Parenting Adolescents


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Dear Jean:
My husband and I have been struggling with my 14 yr old. He is generally a really, really good kid. Recently he got his first "real" girlfriend and his grades in math started dropping. Math is one of his easiest subjects and he loves it. We tried to help him out along the way and I have been in constant contact with his math teacher. His grade was at an F for the past 2 weeks, due to work not being completed properly. Well here it is about a week or so away from report cards and he has a D. My husband and I have explained to him that grounding for 2 weeks would follow the bad grade. We took away his cell, video games and he is not allowed to stay after school to socialize. He came home the first day of his grounding and said his girlfriend broke-up with him but didn’t tell him why. We allowed him his cell phone back that night so he could talk to her and find out why. Well they got back together, and now he is depressed because the only time he has a chance to see her is after school. 

We feel that having a girlfriend and spending an hour after school everyday is affecting his grades in school. He has never really been grounded before, maybe once or twice for a week. Does the punishment fit the crime? 

Jean responds:
Thanks for writing to It seems to me there are a couple of different issues you're struggling with: 
  • the fear that he will not continue to do as well as he has in the past in school grades 
  • the fear generally of the consequences to him of being in a first serious relationship with a girl 
  • uncertainty about how to set and enforce limits and consequences

No one can argue that school achievement is not important. Your son knows this. However, there are also other really important things teens focus on, including relationships with boy/girlfriends and with peers generally. A friend of mine has a very bright, accomplished young son of 13 who tells her that he knows school is the most important thing--almost as important as friends!

It's reasonable to assume that your son's emotions around this relationship are distracting him from some of his school work. I would expect that. The real question is, what ought you to do about it, if anything?

First off, there's nothing--nothing--you can do to prevent his having feelings for and about this girl and his relationship to her. As he's already demonstrated to you, he's either happy or depressed depending often on the state of that relationship. So in fact, whatever you do or don't do, you have to take account of his feelings about this girl--even if they break up. If the relationship does break up permanently, there will be a new source of distraction, namely, his grief and probably some level of self-blame.

Perhaps, then, it might be good to start with acknowledging the significance, to him, of the relationship with the girl. You might want to invite him to talk about her and what he sees in her, what they like to do together, and so on--perhaps to drain off some of the energy invested there. Have her over for dinner or something if you haven't; get to know her. Familiarity will take away some of the 'forbidden fruit' excitement that probably distracts him.

He already knows that it's not so cool to be failing math. Ask him what he plans to do about his falling grades there--what is his plan for addressing this? And give him a chance to bring the grade up, by a certain deadline--for instance, the next mid-term grade report. The standard is to bring the grade up to passing--you can't demand more--and if he does it, fine. If he doesn't then you tell him, in advance, that you'll feel like you have to do something, as a responsible parent, so you'll institute a study hour. (Search out the Archives for how to do this--search on 'study hour'.)

I think it's dangerous to diagnose too much, i.e., try to say what's causing what. You're not sure whether it's the girlfriend and staying after school for an hour that accounts for the downturn in the grades. Let him struggle with how to mend it, rather than you stepping in to say it's this or that so you can no longer do this or that.

Grounding, in my opinion, is often over-used. If all that you're basically concerned about is the grades, then just use what I've suggested--ask him for a plan to bring the grade up to passing, give him a chance to do it, if he doesn't institute a study hour.

Meantime, invite him to share with you his feelings about this girl. If the relationship breaks up, be there to pick up the pieces.

He has to fall down in order to learn. Give him a chance. Don't panic. Even if he failed math, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Try to keep your cool, and negotiate with him around his performance at school, rather than 'laying down the law.'

Good luck. I know it's hard--especially to control your own anxiety. 

Disclaimer: Ms. Walbridge's response to your question is intended to be educational and informative. It is not a substitute for face to face consultation with a mental health professional.


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