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Should You Care About Your Teen’s Grades?

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 >

Many parents wonder how much they should be involved in their children’s education. Should they help their child do homework and study for tests? Should they advocate for their child in school if they feel that a teacher isn’t being fair?

And most importantly, how much should they care about grades?

These are all important questions every parent has to answer.

Parental Involvement is Good

First, let’s get one thing straight: being involved in your child’s life, in general, is a good thing. Study after study shows that children of involved parents have fewer mental health and emotional problems than children of parents who take a laissez-faire, disinterested approach.

Parents really need to spend time with their children, know who they’re hanging out with, be aware of what’s going on in their life, and ask them questions. If you monitor your kids and stay involved in their lives, whether it’s at school, home, or elsewhere, research shows you’re doing the right thing.

Too Much Parental Involvement Might Not Be

However, there is such a thing as too much parental involvement. Being too invested in your child’s life, specifically when it comes to areas of performance or success, often backfires.

Jessica Lahey, educator and expert on the topics of adolescents, schooling, and addiction, has written about things like grades in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other magazines. She also wrote a book called The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

In an article for the Washington Post, Lahey warns that caring too much about grades can often result in “outcome love,” which she defines as “a transaction in which parents bestow the reward of love in exchange for their children’s success, and withdraw that love as punishment for failures.”

In other words, if the child performs well in a certain task – academics, sports, or piano, for instance – the parent showers them with affection and positive reinforcement. If the adolescent performs poorly, the parent dispenses negative reinforcement – either by withholding affection, criticizing, ignoring the child, or even responding harshly.

Outcome Love and Grades

Lahey writes:

“Outcome love impedes children’s happiness as well as their success in life because despite what parents may say to children about unconditional love, they hear parents most acutely through their actions.”

Meaning that if you care about your teen’s grades so much that you send (even unspoken) messages of disappointment and frustration when grades are low, then that’s a problem. If you simply want to be involved in your child’s schooling and aim to keep tabs on how they’re doing with academics, that’s okay – but you have to make sure you send the same messages of love no matter what their grades are.

In a nutshell, parents should not dispense positive warmth and love based on success in school.

They should provide that love always, unconditionally.

Process Over Product

Parents who care too much about grades – and by too much we mean parents who show frustration or sadness when their kids fail to live up to their expectations – can end up with adolescents who have mental health issues like codependency, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

Lahey adds that parents are only human, and it’s natural to feel a twinge of disappointment when children fail at something. But, instead of being disappointed about the letter grade, focus on the process of how your child earned that grade. Ask about the process of learning, rather than the end product.

So, instead of berating your adolescent for getting a B minus on a test, you can ask “Did you feel you studied hard enough?”

Lahey suggests several other approaches as well:

  • How did you prepare for the assessment or project?
  • What might you do differently next time? What was successful, and what do feel you need to change?
  • Did you get enough sleep the night before the test or did you stay up for “just one more hour” to review?
  • Did you speak with the teacher to get feedback on what worked and what did not?

And if you have a high-achieving teen, a perfectionist, or one who gets anxious about grades, it’s even more important to make sure you focus on the process over the product.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. But ultimately, the end result is worth it.

We’ll end with an important insight Lahey makes:

 “When parents focus on the process of learning over the relatively arbitrary end product of points, grades and scores, we communicate in terms louder than words that we love our children unequivocally and without reservation.”

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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