-- food contamination-- and she is using online school. We would like to get her back to school next year, however. My question is, how is the school handling missed work during the exposure therapy transition? Our school does not have an emotional support classroom and when I talked about an exposure therapy transition, they said that she would not be able to cope with the expected work load if she came partial days and with that attitude, I can't see her succeeding there. What State do you live in?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
November, 19 2014 at 6:36 am

Hi Myra,
Thank you for our comment and sharing your story. I live in PA but all public schools are subject to the same Federal laws that protect our children with mental illnesses. Wright's Law and IDEA 2004. Your daughter is entitled to an IEP if her mental illness is disabling her from getting the education she has a legal right to. The IEP team, which includes you and your daughter, can determine what kind of placement (ES or other) and accommodations will make her successful. The therapist giving her exposure therapy can also be helpful. In my son's case, the missed work was the least of our concerns. Eventually he did catch up...but still struggles in 11th grade. Our goal is for him to complete his education on a timeline that works for him.

debra ray
September, 13 2014 at 4:33 pm

Bless ur heart! Im glad things are working out for you and your son. We are going through it with our 10yr old son! Its so heart breaking! Ive never felt more helpless as a parent! My daughter 15yrs old didnt have these mental illnesses and it makes a mother question herself!! He is in a program tht only has up to 8kids with teacher 2aids ect. We do the i.e.p ect. Still havent found the key tht has opened door to all answers!! He has ocd odd add manic dep. An bipolar! I just cant help feel i failed him in some way! Hes been in an inpatient n out. Everything! My prayers are with you n your son i hope we find a solution....hes in 5th grade now. Hes also ran off schl grounds if i can even get him there!! God bless u for sharing...
Debra ray

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Christina Halli
September, 14 2014 at 5:09 am

Hi Debra ray,
Thank you for commenting. I hear you saying you are overwhelmed because your son is struggling with mental illness. This can be so hard, especially when your daughter didn't have the same issues. I agree with you that often we question ourselves as mothers. Are we doing the right thing? It sounds like you are doing your best to help your son. I think that is the most we can expect of ourselves.

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