Legal Law

Keeping your teenager in school when he refuses to go

Why does a teenager refuse to go to school?

Years ago, my first reaction when I heard parents and teachers complain was the attitude of “you are the mom, you make her go to school.” About a year ago I met Mary, a 15-year-old sophomore who had just dropped out of a very large high school for a smaller high school when she was living with her father. At that time I was working as a guardian ad litem and was referred to this family because the parents were fighting for custody. I was an impartial party who after my investigation had to make recommendations to the court.

One of the main concerns is that Mary’s mother did not force her to go to school. Too embarrassed to go to school: I spoke to Mary and found out what her reasons were for not wanting to go to school. He said it has been failing for a long time and he just didn’t see the point. We talked about the specific problems he was having. He said he doesn’t understand the job they were giving him. He said he couldn’t read or understand what the assignments were and instead of being embarrassed, he just didn’t go to school.

The father was very insistent that Mary go live with him and his new family. They were in a smaller school district and Mary would receive more attention and instruction. Mary had started the school year there because her father refused to let her go back to her mothers. Mary went to school and played volleyball and she really seemed fine. They had suggested testing Mary to see if she actually had a disability and to identify her strengths and weaknesses.


Later in my research, Mary finally admitted that when she lived with her mother, she was responsible for her 3-year-old little brother. Her mom didn’t work, but according to Mary, her mom was never home and that there were no consequences when Mary missed school. There were so many red flags that I didn’t know where to start.

Mary begged to be allowed to live with her father and continue to go to school from her father’s house. She said that if they forced her to return to her mother’s house, she would flee.

Upon inspection of the mother’s house, it was adequate, however, I smelled cat urine immediately upon entering the house. That was another concern the father raised: the house was in deplorable condition. Mary’s mom admitted that the house had been a mess, but that she had been cleaning for 3 days prior to my visit.

The impression Mary’s mother made on me was how unmotivated she was. He had never finished high school, had no job or had had one for at least four years. Although I am in favor of housewives, I am one, you do not live from the system and child support. Mary’s mom did. I asked her what would happen if she demanded that Mary go to school and she said that Mary would do just about anything she had to do to leave, even starting fights if the time came.

I strongly believe that when you make recommendations about custody and visitation, I really listen to teens. If Mary was forced to live with her mother, she had every intention of running away and making her mother’s life so miserable that the mother would give up the fight and eventually allow her to go live with her father.

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At one point, Mary’s mother was accused of not making sure Mary was in school. Even that was a disaster. Her mother would have preferred to deal with law enforcement than Mary’s unwillingness to go to school.


On my recommendation, Mary now lives full time with her father, receives adequate services, and is doing very well. Mary now attends extracurricular activities and is almost at grade level. A learning disability was identified and, once it was determined, she began receiving the additional services. The family is now in counseling with Mary and she is gaining confidence and self-esteem that she did not have when I first met her.

When a child does not go to school, there is a reason. Find out what the reason is and address it. Even if you can’t understand why, do something, don’t just sit on the problem and do nothing. It can be an easy solution like Mary’s problems were.

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