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“I’ll take everything away until he gets an A!”

Many parents believe that they can “motivate” their teenager to earn better grades in school by taking away things and activities they enjoy.  For example, a parent might restrict the privileges of watching TV, playing video games, and using a computer or cell phone, as well as social activities with friends.  Some parents even pull their student off a sports team, school band or other extracurricular activity they excel in and enjoy, so the teenager will “focus” more time and effort on their school work and grades.  For some students this temporary strategy works well and they begin to take academics more seriously.  However, for many students who are actually struggling in their high school classes, this approach often backfires for parents and contributes to more behavioral and emotional problems rather than improving academic performance.

As a clinical psychologist who works primarily with children and adolescents I have encountered many frustrated parents who have made statements such as; “I have taken everything away and he doesn’t seem to care,” or “My daughter is smart.  I know she can get straight A’s if she tries harder in school.”  Often times these parents tell me that initially their teenager starts completing more homework or spends more time studying, but they continue to get bad grades on tests or not hand in the homework consistently.  So, their grades don’t improve.  Eventually the teenager becomes angry, argumentative, and rebellious or just shuts down and avoids the family all together.  Many teenagers have also been told that they are “lazy” or “unmotivated” by teachers and sometimes their parents.  The teenager then reaches the point that they seem like they don’t care about school at all.

When I have conducted educational consultations with these families a common theme emerges.  The parents are angry and frustrated that their efforts have not worked to improve their teenager’s grades, and the teenager is angry and frustrated that no matter how hard they try, they can not do well enough in school to please their parents.  In fact, the majority of these struggling teenagers tell me that school started becoming challenging for them in late elementary school, became much worse in middle school and by high school their classes are so challenging they no longer feel they can keep up.  Then, when their parents take everything away to “motivate” the teenager to put more effort into school, the student just gives up trying all together.

Therefore, if your teenager is struggling to get passing grades or their school performance is not what you believe they are capable of achieving, you should consider a few things before taking everything away.  First of all, with today’s high educational standards the majority of students can not earn straight A’s no matter how intelligent they are.  So, this is an unrealistic expectation to place on a student and tends to cause more stress and anxiety than they need at this age.  It is interesting that most parents who place this expectation on their teenager did not earn straight A’s themselves in school.  Secondly, if your teenager ever had difficulty in elementary school with reading comprehension, math or writing assignments, or teachers commented that they were inattentive or didn’t complete their work, then other factors may be affecting their grades rather than a lack of motivation.

For example, the majority of bright students I have worked with who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) seem disorganized and are talkative and unfocused in elementary school.  When they reach middle school their grades begin to drop for the first time, primarily due to not writing in their agenda book, not paying attention in class and not handing in homework.  The larger class sizes and lack of recess breaks also make it harder to pay attention to the lecture or complete assignments in class.  Moreover, it is much more difficult for these students (and their parents) to keep up with the requirements of 6 different teachers in middle school as compared to one or two teachers in elementary school.  Then high school hits.  These students are highly discouraged about school by the time they reach the 9th grade, because the workload, homework and expectations for being responsible and organize grow tenfold.  Often times these are the students who have to work very hard just to earn a C-.  They are also repeatedly told “high school grades count” toward getting into college, which is an added pressure to succeed in school.  In addition, if your teenager had any weaknesses in reading comprehension or reading fluency in elementary or middle school, the amount of reading that is required in high school classes such as science, history and literature are overwhelming.  So, these students are unable to “study” the way they need to in order to prepare for class discussions or tests.

When this pattern has been set in motion the student feels very discouraged and frustrated, and may argue or lie to parents about homework, grades and assignments.  This negative cycle contributes to family stress, which I have seen so many times while working with these families.  It’s often enlightening to parents when I point out this long-term negative pattern and their teenager acknowledges that it’s not that they don’t care about school or their grades, but they gave up trying because nothing they did seem to make any difference.  Their grades were still poor and their parents were still disappointed.

So, rather than punish your teenager with removal of privileges or extracurricular activities they enjoy, talk to the school counselor and teachers to find out what they are observing in the classroom.  If your teenager’s grades have been consistently low, request that the school district evaluate him/her for learning disabilities or an attentional disorder.  However, if the feedback you receive from school staff is “laziness,” “lack of motivation” or “poor study skills” you might want to consider having your teenager evaluated privately by a clinical psychologist who specializes in psychological testing in order to get to the root of the problem.  When you can clearly pinpoint where the gaps or weaknesses are in learning or attention, then you can effectively work with the teachers and your teenager so they can be more successful in school.

It’s also important to understand that extracurricular activities such as sports, band or drama teach time management and organizational skills, as well as giving the teenager a feeling of positive self-esteem that they are not getting from school.  So, taking away those enriching activities can lead to hopelessness and sometimes depression in teenagers, who feel they have nothing left to look forward to, and feel terrible when they go to school every day and come home to parents nagging them about improving their grades.

So, allow your teenager to continue with their one favorite extracurricular activity to give them a sense of accomplishment have something to look forward to, while at the same time try to determine the real reason for their academic struggles and develop a plan to help them succeed in school.

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