Helping our Teens Make the Grade

I didn’t excel in academics while in high school.  Academics just didn’t mean anything to me because I was more preoccupied by social interacting and my sport of choice, swimming.  Posting good scores on my report card was for others to do; I was too busy.

After flunking out of a semester in college, I finally began to grow up and take school seriously.  In fact, I actually began to flourish in college.

Then I became a dad.  And when Jan and I had our two children, my whole perspective shifted.  We want nothing more than to see our kids excel in school.  We want them to succeed.  And when they’re in grade school, middle school and high school, the only gauge for objectively measuring their success is in academics.  We take their report cards very seriously, don’t we?

The Balancing Act

Our teens are faced with a balancing act every day.  Every day is a performance.  Not just in the classroom, but in the hallways, too.  Adolescence is the season when our kids learn to build healthy relationships.  Have you ever seen your son or daughter’s calendar or the number of “friends” they have on Facebook?  They are hard-wired for relationship.  But the balancing act gets difficult because as kids become more connected socially, they tend to become disconnected academically.

Parents, this is often where we make our biggest mistakes.  When relationships overpower a child’s focus on schoolwork, we sometimes see the grades begin to slip.  Incomplete assignments, poor exams, missed deadlines… these are all red flags.  And for some of us, we tend to overreact.

If you have taken the time to build a relationship with your teen, then stepping in and helping your teen get back on course can help.  But if the relationship has become weakened, or if it seems like your relationship with your teen is more about his academic performance than who he is—it’s a recipe for conflict.  Lots of kids find themselves pushed into this corner and they decide to push away from academics altogether.  The harder you push, the less your teen wants to have anything to do with you.

Once a teen loses ground in their studies, it gets harder and harder to catch up.  With every grade that goes down, the student loses the knowledge that they will need to raise those grades later on.  And at that point, it becomes a downward spiral.

Finding Connection

Parents, I understand that you want to engage with your teen.  When you feel like there isn’t a hobby or extracurricular activity that you can use to connect with your teen, many parents turn to academics.  But academics is a risky place to have as a sole connection.

Schools are designed to value academic achievement.  Families are designed to value people.  If these roles are switched, then we may see our teens looking to their peers to find their value as human beings.

Any encouragement for academic growth should be couched in the arena of relationship.  Parents, it’s healthy to allow your teen to assume responsibility for his or her grades.  It’s not up to you whether your teen graduates.  It’s up to your teen.  You can support them as much as you can, whether that’s through providing tutors, study materials, or just being available for questions when they come up.  But, if you put too much pressure on your teen to get good grades, they can respond by becoming an underachiever (ignoring school or just getting by), or an overachiever (spending too much time on schoolwork and overemphasizing their quest to get good grades).

Our teens are already facing a lot of pressure.  School puts pressure on our kids.  They face pressures to fit in with other kids.  They are transitioning from childhood to adulthood.  They are in a heavy season for defining their identity.  And they are continually assaulted with images of what our culture says is perfection.

It’s hard to be a teen right now.  And our kids want to take advantage of this time to discover who they are and to be guided and molded.  But sometimes, our encouragement and guidance may sound like just another pressure.  As a mom or dad of a teen, we need to be very careful on how much pressure we apply to their academic performance because it might be our pressure that pushes our kids right over the edge.

So, how should we cope with their failures?  This is the hard part.  We naturally want to step in and rescue a child from academic failure.

Try not to shame them or chastise them if they fail.  Instead, encourage them in the things they are doing well.  Our role as parents is to help our kids know their role in their own life and to help them become acquainted with their God-ordained personality.  We know that we have succeeded as parents if we have helped our children grow up and become independent.  As hard as that is, that means breaking away from us.

Healthy parents give their kids a chance to live, to succeed, to fail, in a safe environment.  We provide a safety net for our kids, so that they know that they can turn to us when they fear failing.  We can encourage them to do well, but if they fail we need to be ready to rely on the relationship we’ve built.  A relationship built not on scores, but on each person’s inherent value.


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

The Problem with Performance-Based Relationships

Student Story: Emily

Many teens believe that their value stems from their accomplishments—they must perform to be loved and meet standards to be worthy. So how can parents foster an environment of unconditional love for their family? This weekend on Parenting Today’s Teens, Mark Gregston suggests ways that moms and dads can separate performance from relationship.

If you listen on a mobile phone or tablet, please download our Parenting Today’s Teens app available for Apple or Android. If you listen on a desktop or laptop computer, press the “play” button above to enjoy daily parenting advice.

Comforting the Anxious Teen

“The good old days.”  “The best years of our lives.”  “Back when life was easy.”  Sometimes we refer to our growing up years with more than a little nostalgia.  Sure, we had things to worry about.  We dealt with shifting emotions, changing bodies, challenges at home, and the pressure to live a better life than our parents did.  But compared to the weighty responsibilities we carry as adults, the stress of our teen years was minimal.

