Nothing seems to stress the parents of my therapy clients more than their children’s poor academic performance. Sometimes, “poor academic performance” means D’s and F’s; sometimes it means mostly A’s and a few B’s. Virtually always, it is inextricably linked in the parents’ heads to their children’s “futures.”
Sometimes, children are brought in to see me specifically for academic underachievement. Perhaps there is a suspected learning disability or attention deficit disorder. In such cases, psychoeducational testing can help pinpoint the causes of the academic difficulties. More often, though, the youngsters I see who are doing poorly in school have been brought in to see me for other reasons – depression, self-injury, anxiety, substance abuse, behavioral problems. In these cases, academic problems are often secondary to emotional problems.
Today’s post is about a particular client I saw recently, but it could be about any of a number of young people that I see. I chose to tell this story because 12-year-old Jules gave me several great quotes that really illustrate my point.
I am seeing Jules because he suffers from anxiety. He is mostly anxious about social situations but he also worries about academics. My gut tells me that he would experience social anxiety no matter what, but I suspect his parents have a lot to do with his worry about tests and grades.
In a recent session, I could tell right away that Jules was more down than usual. He and I talked about some disappointing test grades he had learned about earlier in the day. He was so upset about one poor grade that he asked if we could tell his parents together. When I asked how he expected his parents to react, he replied,
They will start yammering about “the future.” By the way, that’s code for “grades.” <air quotes indicated> – Jules, age 12
Sure enough, when his parents joined us, and Jules told them he had earned a 65 on a Social Studies test, Dad’s immediate response was “Well, that’s not acceptable. How will you ever get into a good high school with grades like those?! You have to think about your future.” (To Dad’s credit, he talked about high school rather than college.) Jules’ response:
You think I don’t know 65 is unacceptable!? You can forget a good high school! I may not even pass 7th grade!
And just at this moment, Mom added, “Don’t try to make us feel bad for you. This is your own doing.”
A complex discussion ensued. First, I pointed out the dynamic that had just played out:
Jules shared the news about the bad grade in a way that made it very clear that he was upset about it → Dad responded to the news with anger, ignoring Jules’ upset feelings → Jules responded with anger and hopelessness → Mom jumped in with more anger, also ignoring Jules’ obvious distress.
Dad’s behavior in this interaction is a reaction I call holding down. Jules was already down; his father’s reaction did nothing to help him up. Mom’s behavior I call piling on; Jules was down, Dad held him there, and Mom piled on top. Young people do not respond well to being held down or piled on. Imagine if Mom and Dad had responded in the following way instead. Are the hypothetical responses of their son believable?
Jules, softly with head down: I know you are going to be really mad; I got a 65 on my Social Studies test.
Dad: Wow, I can see you’re disappointed in that grade (responding to Jules’ feelings first). Your mom and I are too (pointing out that they’re all on the same side). What can we do to help you do better on the next test (helping Jules up)?
Jules: I don’t know. It’s my own fault. I guess I just have to study harder.
Mom: I think we can help you with that (helping Jules up). Maybe we could review the material with you or quiz you.
Jules: I guess.
In this example, Dad and Mom are responding in a way that I call helping up. This type of response puts everyone on the same side so that all are working together to help Jules’ improve his study habits and his grades. Holding down creates an adversarial relationship, which creates anger, which makes academic performance a battleground and poor grades a weapon.
After Jules, Mom, Dad, and I talked about holding down vs. helping up, we spent some time talking about the future. This thing called “the future” that parents seem to obsess over is not necessarily a place that young people are eager to go. Think about it. If you are a kid struggling with 7th grade work, why in the world would thoughts of a good (code for “academically challenging”) high school serve as an incentive? If you are a teenager requiring a lot of assistance to get through high school courses, how is thinking about college-level work going to motivate you?
Parents need to help their children prepare for the future. As Jules’ father pointed out, “Isn’t it a parent’s job to make sure a child does well in school so that he has opportunities down the road?” Sort of. I would not say that it’s a parent’s job so much as that parents and kids need to work as partners. There is a lot more about this partnership here.
There is a time and a place to talk about the future. When your child is already upset about a poor grade is not that time. That is the moment for helping up, supporting, encouraging, assisting, even cheerleading. And when it is the right time to talk about the future, holding down, criticizing, doomsaying, and threatening are not good ways to do it. The future is a scary place. Here are some examples of messages that can make it less so:
- I have faith in you that you can pull up your grades and do well in school this year.
- When you get to high school, I know you will be ready.
- It takes time to get used to high school. You’ll figure it out.
- Don’t worry about college now; your focus should be on doing as well as possible in 10th grade.
- I am here to help you.
Kids who are dealing with emotional problems that are interfering with academics need extra helping up. They need to hear that their emotional well-being is more important than their grades. While they are depressed and having trouble getting out of bed or when they have anxiety about being picked on at school, they need to know that you care about these challenges more than their scores on a Physics final or an English essay. As parents, we must accept that breaking up with a boyfriend or getting cut from a team or hearing that a friend is spreading rumors about you will feel far more important to a young person than a test tomorrow or a project due next week. And in the throes of emotional turmoil, nothing but the crisis at hand is even on a young person’s radar.
Here are my predictions for Jules and his parents. He and I will continue to work together to decrease his social anxiety. As his anxiety lessens and he begins to experience some success socially, he will be able to focus more on his schoolwork. As his parents learn how to help him up rather than hold him down, he will worry less about his grades. Jules’ confidence will grow and he will become increasingly self-reliant. His relationships with Mom and Dad will improve. His academic performance will improve. Jules will end up doing just fine in 7th grade. He will get into a high school that is a good match for him which may or not be the one his father believes is ideal. Same for college.
No, I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have been working with families for more than twenty years. Based on all that experience, I have a strong hunch that everything will work out fine for this family. Jules just needs a little help overcoming his anxiety, and his parents just need a little help figuring out how to channel all of their good intentions into effective ways to support the son that they love very much.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]