Most of our kids want to do well in school, and as parents, we want them to, because we look at that as the first test of their ability to be okay in a competitive world.

Many of the teens that come to see me in my office for therapy are struggling with mental health issues that are exacerbated by their failures to measure up academically. The school stress they are experiencing worsen their mental health issues. Often they have learning disabilities on top of these mental health issues that are unaddressed or unaccounted for. As a therapist, my job is to understand their perspective and help their parents in some instances to understand and to make a plan to help them. Understanding their perspective is not that difficult. They open up to me because I am not their parents.

They make complain about their homework, the boring subject matter, unfair teachers, unreasonable expectations, and in most cases these are things I find to be true. Classrooms continue to deliver learning in environments that are substandard, to teach outdated curricula, and to use delivery methods such as chalkboard lecturing that don't maximize learning. It's hard to defend these things. Kids may also tell me about their difficulty with learning subject matter because they can't keep up, can't stay organized, they don't understand, they don't want to do the readings, or they can't pay attention. So much school stress seems unnecessary. 

In the role of a therapist, I am listening for where they may be struggling due to depression, or that their anxiety is playing a role, or they struggle with ADHD, or that they have dyslexia or some other learning disability. I might need to make a recommendation for an evaluation, a tutor, or an iep meeting. My only agenda as a therapist is to listen to the child's experience.

I know that my teens are bright capable creative beings who could otherwise be extremely successful if they had the opportunity to be supported in their educational environments, but instead, they often have school stress and  experiences that crush their spirits and harm their self-esteem.

In many cases, children receive harsh punishments or criticism from their parents, who are well-meaning but don't understand why their children are not successful in school. In some cases, parents continue to put pressure on their children to take more and more advanced placement subjects or difficult curriculum classes without regard for the impact on their mental health. In these cases, where children feel pressure to please their parents but unable to meet their standards, they are more likely to cheat and lie. That doesn't go over well.

Parents' behavior is usually motivated by the fear that children will not be successful in life. Fear motivates much of our interactions with our children, but it colors our judgment. When we are acting out of fear we are likely to make less mindful and intentional parenting choices. Things go wrong.

In the role of therapist, I have an easier time spotting all of these issues. When I am the role of parent, I don't have an easy time at all. I have been in the role of putting too much pressure on my child, losing my temper, and letting fear get the best of me despite all of my 25 years of practice with empathy and compassion.

Fear can cause us to be blind to how children are feeling, why they are struggling and what they need from us. In most cases of children who are struggling in school, in my experience, it's not because they want to do poorly but there is a skill deficit of some sort at play. We need to understand what that is, figure out how to help them, and adjust our expectations accordingly. We especially need to build on their strengths and limit our criticism.

Teachers, who are underappreciated and underpaid, and often subjected to abusive work environments, are sometimes not able to act from a kind compassionate place. Teenagers I work with are extremely impacted by their interactions with teachers. A few unkind words or interactions with a teacher can have a scarring impact on a child. I hear about these interactions over and over in my office. Conversely, a teacher who cares can change a student's life. Children on the brink of depressive episodes can be lifted out of them by positive interactions and encouraging words from teachers that believe in them.

Working with teachers in my practice has also helped me to be more empathetic and compassionate towards them when dealing with them as an advocate for a child who is struggling. Recognizing anger at a teacher for their behavior and understanding where it might be coming from, and finding the best way to tap into your compassion for their possible circumstance before approaching the situation can be helpful as well.

You are likely to get much further when considering this, then if you approach a teacher with frustration.

I'll end this post with a poem I love:

"What You Missed That Day You Were Absent From Fourth Grade"


Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.

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