I remember in high school the first time I brought home a report card with a B. It stood out like a neon light between all the A’s and screamed the words I’d been running from for years. “You’re not perfect. You’re a failure.”
There’s no reward in normal.
The years of pristine, unstained report cards before had gone almost unnoticed with a glance and barely a smile from my parents. No ‘great job’, ‘well done’ or ‘we’re so proud of you’. Just the nonchalance of every day normal that didn’t warrant a comment, hug or special meal.
That less than perfect B got their attention though.
“What happened here?”, my dad asked with a straight face and serious tone.
“Um, I don’t know”, I said shamefully lowered my gaze to avoid eye contact.
My Dad skipped 3 grades in school and had a nearly photographic memory which he passed on to me. He didn’t get B’s.
That was the beginning of my unraveling. Over the next 2 years, I went from being an award winning, academic and athletic student with straight As to skipping school and failing. My parents did what they thought would work to slap me back to being the perfect child. The one they liked and made them look good.
I was grounded on many occasions, verbally disciplined, and reminded I couldn’t learn if I didn’t show up.
“We can’t help you if you won’t ask for help.”
“You’re just being lazy. Life isn’t always easy you know, it takes work.”
“What happened to you? We don’t even know who you are.”
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It’s not that hard.
Every day you ask your teen, “Have you done your assignment?” You’re checking online to see their work was handed in and you feel like a nag, yet the calls from teachers keep coming, pressing all your ‘I must be failing as a parent’ buttons.
Failure is weak.
When you offer your teen tutoring, counselling, or therapy, yet they refuse. The extra support makes sense to you, but to your teen, they reinforce their story of being a failure.
In a desperation measure, you remove their sports or clubs. Why should they get to do the fun stuff if they won’t do the work? Isn’t that like rewarding bad behaviour?
That’s their lifeline.
It’s the place your teen feels normal and confident while being with friends. It’s the place they go to escape their stress and anxiety where they can breathe.
The more you create consequences and punishment for their falling or failing grades, the more you send the message that failure isn’t an option, and your love is conditional.
You’re not enough, not loveable.
Your teen already failed their own expectations and looked to you for a safe place to land, finding shame, criticism, and condemnation in your best intentions. They need you to listen to their feelings and troubling thoughts about declining grades or not making the team having previously been a starter.
Your teen wants to know you love them even when they miss the mark. Especially then.
Their anxiety builds with emotions they can’t name, explain, or process so they become angrier and more lost, unable to develop new strategies or coping techniques on their own.
Anxiety becomes avoidance.
Avoidance, which looks like defiance or apathy, is when anxiety has gone beyond a coping level where it is unsafe. When you try anything, you have a 50:50 chance of success, however you define it. Trying requires 2 critical ingredients:
- Confidence – holding sufficient belief that success is possible
- Safety – knowing the risk and price of failing
Your teen doesn’t have a lack of motivation. Motivation comes from confidence and matters more than competence.
Throughout our youngest son’s grade 12 year, my husband and I told stories about our failures during dinner. We talked about failing tests and courses in university, how crappy we felt and how terrified we were our parents would find out.
As our son headed to university this past September, we wanted him to know it’s totally okay to fail and we love him regardless of his grades. We made it clear he could change his mind at any point, and we wouldn’t be upset.
Create safety with empathy.
I recently had this discussion with a parent in my mastermind program. Her son was failing math and she made it handing in assignments was more important than grades. He was refusing the tutor she’d chosen and she considered taking away his sports.
Instead, she shared how much she hated math and stories of failing tests. She told him it was ok not to like it and understood why he might be avoiding it.
Rather than being the judge, jury and critic, she became his ally by sharing his desire to stay on the football team. “We just have to get you through.”
We, not you. Her son wasn’t in it alone anymore and she’d made it safe to try. Within a week, he’d interviewed and chosen a math tutor and his assignments were being handed in.
If you want to know more about being your teen’s ally so they feel safe to try, join me in The Empowered Parent Community. I’ll be answering your questions and addressing challenges with personalized answers on December 21st at 1pmPT.
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