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When a Teen Goes from As to Cs (or Worse) What Should a Parent Do?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

At the end of school last year, your teen was sitting pretty.

The solid final report card looked like this:

Math: A

Science: B+

English: A

History: A

Spanish: B

A solid GPA.  A little over 3.5. That’s good.

So far this year, things seem to be going well, from everything you can tell. Your teen is happy with their classes and happy with their friends. That’s why you haven’t been keeping up with their grades on the online portal your school sent you the username and access code for. This time last year, you checked that site every day. But things went so well through the winter and spring, you figured this year, your teen would simply pick up where they left off.

So you haven’t logged in and checked grades yet.

Then you get the 8-week report.

And things aren’t going well.

Here’s what it looks like:

Math: C

Science: C-

English: D

History: B

Spanish: D

That’s a far-from-solid GPA of 1.75.

Now, we’re not saying GPA is a measure of the sum total of your teen’s value as a human being – far from it. You know that equally – or possibly more – important are their social and emotional skills, their physical health, and their overall well-being.

But when grades drop like that in just two months of school – what do you do?

Is this new GPA like a canary in a coal mine?

Are things going south for your teen, fast?

Are they in trouble?

Here’s What You Can Do

We’ll step away from grades for just a moment and take a look at the big parenting picture.

Let’s go back to when your teen was younger. Like three years old. You’re at the playground, and you witness a mishap: a fall off the swing, a slip and tumble down the rope ladder connected to the play structure, or an accidental stick in the eye.

Back then, if you knew the accident was bad – just by watching it – you probably freaked out a little bit. You sprinted over, scooped that kid up, and comforted them with hugs and kisses. Your instinct was to swoop in and protect that child. Your goal was to fix whatever was wrong, and you knew you could do it – because you’re the parent and that’s what you do.

Flash forward to the moment you read that first report card of this year: the one that shows your teen’s GPA fell from a solid B to a D.

Do you freak out? Do you sprint over and cover your kid with hugs and kisses? Do you instantly swoop in and fix everything?

No, no, and no.

You don’t do all that – because your child is not three and you don’t know the whole story.

You think it could be an emergency – and it could be.

And do you know what the best way to respond to an emergency is?

You don’t freak out.

Here’s something we learned a long time ago, back when one of us here at Evolve took a Wilderness Rescue Course high up in the Sierra Mountains in California. We’ll offer it as-is, then translate it to your current situation.

In case of emergency, you take the following three steps, in this order:

  1. You check yourself.
  2. You check the group.
  3. You check the victim.

Ready for the translation?

A Deliberate Response

Granted, no analogy is air-tight, but stick with us.

Here’s what we mean:

  1. Check yourself. Whatever is going on with your teen, extreme emotional input on your part is neither required nor necessary. In fact, it can be counterproductive. Remember the playground scenario? Back then, you knew that if you hadn’t actually seen what happened, rushing over freaking out could turn a non-incident into an emotional scene. Same thing here: check your emotions and calm yourself first. Then move on to Step 2.
  2. Check the group. In this instance, we substitute family for group. Before you put your teen under a microscope, check your family. By check, we mean ask yourself these questions:
    • Has anyone in your family undergone hardship? Did your spouse lose a job, or do they have a new job that requires them to be away from home more than they were last year?
    • Has an older sibling gone away to college? Or moved out of the house for another reason?
    • Has anyone in the family developed a serious illness – physical, psychological, or emotional?
    • Has anyone in the family had an accident with serious injury?
    • Has there been a death in the family?

Start with those five questions and go from there. We bet you see what we’re getting at.

  1. Check the victim. In this instance, we substitute teen for victim. Before you discuss the grades with your teen, take an objective look at what’s going on. First, the school and classes: are they taking more challenging, more advanced classes than ever before? Second, the social situation: does your teen have a new friend group this year that you’re not familiar with? New faces, new names, new interests? Third, think about the things only you would know: is your teen getting enough sleep? Eating right? Getting enough exercise? Finally, how is their mood? Have they withdrawn? Become sad? Angry? Erratic? Pay attention and note any significant changes.

Once you go through this checklist and gather all the relevant information, it’s time to have a talk with your teen about that report card.

Talk to Your Teen

The content of this conversation depends on what you learn when you go through the three steps above. If you’re okay, and everything in your home life is stable and unchanged, that’s when you start to focus in on your teen and what’s going on with them, personally. If they’re in a new school, the transition might have them on the back foot. If they’re taking harder classes, that could explain the drop in grades. If they’re not sleeping well, eating healthy, and getting exercise, those three things can affect school performance.

If all those things are stable, unchanged, or you determine they’re not a factor, it’s time to consider that something else – something serious – may be going on with your teenager. Changing peer groups can indicate a shift to risky behaviors, which could lead to a drop in grades. Pronounced changes in mood and behavior can indicate the onset of a mental health disorder, the symptoms of which can be extremely uncomfortable and disruptive, and lead to a drop in grades.

If you suspect your teen is developing a mental health disorder, or perhaps experimenting with alcohol or drugs, and on the verge of developing an alcohol or substance use disorder, it’s time to make an appointment with a mental health professional experienced in working with teenagers. They can perform a full assessment of your teen, and help you determine what needs to happen next. Your teen may simply need to buckle down and study, or they may need professional support.

Either way, there’s good reason for optimism: studying can improve grades, and evidence shows professional support and treatment helps teens manage the symptoms and effects emotional, behavioral, or alcohol/substance use disorders.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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