Four Tips for Getting The Best from Your Teenager

“I told them I was doing my best, and they actually believed me.” These are my husband’s words, as he looks back and describes his experience in high school. He told his parents he was doing all he could, and they didn’t push him to do better. Why? Because they took their son’s assessment of his own school performance at face value. Why wouldn’t they?

When our son (the social, fun-loving type) started high school, my husband got in his face and said, “Don’t think you can get away with mediocre work. I know how smart you are and expect you to work hard and get good grades. I understand who you are, because I AM you.” Our son did work hard and graduated with almost a 4.0 GPA.

We raised two children past the high school years, and now I’m a high school teacher, so let me talk to you from experience. What I see is that teenagers often inaccurately assess their own situation. Sometimes this is purposeful deception of teachers and parents. Sometimes it’s just a lack of insight into what is true about them.

For example, I had a student who told his mom, “I can’t memorize.” He did poorly on tests, but he kicked it into gear for one test and got one point short of a perfect score! I emailed her and said, “He CAN. He can memorize.”

The hard part for parents and educators is that we have to assess what students can do, not what they think or say they can do. If a student truly struggles to learn, we don’t want to push her beyond her ability. That would be cruel. But if a student is undisciplined and hasn’t figured out the connection between work ethic and grades, then we do want to push and have appropriately high expectations.

Four Tips for Getting The Best from Your Teenager


Observe your teen closely. I had a student once who turned in disgracefully sloppy work. Then one day I caught him making beautiful, intricate origami, the little stinker! This made it obvious to me that he was capable of doing careful, detailed work. From then on I refused to allow him to turn in sloppy homework. Sometimes what we observe in one setting can help us know that a teen is capable of performing higher in another setting. In the case of school, you could talk to all of your student’s teachers and ask what capabilities they see. If you have true concerns about ability, you might even ask for special testing, to see if there are diagnosable obstacles to learning.

Do a Reveal

Have a conversation with your teen. It might go like this, “I hear you say that you can’t do this work, but your teachers and I see something different.” This is a kind moment where you can blow away the smokescreen of fallacies your student has created in his mind, as you speak the truth out loud.

Teach new, Accurate Language

It is normal for teens to say things like, “I’m just too dumb” or “I can’t do this.” Insist on new language, which can put your student on a better path. I encouraged one mom to refuse to allow the word “can’t” from her teen anymore, replacing that statement with “This work is hard.” You can say to your student, “Hard is not impossible; it’s just hard.” Keep in mind that we all like to say we can’t do something, instead of admitting that we’re lazy or undisciplined. Gently push your student to confess the truth, even though it might be unpleasant.

Have a Backbone

Teens are shockingly powerful persuaders. If you have assessed that your teen is capable of a certain level of work, do not allow anything less than that standard of work. He will make powerful arguments against working at a new level. Be strong! Be the parent! Don’t cower under the emotional storm.

I’ve been using school as an example, but the above tips also can work for how a teen does chores at home. Or how he approaches relationships or how he feels about his performance in extracurricular activities.

Let me summarize by encouraging you to give your teen the gift of seeing more ability in him than he sees in himself. Even if this is at first uncomfortable, he will eventually appreciate the high valuation spoken over him.

With love from Montana,

Christy Fitzwater

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