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School phobia: what it is, symptoms and causes

School phobia: what it is, symptoms and causes

May 21, 2023

The concept "school phobia" is used to refer to situations of refusal to attend school by children and adolescents. On many occasions, anxiety and fear at the prospect of going to class is not present or does not have the intensity required for the diagnosis of a specific phobia; In any case, the key aspect is the avoidance of the school.

In this article we will describe what is the school phobia and what are its symptoms and its causes . For this we will compare it with other similar problems that may overlap with this disorder, such as separation anxiety and specific phobias. However, we must bear in mind that there are no official diagnostic criteria for school phobia.

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What is school phobia?

School phobia can be defined as an intense and persistent fear of going to school, although there is a certain lack of agreement about this perspective: while some authors conceive this disorder as a true phobia, others associate it rather with separation anxiety . This last point of view is the one that defends the DSM-IV.

It is important to emphasize that the most used diagnostic categories do not include specifications for school phobia. The cases in which there is a real fear of school can be classified as specific phobias, a label shared by disorders such as claustrophobia, fear of insects, blood or heights.

Girls and boys with school phobia experience marked feelings of anxiety when they are in school, as well as the prospect of going to school. Many of the affected children report that the discomfort is due to their fear of academic failure, although the causes can be diverse.

From a practical point of view The fundamental aspect of school phobia is the refusal to go to school , which sometimes leads to absences that can last for weeks or months. This avoidance, a very characteristic aspect of phobias, entails academic delays for the children and logistical difficulties for the parents.

Unlike what happens in truancy cases, parents are aware that their daughter or son does not attend class. They also express their desire for the situation to be resolved; this differentiates school phobia from school dropout, associated with parental neglect. Anxiety and fear are also specific to school phobia.

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Associated symptoms

Specific phobias are characterized mainly by the appearance of intense anxiety sensations in the presence or anticipation of what is feared (the phobic stimulus), as well as by the avoidance behaviors that derive from this fear.

Fear of school manifests itself in reactions such as cries, screams and complaints , as well as in negativist behaviors of refusal to obey parents. Irritability and explosions of anger are also common forms of fear expression in young children, less aware of their own emotions than most adults.

The mood tends to be low, with depressive symptoms such as apathy and sadness. Like anxiety, depressive mood distinguishes this phobia from other causes of school absenteeism. There also tends to be significant dependence on one or both parents, and these are often people with a predisposition to anxiety.

It is common for somatic reactions to occur as a result of anxiety; among these stand out headache and gastrointestinal symptoms , such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. The physical and cognitive discomfort can also cause enuresis and problems to eat or to conciliate and maintain sleep.

Causes of this problem

The appearance of school phobia is associated with precipitating factors of a psychosocial nature. Some of them are directly related to academic life, such as Changes in address and school, academic failure , the fact of repeating a course, the lack of social skills, social phobia and school abuse, commonly known as bullying.

However, this fear also frequently appears in children who have recently lost a loved one, who have been affected by the separation of their parents or who have suffered an illness that has caused them to leave school for a while.

From the perspective of operant conditioning we can affirm that the behavior of parents has a great relevance in the development of school phobia: Allowing the child to stay at home acts as a reinforcer of their fear of going to school . In this sense, parental overprotection and anxiety are considered very important variables.

A factor that also has an important weight in school phobia is the fact that children tend to prefer to stay at home than go to school. In many cases this disorder can be associated with periods in which the level of academic demand increases, such as in periods of exams or oral presentations of work.

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Recognizing and Treating Problematic Fear and Anxiety in Children | #UCLAMDChat Webinar (May 2023).

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