Responding with Compassion When Kids Don’t Make the Grade

Do you have a teen or pre-teen that is tough to motivate regarding school? Perhaps this scene seems familiar: Your daughter is consistently behind with schoolwork and does the minimal amount to keep adults off her back. When she does complete assignments they are disorganized and sloppy. You do your best to encourage her and she snaps back, “I don’t care about school! It’s stupid and useless. If you’d just stop nagging me I’d be fine!’

So you prepare yourself for battle and hope for the best. Something inside of you knows there is a better way, but you’re just not sure how to get there. You desire for your child to ultimately take responsibility for her life and pray your relationship isn’t damaged by the conflict.

There is hope! As a parent coach, working primarily with parents of teens, I’ve seen many parents find success, and I’d like to help you find it too. It helps to understand the cycle that often happens:

  • Anxiety about your child’s future causes you to worry that they will always struggle. Your child believes the message, “I am irresponsible.”
  • This belief discourages your child who becomes less, rather than more, responsible as she begins to fulfill your negative projection.
  • Your child’s growing irresponsibility causes you to rationalize doing things for her that she could do herself.
  • As you micro-manage her responsibilities the resentment grows.
  • You grow more discouraged and anxious, and the process starts over. This time with increasingly harmful long-term consequences and a relationship defined by power struggles.

If I regularly do things for my kids that they can do for themselves, it sends a message:
“You are are irresponsible and incapable of doing things on your own.”

Rather than focusing on what to do to get your child to perform the way you would like, consider four powerful “You are” messages that will begin to breathe life into your relationship.

1) You are SAFE with me.
When you have projected a negative future for your kids, it is highly likely that you are parenting out of fear and anxiety. Parents struggle to make good choices when fear and anxiety drive them. Consider changing the “my child is going to fail at life if they fail this class” belief to something more truth-filled. Something like, “If my child fails this class she can grow and learn and have an opportunity to do better next time.”

What you believe in your heart toward your child will come out of your mouth and be demonstrated by your actions. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus says, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Make it a point to listen to what you are saying to others (or yourself!) about your child’s struggles. It will be a key indicator of the beliefs inside you that will inadvertently become your child’s inner voice.

2) You are LOVED no matter what!
When your child believes her identity comes from her performance, rather than the value God has placed on her, she learns that she is only acceptable if she is doing well and “making the grade.”

It’s not a natural impulse, but move toward your struggling child, as you represent Christ’s love with affectionate words, playfulness or humor, and empathy: “You know what, I was never much of an Einstein myself, and broke a few pencils in math. I get how frustrating it can be!”

3) You are CALLED and CAPABLE.
Of all the things your child feels, capable is probably the least. A misbehaving, struggling child is a discouraged child. Look for small steps; perhaps ones you overlooked: “I noticed you passed three classes last year. In trying to push you to pass math, I didn’t even recognize the success you had in those other classes. I want to do a better job at that this year.”

Calling out even the most minimal effort will be an encouragement. (Believe me, the effort is there if you are willing to see it!) Philippians 4:8 teaches to focus on, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things”.

Start the school year (or next semester) with a few questions that build capability. Be prepared, but don’t react to, indifferent or negative responses:

  • How would you like school to go this year? (“I don’t know!!”)
  • What kinds of grades are you hoping for this year? (I’ve heard a child say “D+”)
  • What help do you want or need from me? (Likely response from discouraged child? “None! I’ll be fine. Leave me alone.”)

If you’ve been micro-managing, reset your involvement:

“I think I’ve been overinvolved in your education and it’s driven a wedge in our relationship. Would you agree? (head nod from child) I don’t want that kind of relationship anymore. I’m really sorry about that. I want you to be responsible for your grades because they are your grades and not mine. I believe you can do it and I want to support you in any way I can.  How about we check the parent portal together once every week; maybe Fridays. I won’t lecture you or even comment, but then we’ll both know where things stand.”

4) You are RESPONSIBLE.
Most parents want to begin here, but it is not the place to start. When your child’s academic performance is underwhelming, keep the three previous “You Are” messages in mind. In essence, what messages are you communicating?

When checking in on Friday there may be some consequences you need to put in place, but not as a punitive, angry response. If your child gets way behind, a natural impact would be a failing grade or your child needing to negotiate with a teacher about how to catch up. (Negotiation is a good skill to develop!) If some basic and clear expectations aren’t met and a more immediate impact is needed, an agreement could be reached with your child to forfeit whatever weekend privilege tends to distract them.

Your child needs to learn how to be responsible for her grades, choices, time management and ultimately, her life. She is growing and learning and is a work in progress. God expects us to make mistakes, knowing they can be a wonderful learning opportunity. Failures may be more valuable for kids’ growth than their successes!  Galatians 6:7 says, “a man reaps what he sows.” As we let our kids have more freedom to learn the sowing and reaping principle for themselves we can relax and be their encourager instead of their manager!  

When the weight of responsibility shifts from parent to child, the parent is free to empathize and walk alongside their struggling child. This builds a connective rather than adversarial relationship. This can be a big and scary step! Your family is worth it.


If you are struggling with a child’s lack of motivation and are unsure how to free your family from judgement and anxiety, consider working with one of our parent coaches.

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