Helping your struggling teenager manage school and life

There are some students who excel in their academic work, while there are others who benefit from alternate teaching styles and approaches. While different learning styles learning are common and are best addressed in proactive teaching approaches, learning difficulties due to mental health concerns require different solution approaches.  If a child has had learning struggles for a long time they may think this is 'normal' and that they are just 'stupid' or 'dumb'.  They may give up trying to learn, and by junior high or high school start running with the 'bad crowd' because there they feel accepted.  In other cases children who once did well in school may struggle academically in adolescence in response to developmental changes in their brain that place them at greater risk for depression, self-esteem issues, or anxiety.   Psychological counselling can help students overcome these challenges.

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Balancing a teenagers growing desire for independence against the reality that adolescents still need parental guidance and support can be a challenge.  Keeping lines of communication open during this period is important.  Regular communication may make it easier to tell when your teen is struggling due to current situations, or if the struggles are a sign of a mental health concern that may require more specialized treatment.  Providing counselling for students can be a challenge.  Here are a few tips to tell if the ups and downs of the teenage years are becoming more than you and your child can manage:

1.  Maintaining a Schedule:

Daily schedules are a must have.  Having a sense of when things will happen provides a secure and reliable base from which your teen can explore the world.  While some families pack daily schedules full and others have a more relaxed approach, it is important to attend to your child's ability to maintain their schedule.  It is natural that a child's interests will change as they move into their teenage years, so setting time aside to review priorities is important.  Many families have scheduling discussions in the late summer to plan for fall/winter activities, and then again in spring to plan for summer events.  Once the framework of daily and weekly schedules are set, it is important to allow teenagers to allocate time in that schedule as they wish.  Whether a paper gets written in the morning or the evening, on a Wednesday or Saturday is not as important as ensuring the teen plans time to do the task, and then follows through.  Regular check-ins provide parents with an opportunity to affirm their child for keeping the schedule, and can also allow parents to provide support early on when a child is struggling.  If, despite support, a teen continues to struggle to meet established goals and schedules it may be beneficial to engage in third party support.  A good clinician can help determine if the challenge is due to a learning or thinking difficulty, emotional distress, or another factor.  Once possible causes are identified the clinician can work with the teen and their family on solutions to reduce the distress and positive outcomes.

2.  Healthy Communication is Essential:

While some children are naturally more talkative than others, a change in a teenager's communication style can signal they are struggling with emotional, social or other difficulties.  Having a good listening ear may be enough to help an adolescent through a rough time.  Picking battles is also important in order to maintain positives in the parent-child relationship.  Responding to unspoken emotional needs and occasional bouts of unconditional support even when a parent is not sure their child has made entirely the 'right' decision, are other ways of sending a message that you trust them, love them, and will be there for them.

It is not normal for a teen to completely refuse to talk with their parent.  If you find that your conversations with your teenage child have become increasingly one-sided, or negative, it may be time to seek third party help.  A therapist can help move conversations past a pattern of parent-teen questions and answers that lead to frustration and irritation.  Learning how to communicate well is vitally important to building a positive and trusting relationship from parent to child.  

3.   Recreation Time is Necessary: 

By building fun activities into the daily routine teenage students will learn how to balance the demands of academia, friends, family, and recreational activities.  Learning how to create a balanced lifestyle is important skill for maintaining mental health throughout a lifetime.  Regular recreational breaks from studying have been shown to improve learning, retention, and problem solving.  Recreational activities may serve as a reward for writing a paper or competing a project.  They may also be a means for relieving academic stress. 

4.  Trust is important:

Teenagers who trust their parents, and who feel trusted by their parents, will share information with their parents.  Teenagers find it much easier to talk with someone about academic, social, and other difficulties when they know that their parents will listen, support, and respond in a positive manner.   Communication breaks down when teenagers fear disappointing, angering or causing their parents distress.  Family counselling can help parents and children to regain their sense of mutual trust.