At a glance
Kids who struggle in school often get frustrated with school and question its importance.
How you talk to your child about frustrations can make a big difference.
Sometimes it’s better to do more listening than talking.
School can be really tough for some kids. And as classes get harder in the upper grades, kids’ frustrations and insecurities can blow up. Your tween or teen might start questioning the importance of school, or actually threaten to quit a class or school itself.
Upsetting as that may be, your child probably isn’t doing that just to get a rise out of you. Understanding what your teen or tween is dealing with can help you find solutions to make school more bearable. And what you say — and how you say it — can help shape your child’s attitude going forward.
Here are some common scenarios, and suggestions for how to handle them.
Your child isn’t interested in the classes or lessons.
How it might come up: Looking through the class offerings or next semester’s schedule, your child groans, “Are you kidding? What’s the point of any of these classes?”
You may be tempted to say: “Well, the school thinks they’re all important subjects.”
Instead, try saying: “What would you like to learn next year? What do you think would be useful to you? Let’s check out the descriptions together and see which ones you think are interesting.”
Why say this? Kids might not know what a course involves just by its title. When your child sees what topics will actually be covered, it might start to seem more interesting.
Or maybe your child can switch to another course. When kids have a say in the classes they take, they often feel more invested in them. Some classes may be required. But emphasize the choices your child does have — within subjects, for instance. Every student may have to take a science class, but they might get to decide whether it’s physics, biology, or chemistry.
Your child is getting bad grades.
How it might come up: Your child’s teacher calls home (again) to talk about a failing math grade. Your child explodes, “I don’t care! I just can’t do this stuff. I hate that place!”
You may be tempted to say: “That’s too bad, because going to school is your job.”
Instead, try saying: “Yes, math is hard for you. But what your frustration tells me is that you do care. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reacting like this. And because you care, we’re going to find a way to make math class better. Let’s find a day when we can meet with your teacher to talk about solutions.”
Why say this? Consistently doing poorly in school can make kids feel frustrated, and even hopeless. It helps kids when they hear ideas and strategies they haven’t tried yet. It can motivate them to keep going.
Your child thinks school is just about getting into college.
How it might come up: SAT prep classes are wearing on your child. You might hear, “I’m never going to get into college anyway, so I don’t know why I have to be at school anymore.”
You may be tempted to say: “You are going to college. And these tests are supposed to be helping you get in!”
Instead, try saying: “Taking the SAT doesn’t mean you have to go to college. The purpose of high school is to open all kinds of different opportunities to you later in life. That might include college, and it might not. Yes, these tests are hard. So let’s make sure you’re getting the help you may need to show what you know. And if you don’t like the idea of college, then we can talk to the guidance team about different options for after you graduate.”
Why say this? Tweens and teens tend to live in the moment. They may have trouble envisioning the future clearly. That makes it hard for them to think about the costs and benefits of their decisions. What you can do now is to help your child make decisions that will keep options open in the future — when your young adult is ready to think farther ahead.
Your child feels like no one understands.
How it might come up: Your child struggles with reading, just like you did, and is really having a hard time with school. You might hear, “It’s just too hard for me. It must have been different for you.”
You may be tempted to say: “Hey, I made it through because I worked hard and didn’t feel sorry for myself. And I turned out OK.”
Instead, try saying: “My reading issues made school really hard for me, too. I felt jealous when I saw other kids having such an easy time. But tell me, what’s it like for you in English class?”
Why say this? Listening to and validating your child’s emotions can help your child feel less lonely, and less like a victim. This shows that you care and that you don’t assume your experiences are exactly the same. That understanding can help you work together to find solutions for your child’s specific challenges.
Your child has tried and tried, and is just ready to give up.
How it might come up: After many months of threatening to drop out, your child is taking a stand: “I’m not going back there.”
You may be tempted to say: “Oh, yes, you are.”
Instead, try saying: “So, what then? I get it, you’ve been frustrated for a long time. We’ve tried a lot of things. But dropping out and doing nothing isn’t an option. What should we do next?”
You may need to guide your child through the process of exploring all options. But that process shows your child there are more opportunities available. And together you might decide that the current school is the best option after all.
When your teen or tween refuses to go to school or wants to quit, it’s easy to get frustrated yourself. But keep in mind that those threats are usually a sign of frustration. Try using a frustration log to get a better idea of what your child is struggling with. And find out what to do if your child is falling behind in school.
You can’t make your child like school. But you can help your child see how it will open opportunities over time.
Try not to assume that your school experiences are the same as your child’s.
If your child truly doesn’t feel capable of continuing, work with an advisor or guidance counselor to come up with alternatives.
About the author
About the author
Lexi Walters Wright is the former community manager at Understood. As a writer and editor, she helps parents make more informed choices for their children and for themselves.
Bob Cunningham, EdM has been part of Understood since its founding. He’s also been the chief administrator for several independent schools and a school leader in general and special education.