‘We are having meltdowns in the mornings before going to school’

Ask the expert: Sometimes he says he is sick and it’s a big battle to get him out the door

Question: My 14-year-old son is in second year of secondary school. He has become really moody and difficult in the last few months and now we are having meltdowns in the mornings before going to school. When I tell him to cop on, he goes hysterical and says he hates himself and it becomes a big battle to get him out the door.

Sometimes he says he feels sick and I don’t know whether to believe him. He did have a bad cold last week and he stayed off a couple of days. And then it was really hard to get him back. After a big row, I had to let him stay home an extra day. I really don’t want to get into a habit of this.

I am also a single parent and have to leave early in the morning to get to work. If he stays at home, I can’t supervise him too well, though I can get my mam to pop round to check in on him. He can walk to school if he leaves early enough, but then if he is having a tantrum (most mornings), then I have to drive him to get there on time, which makes me late for work.

I know he is finding this year hard in school. He complains a lot about his school work and some of his friends seem to have moved on. He does like his sports, though, which seems to be the only thing that gets him moving in the morning.


Answer: For many young teenagers, school attendance problems can peak in second year. The pressure of the curriculum and routine exams can begin to mount and all the teenage challenges of fitting in and finding your social group are to the fore. Lots of teenagers can experience stress, anxiety, low mood and demotivation at the prospect of going to school and for many this can escalate into morning rows and school refusal. Often this is complicated by teenagers feeling sick which can both be normal physical ailments and but also caused by demotivation and/or anxiety. As a parent, it can be a challenge to navigate a path of being sympathetic and understanding to your child's woes as well as being firm and encouraging to get them to school.

Being understanding and supportive

There are usually very individual reasons as to why a teenager finds it hard to attend school. The important thing is to encourage them to share their feelings and stresses and for you to listen and to be supportive. Usually these conversations best occur away from the morning pressure of getting to school. You say your son is finding this year difficult – how do you know this? When has he told you about this? A good approach is to try and listen when your son complains about school – you want to really understand what is going on for him. Teenagers usually find it a great relief to get worries off their chest and, once they have done this, then you can begin help them. A good approach is to first ask questions rather than immediately offer advice. If he is socially isolated in school, ask him about different ways he can make friends – for example, what about through the sports he likes? Or if he has no one to talk to at the breaks, are there school lunchtime activities he could join? If the academic work is difficult or boring, explore with him what support he needs to make it easier or more interesting for him.

Encouraging your son to get to school

Whatever challenges your son is experiencing you still need to work hard to get him to school in the morning. Sometimes acknowledging this with your son can make a difference: “I know you find it hard/stressful going to school, but as a parent you know I have to insist you go in – I wouldn’t be a good parent if I didn’t.”

This can be a challenge when you are under pressure to get to work yourself and it is easy to get caught into morning battles and rows. These are usually counterproductive so it is important to pause and consider if there is another way of responding that might be more effective. One single parent I worked with, who had similar struggles to you, made an arrangement with her work that she could occasionally be late in the morning (covering her work duties later) to give her more time when her son was acting up.

The new arrangement gave her more time to be encouraging and thoughtful in her response. If her son was being very difficult, she made a plan to simply pull back and wait. If he was very late and she had to leave for work, she arranged for a family friend (she was lucky to have this support) to call by 30 minutes later and to take him to school. Consequences would be applied at school each time he was late (extra homework) and this became a motivator for him to get there.

Think through for yourself what your best morning plan of action might be. Sometimes it is case of changing the routine so there is more time in the mornings to have a relaxed breakfast together. Frequently parents and children are tired in morning so establishing this better morning routine starts the night before by getting into a habit of earlier bedtimes ( for both parent and teenager).

Work with the school

Consider contacting the school to discuss how to help your son. The year head will be familiar to dealing with children who are reluctant to come to school, They may have a number of ways they can help, such as referring him to the school counsellor, encouraging him to participate in the activities and sports he likes, agreeing rewards and consequences for him getting to school on time, giving him special responsibilities in the school as well as addressing any of the particular issues that make it hard for him to attend.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will be delivering a number of parenting workshops for parents of young children and teenagers in Dublin on November 16th and 17th. See solutiontalk.ie