Times have changed.

A recent study shows that 48% of young adults these days are diagnosable for a behavioral disorder like anxiety.  It’s no understatement to say that teens today aren’t facing the normal “angst” that we all went through.  In increasing numbers, modern teens are experiencing an overwhelming sense of unease, worry, or fear about upcoming events or activities with an uncertain outcome.  While a little anxiety can be a good thing—pushing us to study harder or excel a little more—severe anxiety is devastating to a teenager.  We’ll talk about ways we can deal with the problem later on.  But first, it helps to know what we’re up against.

Causes of Anxiety

Earlier this month, a news article reported that a high school teacher was fired for showing a video of a real life violent murder to his class.  His rationale?  The kids were probably going to see it anyway.  While seriously misguided, this irresponsible teacher has a point.  Kids from kindergarten on up are bombarded with images and ideas that are way beyond their emotional levels.  There are over 4.2 million pornographic sites on the Internet, all easily accessed.  Current television programs and movies portray emotional dilemmas and social concepts that even adults have trouble dealing with.  During the growing up years, kids don’t have the maturity to treat and filter what they are exposed to on a daily basis.  Add to this mixture the stress of keeping up with all the social pressures from friends and peers, and it becomes too much to handle.  Unequipped to manage the events around them, teens feel like throwing up their hands and shouting, I can’t handle this!  This world is too intimidating for me!

Unfortunately, our teen’s anxiety doesn’t always end when they head home.  Parents have certain expectations for their kids that are required and needed.  But taken too far, those expectations can drive anxiety to the brink.  We have educational expectations—get good grades, take AP classes, prepare for college.  But we also want them to have outside goals—join the football team, make first chair violin, become the next chess Grand Master.  Then, because we care about their walk with God, we carry spiritual report cards around and take inventory of church attendance, youth group activity, moral behavior, and Bible study.

No wonder so many teenagers are trying to escape the constant overload of pressure and expectations!  Too often they are over-scheduled and under-prepared.  Reminds me of the verse in Ephesians 6:4 that says, “Fathers [or mothers], do not exasperate your children.”

Signs of Anxiety

To cope with the overwhelming pressures of life, teens often turn to alternative avenues of relief.  It could be losing themselves in video games or Facebook.  It could be finding temporary relief in drugs or alcohol.  Or it could be expressed in outbursts of anger and harmful activities like cutting.  Some of the typical signs of serious anxiety include:

  • Disengaging from most activities
  • Sleeping in more
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Severe change in behavior
  • Breaking off relationships with friends or family
  • Spending large amounts of time alone

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it can give you telltale warning signs that your teen is spiraling further into anxiety.

Solutions for Anxiety

Anxiety is a real problem.  But as a parent, you can help your teen relieve their stress levels in a healthy way.  Be prepared for it to take patience, understanding and grace as both teens and parents strive to keep things under control.

It all starts with a well-framed question.  Carve out time to sit down with your son or daughter and ask them about their fears, their worries, what they are looking forward to, what things they are excited about.  Discover the triggers and switches in your teen’s life that cause them to feel anxious.  The more you spend time talking together, the more your teen will open up and confide those things that are causing them pain and worry.

In addition to asking good questions, give you teen permission to say no.  It could be that the tuba lessons, math tutor, soccer practice, or youth group is overwhelming your kid to the point that they feel like dropping everything.  It’s okay to allow your son or daughter to back away from certain activities if they cause him or her stress.  Tell your teen, Hey, it sounds like your plate is really full right now.  Is there something that you can give up that would lighten your load?  This is not an excuse to relinquish all responsibilities, but it’s allowing your teen the freedom to unload their lives a little.

Moms and Dads, don’t forget your kids need you.  Spending quality time together is crucial to helping them unload stress.  This might mean giving up your weekly golf game in favor of having breakfast with your son.  It could mean letting go of that committee you’re a part of to go shopping with your daughter.  There will always be time after the kids are out of the house to invest in your hobbies.  But in these critical formative years, kids need their parents desperately.

Finally, do your best to make the home a sanctuary.  After a long day of being exposed to a thousand different ideas and influences, make your house a place where your kids feel safe and protected, free of anxiety or undue pressures.  Tell stories and jokes at the dinner table, instead of quizzing them about their day.  Encourage them when they walk in the door.  Play games or watch TV together after chores and homework is over.  Let your home be a welcome stop for your teen on the careening highway of life.

Teens aren’t the only ones who struggle with anxiety.  Raising up children can be a stressful task!  If you’re dealing with anxieties of your own, I encourage you to bring those burdens to the God who loves you.  Set the tone for your family as you release your worries and cares to Him.  We serve a God who is bigger and stronger than anything this world can throw at us.  And that’s a truth that will serve us throughout our lives.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas.  For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website.  It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent.  Go to www.heartlightministries.org.  Or read other articles by Mark at www.markgregston.com.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.  Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.