Parental Guilt Over Child’s Academic Failure

How do we manage our deep sense of failure as parents after learning that our son is being held back a year in school? How do we help him understand why he didn't pass his grade level? What should we do if the other kids start to tease him about it?

We think you need to take a deep breath and relax. In the first place, a child’s problems and struggles are not necessarily a parent’s failures. In the second place, failure of any kind is simply a normal and natural part of human life.

Why are we telling you this? Because we’ve noticed that many parents and teachers nowadays seem fearful of allowing children to face up to disappointments. All too often adults try to put a positive spin on everything that happens to a child, believing that this is the way to preserve a healthy self-image, when in actuality it would be far more beneficial to help him see his situation for what it is.

Being held back in school isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes it can turn out to be an unforeseen blessing. But before jumping over to the good stuff, perhaps it would be a good idea to let your child linger on the negative side of the question – at least for a while. Give him some time to feel his pain and loss. This in itself can be a character-building experience as a well as a valuable spiritual lesson. People who know what it means to trust in the Lord also know how to take defeat and disappointment in stride. It’s when we’ve been through “the wormwood and the gall” and come out on the other side that we’re able to say “the Lord is my portion” and really mean it (Lamentations 3:19-24).

Once past this difficult part of the process you can begin to accentuate the positive aspects of the situation. For an elementary-school child, repeating a grade can be a great opportunity to nail down the basic skills that are so crucial to future educational success. It can also give him the time he needs to develop emotional intelligence and maturity. That’s not to mention that his status as an older and possibly bigger and stronger kid will give him a social edge with his classmates. We’ll grant you that this experience is harder on a teenager, but even at this stage it’s important for a student to solidify his foundations before moving ahead. Anything that’s worth doing is worth doing well, and if that requires an extra year of work there’s no permanent harm done.

Where the teasing is concerned, it’s important to realize that there are limits to what you as a parent can do. To a certain extent, children have to learn how to face adversities of this kind on their own. Perhaps it would be possible for your son to enlist the help of his teachers or other school authorities. When provoked, he might say, “These other kids are pushing me to the edge, and I don’t want to strike back. Can you help me?” Meanwhile, do everything you can to bolster his confidence and reassure him of his value as a person. If his classmates call him “stupid,” ask him if he believes it. Talk things through with him until he sees how silly it is to take childish insults and bullying to heart.

We should add that this is a good time to ask yourself exactly why your child has been struggling in school and to take some pro-active steps to remedy the situation. Does he have a learning style that doesn’t fit the traditional educational model? If so, perhaps you should think about transferring him to another school. Thankfully, there are a number of alternatives available to families in your position today. As preparation for such a move, it would be a good idea to have him evaluated by a school psychologist or learning-style specialist. Is he suffering from a disability such as ADHD or dealing with family tensions and conflicts? If either case, you’d be wise to seek out the help of a professional counselor or family therapist.

Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with referrals to qualified Christian counselors practicing in your community. Our staff would also consider it a privilege to discuss your needs and concerns with you over the phone. Don’t hesitate to call us.


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