Ask Layla

Ask Layla: My daughter hates school. How do I stop her dropping out altogether?

Be honest, and acknowledge her resistance, but don’t let it become an emotional bargaining tool

Instead of creating elaborate schemes and engaging in avoidance or negotiating with our fears, exposure therapy can help us intentionally face what we find scary or unpleasant


My 12-year-old daughter hates school. She is in her final year of primary and while she has some friends in her class, she doesn't have any great close relationships. She regularly dreads going in, and the mornings can be a real battle, with her sometimes just refusing outright to go in or having to be coaxed, forced or bribed. She does enjoy art and some of the activities but does not enjoy a lot of the lessons.

I haven’t contacted the school about it yet as I’m worried they will just see it as a discipline issue. I have had meetings in the past with teachers who felt she was struggling but I thought things had improved. In meetings in the past, I also felt that much of the blame was put at my feet. I know a lot of kids can struggle with school, and it is something some people just suffer through, but I would love that not to be the case for her. I am conscious too that we have another six years of this and I’m really worried it is only going to get harder for her to keep going.

I struggle too to relate and have patience as I did enjoy learning so I know I can be short-tempered about it. I feel the social aspect of school, not just the learning, is really important at this age, and developing a good peer group of your own. Not having that puts a lot of pressure on me as I feel I have to be her companion outside of school and organise things to do so she is not alone or on her phone all the time.

I am not sure what is best to do, do I just accept that school is something I have to push her through or is there another way?


There is nothing more painful as a parent than seeing our child suffer. Our instincts tell us to swoop in and make the problem go away, which is achievable to an extent when our children are small. As our child transitions into young adulthood, our role becomes more complex. We must be honest about our limitations, acknowledging that we cannot create a perfect world free from pain or suffering. They will encounter challenging situations and people throughout life.

Viewing this through the lens of anxiety or a phobia can be helpful. A concept in treating anxiety, known as wilful tolerance, is part of exposure therapy. Instead of creating elaborate schemes and engaging in avoidance or negotiating with our fears, we intentionally face what we find scary or unpleasant. This teaches us that we can tolerate difficult feelings and experiences when they arise. We acknowledge our dislike but recognise our ability to tolerate the experience. Applying this to the issue of hating school also requires parents to tolerate their child's emotions.

When we over-identify with our child's emotions, we can become so enmeshed in their experience that we fail to remain the adult in the room. While you know your child hates school, you also know that nothing catastrophic is likely to happen when they attend. Open and empathetic conversations about school, where you listen and allow them to vent without immediately offering advice, can be beneficial. Validate their experience by saying, "I know you find school really hard and a drag, and I’m sorry it's like that." Sharing your experiences of handling difficult situations at work can also be helpful.

Teach your child what you know. Rather than using coercion or bribes, acknowledge how she feels without backing down. Things may change in her next school; she might find friends and activities she enjoys. Many successful people hated school, which may not comfort her now but could reassure you. By detaching from her immediate experience and engaging your adult self, you can support her more effectively than if you become emotionally dysregulated along with her.

This approach, often seen as tough love, is better reframed as mature love. Be honest, and acknowledge her resistance, but don’t let it become an emotional bargaining tool.

Maintaining self-esteem as a parent is challenging when feeling judged by others. However, parents with more than one child know that while one may thrive in school, another might hate it. This isn't solely due to parenting style. Can we practice acceptance by acknowledging we live in an imperfect world with imperfect people, who are mostly doing the best they can?


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