How Parents Should React to Their Kids' Bad Grades to Help Them Succeed

Report cards can be stressful for kids and parents. In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a young adult explains a better way for parents to react to bad grades.

An image of a teen handing their parent a report card.
Photo: Illustration: Kailey Whitman.

Grades began negatively affecting my life outside of school at the end of the eighth grade. I was a very unhappy child, and my grades began to reflect that reality. At the time, I lived with my father—he was the sole parental figure in my life—and to say that my poor marks caused a strain in our relationship would be an understatement.

I was punished relatively severely when I got bad grades, and on more than one occasion I was forced to quit a club or sport that I had been participating in. This issue permeated into a large chunk of my high school experience, where I had absolutely no reference point for a healthy relationship with grades and report cards.

While I eventually corralled my own emotions enough to finish high school strong and attend one of the premier public universities in the country, I definitely feel as if my high school experience and relationship with learning, in general, could have been enhanced had my father responded differently to grades that didn't meet his expectations. Here's how I wish parents would react during report card season.

Listen To Your Child

School and grades are often not the first priority for a large portion of teens. Your teen may be dealing with stress at school or even at home that you're not aware of that could be impacting their ability to thrive in the classroom. They might also be struggling with an undiagnosed learning disability that is causing them to have a harder time than expected. Talk to your child about their grades. Ask them why they are having trouble without assumption or judgment. It's so important to reach out and truly listen and absorb what your child is saying.

Often, it can feel as if we're being talked at, rather than the dialogue being a true one-on-one conversation. A bit more of an empathetic approach from my father certainly would have lessened the weight of the many stressors I dealt with on a daily basis. I would have been more likely to ask my dad for help with schoolwork if I felt like he was listening to my concerns. Instead of dreading the day that the report card arrived in the mailbox, I could have been secure in the fact my school and grade-related anxiety had been resolved through clear and effective communication.

Choose Forgiveness

With so much expectation placed on teens to perform in all aspects of their lives, it can sometimes be frustrating to feel that the bar is set to an unreasonable standard. Just like everybody who has ever existed, teens are going to mess up. A lot of the time it will be a spectacular failure. However, failure is a component of life and a building block to eventual success. It's important that failure can be accepted and that forgiveness is the default response.

When debating punishment for a poor report card, it's good to remember that there are so many other skills that are more important for us to learn in school than just grades, and the research backs that up. "Strong social skills have been shown to more strongly relate to professional success in adulthood than GPA," says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and's 'Ask Your Mom' columnist. "Adolescents also report greater psychological well-being and internal motivation when we place greater focus on their effort or the process of learning instead of grades."

Dr. Edlynn adds that from her experience, "we are now seeing a link between high-achieving school cultures and significantly more risk for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and delinquent behaviors." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even designated kids in high-achieving schools as an at-risk group.

Had my father treated my poor report card as a temporary failure with potential underlying causes instead of a personal shortcoming of character or intelligence, I've no doubt my academic performance would have been greatly improved.

Be Your Child's Biggest Cheerleader

It might be a bit corny, but the sentiment is absolutely true. Children learn to treat themselves the way that their parents treat them, so choosing to empower them will help them to think highly of themselves. Once I surrounded myself with positive and supportive people, my life and grades improved drastically.

Knowing that your parents will support you through thick and thin is such a comforting thought that I believe that, had I had that in my life during high school, my ceiling would have been much higher than it ended up being.

An Expert Weighs In

"What's most important from a psychological point of view is if there is a sudden decline in a teen's grades—this can be a red flag for other underlying concerns, such as depression," says Dr. Edlynn. "I encourage parents to show interest in what else might be going on with their child to explain the lower grades. Having this open dialogue without judgment or punishment can then facilitate problem-solving together, helping a child feel understood, supported, and empowered."

Dr. Edlynn also says that parents who show empathy, take their child's perspective, and focus on their child's agency to manage the problem "actually relate to better academic outcomes, including higher internal motivation, a more positive attitude toward school, greater competence, and increased engagement and effort."

Zach Aleba is a 22-year-old college student whose major passion is writing in any capacity. A senior at Binghamton University, he studies English with a minor in French and is always looking for new ways to tell a story.

Read more Teen Talk columns here.

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