As he leaned in sheepishly, his steely blue eyes gleamed with a fascinating mix of fear, shame, and a dash of hope.
"Please don't tell my mom."
He was referring to his big confession: four overdue math assignments that piled quickly.
This may sound surprising coming from an academic coach, but I was thrilled. One word: breakthrough. No more dodges or pretending the work was done, when we both knew it wasn't. This 8th grader finally hit me with the...
Wait for it...
In our previous sessions, I had been working overtime to knock down his walls, heavily insulated with falsehoods carefully crafted to mask the pain of his academic struggles, and, quite frankly, get his terrified helicopter mom off his back. After finally reaching his "inner circle of trust," sensing his trepidation, I knew my next steps were critical. No shocked gasp. No intense questioning. No display of disappointment. All of which he was clearly expecting.
In a strategic move, I celebrated his honesty. Why?
Because I knew that school-related celebrations had been few and far between for this child, and I wanted to create a foundation from which to build more trust. Then, together we put on our detective hats and analyzed what had gone wrong. Was the material too difficult? Had he forgotten his homework on his desk at home? Was he not writing homework reminders? From that point, I asked his plan was moving forward. Once we had a plan in place, complete with how to prevent overdue homework pileup in the future, I had to bring back the "don't tell mom" situation. We processed the idea that omitting information is a form of lying, and I wanted the child to own that he had overdue homework, and more importantly, a new plan moving forward.
As for mom, we filled her in, but first I coached her through how to respond. I can see how her previous reactions to his academic setbacks defaulted to panicked, interrogation style, stress-inducing questioning: "Why didn't you do it sooner?" "What were you thinking?" "Why can't you get it in gear?" It was her child. Of course she didn't want him to feel the pain that comes from struggling in school, or even later on in the "real world." What she couldn't see in those overwhelmed moments, was that her judgment-laden questions set her child up to feel like a lie was the only possible response. How else would he escape the pain of telling the truth, because we all knew it would have come with more yelling?
Once I coached mom through the process of establishing a "Judgement Free Zone," she started to see that there was a better way to get her child onboard. By working through the steps outlined below, she created subtle, yet oh so productive shifts in the relationship with her child. This naturally translated to more transparency, consistency and motivation from her son when it came to school. The Judgement Free Zone is based on the idea that when a child lies, he is scared to be honest. Whether the lie stems from fear of getting into trouble, letting you down, or to avoid reality, trust me -- there's an underlying feeling he isn't good enough as is, not so hot grades and all. That's why it's critical to give the child the message he'll be accepted no matter what.
I'd love for you to know how to create a Judgement Free Zone with your child, in case this might be useful for you. You'll see amazing results from what a low stress, "you can tell me anything and we'll partner to fix it together" kind of environment this creates.
ESTABLISHING A JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE:
STEP ONE: Make it clear that your child can tell you about anything -- the piling work, the forgotten essay that was never written, the test that didn't get studied for -- and then when responding to the situation, don't respond based on emotion, but choose to stay centered in the moment. Creating a comfortable atmosphere for your child reduces feelings of shame and fear, and increases the likelihood he'll tell you what's going on before full-blown crisis mode occurs.
STEP TWO: Clearly communicate to your child how much you believe in his abilities, no matter what. Actively look for ways to help your child feel good, whole and accepted, regardless of the academic situation.
STEP THREE: Choose to see difficult situations as learning opportunities, and leverage setbacks as opportunities to understand what's not working and develop strategies to create forward movement. Navigate these situations in a calm, matter of fact way. The less emotion is involved, the easier it will be for your child to take accountability and ownership of the situation.
STEP FOUR: With a positive tone of I believe in you, you've totally got this, put the onus on your child. Walk your child through the situation in a way that puts him in the driver's seat to make important connections, instead of being told what to do. From there, co-create the appropriate action plan, and ask him how he plans to follow-through. Doing this in a way that's more "productive leader" than "stressed parent" is key.
STEP FIVE: Go out of your way to celebrate any successes that happen because, even if he doesn't let you know, feeling seen and heard will naturally make him motivated to keep putting in more effort in order to be his best self.
I leave you with a challenge. Think you can handle it? Commit to giving the Judgement Free Zone a try. For one week. Starting today. Trust me, you'll be amazed by how simple, yet game changing this one is.
Want tips to help take the stress out of schoolwork? Click here to download 10 Power Questions to Transform Any Student From Hot Mess to Academic Success.