My Teen's Grades are Dropping and College is Around the Corner!

Filed under: Education: Teens, Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My teenage son's grades have been going downhill all year. His last report card was all Ds, a few Cs and one A. The main reason seems to be that he doesn't study enough and has been missing assignments. If I say anything to him he tells me that he's trying and I need to get off his back. He's actually a very smart kid and he's really hurting himself because he does want to go to college. Can you give me some advice?

Dragging Uphill

Dear Dragging Uphill,

I have seen this situation many times in my private practice, and watched parents debate whether to intervene when a teen stops making effort in school, or leave him to suffer the consequences of his actions.

It is my belief that many teens lack the ability to envision a long-term picture of their lives that would allow them to make a connection between not turning in homework today, and the resulting impact on their ability to get into college in a year or two.

When parents stop encouraging their teens to see the value in working hard in school, they are not serving them. I've spoken with many discouraged young adults whose parents gave up on helping them buckle down with their schoolwork -- resulting in diminished academic or job opportunities.

So, don't turn a blind eye to your son's poor academic performance. Instead, help him know that you're on his side. Acknowledge that you understand that he doesn't enjoy doing his homework, and that you can relate to how difficult it can be to put aside things that are immediately gratifying in order to work on school assignments that aren't much fun.

Help him better experience the payoff for doing his work. One reason kids start sliding downhill academically is that they don't see any immediate benefit. In other words, while there is a carrot at the end of the stick -- college -- the stick is so long that for all practical purposes, your son can't see the carrot!

Take him to one or two college campuses and let him walk around, visit the student union or sit in on classes to make college real, and make a connection between the effort he makes on schoolwork today, and a tangible reward in the near future. Buy something at the bookstore with his favorite school's logo that he can display in his room as a reminder of where he's headed.

I would also suggest you rule out any learning challenges that might be making it difficult for him to handle the workload. Many times, a teen appears to be unmotivated when, in fact, he's drowning academically but doesn't want to ask for help.

Is his reading up to par? He could have 20/20 vision, but still need a workup with a developmental optometrist to make sure his eyes are tracking together. Does he have focusing and attention problems? It may be that he needs strategies for getting started on assignments to "kick start" his brain when the subject matter is inherently uninteresting to him.

You might also consider reducing Internet, video games and television time, so that your son has fewer things to distract him from doing his work. Some kids need more structure than others, and it may be that you'll have to limit the diversions available to your son that are causing him to avoid tackling his schoolwork.

It may be helpful to hire a college kid to work with your teen for a few hours a week. While your son may be resistant to your help with homework, he may benefit from the influence of a serious college student who can help fire up his motivation, and mentor him toward better study habits.

When you come at an adolescent with unwanted advice, there's a very good chance that it will not be acted upon. Kids are hard-wired to resist our input, especially when it's delivered with judgment, shaming or long lectures.

Come alongside your son with support, and help him onto a better track by following these tips. He'll thank you when he's a little further down the road, if all goes well!

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.