Motivating Adolescents to Succeed Academically

How can I help my 14-year-old son turn his grades around, especially when he doesn't see the need for getting assistance from me or anybody else? He's been falling behind in school and recently brought home 2 "Ds." I used to tutor him when he was younger, but for the last two years he's refused my help. Right now the only thing that seems to interest him is basketball. I really don't want to threaten taking that away, since it's the only extracurricular activity he has. If I do, I'm afraid he'll withdraw. We are very isolated from family and friends, too, but that's another story. Any suggestions or recommendations?

During their early teen years, most kids go through a normal time of individuation. In other words, they start becoming more independent of their parents. This is the beginning of their journey into adulthood. The process can be very difficult for some parents to understand or accept. If they had a close relationship with their child when he was younger it can be very hurtful when they sense that he’s pulling away.

We’re guessing that this may have something to do with your son’s reasons for resisting your offers of academic assistance. At age 14, he’s in the middle of the process of individuation. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to get around this. We’d suggest that you work closely with his school to find him a tutor in those subjects where he’s struggling. You should also stay in close contact with his classroom teachers, preferably on a weekly basis. That way he can get the help he needs without feeling that he’s dependent upon you.

You mentioned you don’t want to threaten to take away his basketball privileges. That’s very kind, compassionate, and thoughtful of you, but you may want to reconsider. It’s possible that you’re depriving yourself of the most effective weapon in your arsenal. Since basketball is your son’s favorite activity, it may turn out to be your ace in the hole – the one thing that will motivate him to work harder academically. We recommend that you have a private conversation with his basketball coach, express your concerns, and ask him if he’d be willing to make continued participation on the team dependent upon your son’s grades. We have a feeling that he’ll go along with the plan. Most good coaches want their players to succeed in class as well as on the court.

One last thought. Your anxieties about withdrawal might actually be more significant than you suspect. There is in fact a chance that your son is depressed, and depression could be contributing to his problems in school. This seems all the more likely in light of the fact that you’re isolated from family and friends. If he is depressed, your first concern is to address this aspect of the situation. As it happens, we have a wonderful telephone Counseling department here at Focus on the Family. They can give you some guidance on helping your son and, if necessary, refer you to a licensed Christian therapist in your area. Call us for a free consultation.


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