Teen Getting Poor Grades & Being Suspended
attended your lecture on Positive Discipline held at Mira Costa on the
21st, because I really need help on where to go from here. I have an
almost 13 year old boy who is testing his limits (and mine). What would
be the best approach for me in the following instances:
getting poor grades in two of his classes so I said until the grades are
back up to an acceptable grade he was grounded from everything!
Obviously this was before your lecture. Just as he gets A's on the next
two tests (after just one week) he gets a detention at school for
spitting a spit wad. Now I am really showing my disappointment, but let
him have his life back. The following week he gets another detention for
misusing the computers in the library. At this point he just knows how
disappointed his father and I are. That same night he is at a friend's
and the four friends get into mischief by damaging the neighbors
property. On all the occasions he said he did things even though he knew
they were wrong but he didn't want his friends to think he was weak and
didn't want to be seen as NOT COOL. How should I handle this kind of
stuff? Please help.Answer:
Your questions remind me of why I wrote Positive Discipline for Teenagers
with Lynn Lott. I was having similar
problems and was at my wits end. It took us two years to write
that book because I had to get past my fears and test the
methods to see if they would work. They do even though I was
never able to be perfect about applying them all the time.. Let
me see if I can condense a whole book (ha ha) to answer your
question. I hardly know where to start which concepts to share
and which to leave out.
I'll start with discouragement. As we say in all of our books,
"A misbehaving child is a discouraged child." When children are
discouraged, they chose one of the "four mistaken goals of
behavior" mistaken because their real goal is to belong (feel
connected) and they mistakenly try one of the following in a
mistaken effort of what it takes to belong, or to handle the
disappointment of not belonging. 1) Undue attention, 2)
misguided power, 3) revenge, 4) assumed inadequacy. I will point
out that it doesn't matter if you think he belongs; his behavior
is based on what he thinks.
So, the first question I would ask is what is your son
discouraged about, and what mistaken goal is he choosing to deal
with that discouragement? I'll make some guesses. It sounds as
though he feel discouraged about:
1. Getting poor grades.
2. Disappointing you. (It really hurts to feel that you are a
disappointment to your parents.)
3. His worthiness to be accepted by his friends.
I'm sure there is a lot more on his plate as there is on the
plates of all teenagers as they go through the huge
individuation process of trying to figure out who they are
separate from their values.
As you look at what he is discouraged about you might wonder,
"If he doesn't want to get poor grades, why doesn't he study?
"If he doesn't want to disappoint me, why doesn't he do what I
ask him to do? And, why can't he just be himself and to heck
with anyone who doesn't like him?" Sounds logical, but human
beings aren't logical when they are discouraged. (It sounds as
though you are discouraged and are doing some illogical things
yourself. If you were him, would you feel encouraged by the
things you are doing to him?) I say that in the spirit of
awareness not blame. Both of you mean well, but obviously
aren't getting the results you would like.
I don't have the time or space to talk more about the four
mistaken goals, and how your feelings help you "decode" what his
behavior is all about. (We have whole chapters on this in all of
the Positive Discipline books.) I will offer some suggestions
and hope they make sense without more background. All of them
are designed to provide encouragement because of my knowledge
that children do better when they feel better. Choose one or two
that fits for you or do them all at different times.
1. Love and accept him unconditionally. Let him know, "I
would love it if you got good grades, but I love you even more
than my expectations. I hope you'll choose to get good grades,
but if you don't I will love you anyway, and I have faith in you
that you'll be successful in your life no matter what you do."
2. Validate his feelings. First you have to listen to find out
what they are. You can also make some guesses. "I'll bet you
feel disappointed about not getting better grades." (Notice that
validating his feelings is much different than sharing your own
disappointment.) "It must feel terrible to worry about how to
make your friends like you, and to be afraid that they won't
like you if you just be yourself." "It must hurt a lot if you
think that your grades are more important to me than you are."
You don't have to do anything more. Just having their feelings
validated can be a very encouraging experience for kids and it
may take awhile for it to sink in. (I want to point out that
many kids today feel so hurt by their parents disappointment
[conditional love] that they go into revenge and fail just to
hurt their parents back.)
3. Help him explore the consequences of his choices and
problem-solve through curiosity questions:
"How do you feel about your grades?"
"What would you like to accomplish?"
"What do you think causes you to get poor grades?"
"What do you think would solve the problem to help you get you
what you want?"
This is a tough one for most parents because they want their
children to give the answers they want and to lecture at them
if they don't. This is effective only if your son "gets" that
you really care about what he thinks. Here are some more:
"I'm really curious about the spit wad incident. I'm wondering
how you feel about it?
"I'm wondering what you hoped to accomplish."
"Could it be that you think this is a good way to appear cool'
to the other kids?"
"How do you think the other kids feel about you when you do
"How do you feel about yourself?"
Even as I write these, I can see how dangerous the questions
could be if there is any sense of accusation instead of
curiosity on your part. That is one reason these questions
should never be asked when either of you is upset.
4. Set up some special times with him dates that the two of
you look forward to just spending time together. This can be a
little tricky with adolescents who start thinking it isn't
"cool" to be seen with their parents. You could joke with him
and say, "We could go to McDonald's in the next town, so no one
with see you with your mom." Of course this time could be an
hour once a week when you sit down together and play a board
game. Or, you could take him to the library once a week
whatever would be enjoyable to both of you. The point is to let
him know you look forward to spending some time with him just
the two of you. (It would be nice if he had a similar
arrangement with his father.)
5. My last suggestion for now is to think back to your teen
years. What did you receive from your parents that made you feel
special or what do you wish you had received? Give that to
There are many other points to make such as the perception
that what I'm advising sometimes looks like permissiveness. I'm
as much against permissiveness as I'm against punishment.
Positive Discipline is about kindness and firmness at the same
time. There are many kind and firm things you can do AFTER you
establish a base of encouragement. I hope you can see that what
you have been doing (and what I was doing before I learned
better) is to create a cycle of discouragement. I urge you to
try nothing but encouragement for two weeks and see for yourself
how magical it can be.
My best to you,
Dear Dr. Nelsen,
I promise I won't make this a habit - of writing to you sooo
often. I wanted to let you know how timely your answer came to
me. I just finished reading your suggestions, when my son asked
if he could go to Knott's Berry Farm today. It is a holiday from
school, and a parent was going to drop five kids off and pick up
later this evening.
My first reaction was to say NO I can't
trust you yet, you need to earn the this privilege back. Well,
after reading your suggestions I said," well, you know, I feel
very good about letting you go with your friends. After our
recent discussions I know you will make very wise choices, so go
and have a great time. Would you call me later to let me know
when you are returning so I have an idea when to expect you?" He
was so surprised and I actually saw a twinkle in his eye. I have
tears as I am telling you this. I feel great and I know he does
THANK YOU for your sharing your wisdom and thank you for
the perfect timing of your e-mail. He just called to say he was
having a blast (something he NEVER would have done in the past)!
Hopefully I won't be e-mailing you for a long time now.
Thank you for sharing............this encourages all parents of teens. It's tough to not take what our teens do as personal to us. I had tears in my eyes too, as I know being a parent of 3 teens that we need to be reminded that we can still love and SHOW our teens we love them even when their choices wouldn't be ours.
thank you Jane!