How Parents Can Help Teens Under Academic Pressure (and 5 Common Traps)
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
When grades are slipping and teens don’t seem to be taking action, it’s easy to react from frustration and helplessness. Under pressure, parents can fall into common traps without realizing it. Doing so unintentionally adds to kids’ anxiety and discouragement, which saps motivation and destabilizes them.
Below are five common traps into which parents fall:
1. Repeating advice that hasn’t worked before, then blaming kids when they get irritated.
“You heard what Mrs. Lang said, you need to stop forgetting to hand things in and start being more responsible… don’t roll your eyes. You just can’t take constructive criticism.”
When kids are struggling, they already feel pressured and frustrated with themselves, on top of being worried about disappointing their parents. Repeating advice they’ve heard, and probably know, to “reinforce” the message is futile - like talking louder to someone who doesn’t speak the language. Kids experience being talked at in this way as parents not getting it, “rubbing it in” and pressuring them. Rather than helping, it increases their stress, makes them avoid you and, worst of all, ruptures their sense of you as an ally and source of support.
• Positive parenting alternative:
“That was a tough meeting with Mrs. Lang. I know you’re under a lot of pressure.”; “Having to manage all the demands on you must be overwhelming.”; “You seem stressed. Let’s find a time to think things through and figure out how to make things easier.” This more collaborative approach demonstrates that you understand and care about teens’ feelings, not just their performance and your own agenda - inviting teens to trust and let down their guard.
2. Turning the volume up on emotional intensity, rather than down, during difficult times.
“Casey, if you don’t start caring and get better grades you’re not going to get into college or be somebody. Maybe we’ll pull you out of soccer so you can learn a lesson.”
Making the stakes too high creates fear, which interferes with learning. A mild degree of anxiety is useful for motivation, but too much stress is distracting, turns off executive functions, and puts kids into a reactive survival mode instead of their higher mind. Most kids under pressure who seem not to care actually have excessive underlying anxiety, and unconsciously use avoidance to manage stress and not get overwhelmed.
When parents resort to threats and escalation, it’s a sign that they have lost perspective and are caught up in their own feelings. Criticism, warnings and punishment may create superficial compliance, but are ineffective at increasing positive behavior and actually reinforce power struggles and aggression. Authoritarian approaches also backfire in the long run because they impede self-reliance and natural motivation, as well as set the stage for anger, secrecy, shame and rebellion. (Limits and consequences are different than punishment in that limits aren’t driven by anger or the intent to induce suffering).
• Positive parenting alternative:
“I know you put a lot into soccer. In high school, I had trouble balancing school with sports and the audio-visual club - though, like you, I was disappointed when I didn’t get the grades.” Here Casey’s dad recognizes and values what Casey’s doing right and what’s important to him - a strategy that promotes positive behavior and develops teens’ identity. Commenting on his commitment and effort in soccer sets a positive, receptive atmosphere. Instead of using his power, or warnings, to get his son to behave - Casey’s dad bonds with him and reduces shame by making himself vulnerable too. His dad articulates Casey’s predicament regarding self-discipline, prioritizing, and time management, but does so in an accepting way that shows faith, respects Casey’s autonomy and helps him “own” the conflict.
3. Misdiagnosing apparent lack of effort as laziness, over focus on performance and grades.
To be effective in helping, we must accurately diagnose the problem. Executive function deficits, depression and anxiety are all issues of capacity that impact effort but have little to do with laziness, lack of values, or defiance. Disciplinary approaches using fear, logic, lecture, or punishment are unproductive, and create additional stress in children already paralyzed by inability to meet expectations.
Parents need to notice when kids are overwhelmed, provide emotional support, and assess what’s wrong. With kids who have executive function deficits, parents can also help by being like a good administrative assistant - lining up supports and providing practical help to make things more manageable. Academic and executive function coaching should be outsourced, and not be parents’ primary domain.
4. Poor timing of conversations.
Engaging teens when either of you is angry, though tempting, is ineffective since the prefrontal cortex, which processes information, is offline during high stress. Further, angry struggles not only increase resistance but normalize out of control reactions. Communication is more successful preemptively and, when respect is conveyed for a teen’s autonomy by explicitly asking for their collaboration.
“I know we often get into a struggle about homework and computer time around now. When would be a good time over the weekend to put our heads together and figure out a plan that works better?”
Here the mom thinks ahead, strikes when the iron is cold, and uses as leverage respect and a more peaceful relationship between them - something important to teens. Teens need space after a rough experience, as we all do, and when they come home from school. The best time to talk is during quiet, neutral times such as: before bed, at dinner, during activities together, and in the car (but not to and from school).
5. Talking too much/lecturing rather than listening and being curious and asking non-judgmental questions.
The most important resource parents have with teens is the relationship, which functions behind the scenes to hold, contain, and help steer but not control them. In conversations, teens should take up more of the interaction and parents’ messages should be brief and calm.
All kids want to do well, but teens struggle with competing needs. Look for evidence in general of the part of teens that share your values, and reflect this back to them as Casey’s dad did. When parents quickly come down on a side, it hijacks teens’ internal struggle and makes the part of them that agrees with you go underground. Then, rather than “owning” their conflict and sorting it out, teens’ internal struggle becomes disguised as a battle between you and them.
Anxiety and emotional blind spots can make us inflexible and oblivious to what’s really happening with our teens. But we can learn to recognize the signs of being entrenched in an unhelpful mindset such as: intense feelings, preoccupation with grades, rigidity, rumination, urgency, reactivity, and repetitive, unproductive cycles. Positive, empowering parenting involves learning to step outside ourselves and shift our perspective, paying attention to our kids’ emotional state.
The reward is knowing that teens who feel accepted, respected, and listened to by parents fare better and are the most protected from harm. Further, when parents offer guidance (and limits) while supporting teens’ autonomy, teens learn initiative, independence, and the ability to solve problems on their own.