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5 Tips to Transform Teen School Indifference to Engagement

03/05/2014 05:08 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014
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Is your teen struggling in school? Does he seem apathetic? Have you lectured, grounded and threatened until you have no idea what else to do?

Here are some tips for helping your teen feel better and function better -- while improving your relationship with him.

1. First, relax. Remind yourself that it's one grade, one class, one semester; not the rest of his life. As you look back over your own life, remember that those pitfalls and oversights, failures and screw ups didn't bring your life to a screeching halt. You know there are consequences, but your teen has to learn that too. Give him room to learn.

Try not to make this incident or semester a catastrophe. If you do, it only increases your own anxiety and the anxiety your child deals with every day. His anxiety about the future is much greater than he tells you. He needs relief from it, not having it pounded into him. He already gets it. That's why he's withdrawing.

Things said to him like, "he won't make it in the future if he doesn't perform now," just aren't helpful. That really makes things worse.

For his sake and yours, manage your own state of mind. Model for him the way to manage anxiety. Show him (don't tell him) what it looks like to deal with a lot of work, while taking care of yourself and functioning at a high level. Whether you realize it or not, your kid watches your every move. Your life speaks much louder to him than anxiety-laden words.

2. Next, focus on resilience. In the course of the day, tell stories about things you experienced in school, things that relate to your child's difficulties. Reminisce about those struggles out loud when you're at the dinner table, walking the mall or in the car. Make it a casual family conversation that pops up at any time and show your teen what it was like for you to be overwhelmed, to fail, to feel like giving up. Include the process you went through to pick yourself back up and try again. Demonstrate through your experiences what was hard and how you got yourself on track again.

Parents need to stop saying, "I don't understand what's going on because it's clear to me that you're really smart." This doesn't work. It doesn't even hit on the real problem.

Learn to break the pattern of lecturing as a parent. Your teen glazes over and doesn't hear it, but does feel misunderstood and unsupported. Try instead to listen, and be vulnerable enough to display your own weaknesses. How you overcame them in the short term or the long term. These stories give him hope.

Sometimes it's more important for your kid to fail and learn from it than it is for him to be pushed through by you. So when you see him struggle, stretch your memory and put yourself in his shoes. Show him you do know what it's like to struggle, and sometimes even fail.

This is an ongoing conversation... and he'll carry these stories the rest of his life - so be generous with your own life lessons. The effect is more significant than you can imagine ... and carries far more impact than any lecture.

3. React differently. If your child seems apathetic about school and you're struggling with it, there's a good chance that what you're currently doing may not be working. So try a different response.

For instance, try to respond with empathy rather than anger. Put yourself in your teen's shoes. Consider the pressure he feels to get into college, get good grades, do well on SAT and ACT, and decide on his major. Do you really want to add to his pressure ...?

It's all just too much for a teen to handle, and he still has to deal with daily social issues and responsibilities. It's tempting to lose your temper -- but consider all this before you let yourself launch into a lecture. Empathy will help deflate the pressure rather than add to it.

Also keep in mind that he can think and function most effectively in a somewhat relaxed frame of mind. Lecturing and anger from his parents reduces his confidence and self respect, short circuiting his best abilities. Then his energies are spent recovering, setting him back further from his productivity.

4. Change your approach with teachers. Your child's teachers are in his life to help him. They aren't the enemy. Partner with them... collaborate for your child's improvement.

Ideally, it's best if you can encourage your teen to take this approach himself. If he can get on a collaborative plane with his teachers, he'll have another motivating victory. But if you do need to get involved, work as a team with your child and his teacher. Model a team attitude for him.

5. Remember your anxiety is your anxiety. It's yours to deal with... so stop yourself from dumping it on your overwhelmed teenager.

Take a breath, and acknowledge this to yourself before you attempt to communicate with your teen. You have to throw out your own 'garbage' before you can help guide your child. At the very least, know it's there and manage it. For your sake, his sake, and for your relationship.

Let him make his own choices and deal with the consequences. Guidance is ok but step back. You want him to become an adult, to grow up. So you must give him the space to do so.

One last thought: In helping your teen work through the struggles of life, take the time to ask yourself these questions:

1. What really gets my child excited and how can I encourage that?
2. What questions or stories can I use to that will help him explore this direction?

It's so easy for him to get caught up in a tough assignment or an overwhelming semester, and feel so beat up he can't see past it. Then he can forget there's so much more to life ... and to live for.

This approach will help your teen to see the bigger picture and find joy and purpose in life. When that happens, some of these other struggles begin to take care of themselves.


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