February 22, 2013

When Good Kids Get Bad Grades

I work with teenagers and often, when a parent brings their son or daughter to consult with me it’s because of a battle over bad grades. A common story is that Mark was a terrific student until middle school or sometimes high school. The parent tries threats and punishments that don’t seem to help, the grades continue to deteriorate and so does the relationship between the teenager and Mom and Dad.  If a teenager has always struggled in school, it is not surprising when the higher grades become more of a challenge.  When bad grades come in a child who was previously a good student it is more of a puzzle.


Peer relationships become much more important and often, much more challenging in adolescence. Kids are trying to figure out who they are and what their place is in the world and the easiest shortcut is to assume a pre-formed identity such as jock, or math whiz or rule breaker.  Teenagers, who are less secure in general than adults, take rejection hard so they tend to follow the rules of whatever group they are accepted in and take rejection with greater intensity. Balancing all this while trying to seem cool is stressful and for many kids academics can easily take a back seat to maintaining social acceptance.

Adults tend to feel that teenage crushes are not that serious  but they are of central importance to your son or daughter. Kids mature at different rates and some aren’t that interested in romantic relationships until their upper teens. When those hormones do kick in, however, they are enormously powerful. It may be fine to tell  your teenager that his relationship with his girlfriend is less important than getting good grades but it will not be advice that is heeded. These relationships are very serious to the persons who are involved and you only antagonize and alienate your child when you belittle these intense attachments. If you are able to remain sympathetic and supportive you will have a better chance of helping your child to balance out the demands of their social needs with their often hard to perceive financial and career future.


Another overlooked but unfortunately common cause of bad grades, especially seriously failing grades in smart kids is adolescent depression. Depression in the teen years is not too uncommon.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers and may actually be higher because reckless driving leading to car accidents (the number one cause) may also be related to depression and suicidal thinking. Depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings occur much more frequently than actual suicides. Older people tend to scoff at this or think, “When I was a kid we didn’t have time to be depressed.” This may actually be true. For the generation of WWII going to work or going to war were much more a part of every day reality. While we don’t wish this type of difficulty on our children, it gave our parents or grandparents generation an immediate purpose and focus in their life. Having real responsibilities and day to day obligations is a support to good mental health. Yes, school IS an obligation for the teenagers of today but it is one they can easily avoid.

Teens, like adults who suffer from depression, feel bad about themselves and can feel hopeless about the future. A parent’s anger or criticism about poor school performance can just add to the teenager’s sense of failure and futility. Loss of motivation is also very common in depression so keeping up with demanding academic schedules becomes more and more of a struggle. When a parent’s anger and criticism gets added to that in only makes the depression and poor performance worse.


Drugs are rampant in schools. The drug culture is pervasive and even good kids from good families will find ample opportunity to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Baby boomer parents who experimented in their youth or who may still feel comfortable using marijuana tend to avoid much criticism of drug use to their teens, implying acceptance. Boomers tended to try drugs when they were in college when they had a little more maturity and accomplishment to fall back on. This level of drug use has moved to down to high school and even middle schools. The teenagers I talk to in affluent Boca Raton, Florida speak quite casually of drugs and alcohol being easily available and abundant in social environments.

Marijuana is not a benign drug. One of it’s most well known effects in regular users is to cause apathy. This can be very detrimental to teenagers who need to maintain motivation to succeed when the rewards seem far away and poorly understood. A fourteen year old doesn’t worry about getting a good job or going to a good college. The pleasure drugs provide is immediate so there is always a risk of losing control of the level of use.Many teenagers whose grades have deteriorated greatly are using drugs or alcohol at a level vastly underestimated by unsuspecting parents.


There are many possibilities for what is causing YOUR child to be doing so much worse at school. Don’t assume it is just obstinance or defiance. That is sometimes the reason but there can be other, more serious problem of which poor grades are just the evidence. To help your teenager to do better, it’s important to understand what is causing the problem because different solutions are required in different circumstances. Most parents know their children and the type of people they are. If your child has been highly motivated in the past, look underneath the surface to see what is going on. Deliberate failure is actually pretty rare.


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