Health Column: When your child tries to avoid school

Does your child refuse to go to school more than the average student? Has your teenager complained about not being able to concentrate during class?

These are problems many parents encounter, but it isn’t always clear when to seek professional help. 

That’s why the Family Service League of Mattituck’s North Fork Counseling Program has teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to offer an informational lecture next month by Dr. Gabrielle Carlson, an adolescent psychiatrist with Stony Brook University Hospital.

“A part of me cringes because it is so hard to get help with mental health issues,” Dr. Carlson said. “Practices are full, people’s insurances are difficult. There are just so many hurdles in their way.”

Because of those hurdles, Dr. Carlson’s talk will include issues that have parents reaching out to the League, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, marijuana use, refusing to go to school and the implications of these issues on a child’s ability to flourish.

“About a quarter of kids will, at some point, fight with their parents about going to school,” Dr. Carlson said. “It is not uncommon when the child is in elementary school to balk at going to school. It is important right then and there that the parents make it clear they have to go to school. For many of the kids, they need to have that firm limit.”

She said when those firm limits don’t work it is time to seek help, “because it is important to understand what the kid is avoiding.” As the child gets older, getting him or her to school becomes much harder. Sometimes, even when kids get to school, they make a habit of visiting the nurse’s office, complaining of a headache, stomachache, or some other ache and pain in hopes of going home.

Dr. Carlson said if a child is missing school or being sent home from school more than once a month, close tabs should be kept on the behavior. If the frequency increases, it could be a sign of anxiety or some other issue that has yet to be addressed. The problem differs from child to child. Understanding the underlying issue behind why your child doesn’t want to go to school could be the difference in whether or not they succeed in an educational setting — particularly for those who might suffer from a developmental disorder like ADHD, she said.

The topic frequently sends parents to her office, as they may not understand the what the disorder is or how to treat it.

“If the condition is causing impairment and getting the child in trouble in school and at home, it needs to be addressed,” she said.

Dr. Carlson noted that ADHD symptoms might not become clear to parents until middle or high school, when their children are given more independence and less structure and support.

“Many times, kids manage in elementary school because their teachers and moms are on top of them. They are accommodating the kid,” she said. “It starts to unravel in middle school, when people don’t cut you the slack they used to.”

Once diagnosed, some parents also take issue with medication, Dr. Carlson said.

“As far as medication is concerned, it causes some improvement in about 70 to 80 percent of kids,” she said. “It normalizes only about 25 percent of kids. Because of that, many people stop using the medication.”

Dr. Carlson will give a one-hour speech touching on the above issues at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, at the Mattituck High School auditorium.

Miller_HeadshotGot a health question or column idea? Email Carrie Miller at [email protected].