When Your Teen Hates High School.
When Your Teen Hates High School
Your 16 year old son tells you he hates school.
If you hear this repeatedly, pay attention.
Here are a few of the first instincts parents might have:
● Question the feeling, “You don’t really hate school, do you”
● Possibly followed by minimizing the feelings, “It’s not that bad, you like Mr. Smith and that Art club seems fun.”
● Trying for a quick fix, “Is it the bus? I can drive you on Tuesdays.”
● Defensiveness, “Many kids would love to go to a school as nice as your school. Honestly, we moved here for this school and you don’t even appreciate it.”
Try this instead:
● Listen: His complaints about school can blur together with other daily chatter. Stop and listen: “I hear you, tell me more about what’s going on with school.” If he talks- listen.
● Validate the feelings: “School is tough for you right now. You’re really not enjoying it.”
● Encourage: “I’m impressed by how you get up everyday and go to school and get along with everyone when you don’t really want to even be there.” “Sounds like you really don’t like Mr. Smith but you really handled the problem with your quiz grade so well.”
Sometimes releasing the negative feelings about school, feeling heard, and getting positive support can be enough to push the reset button.
BUT, if you have tried the validation, and the listening and the encouragement, and you are still concerned and he is still repeatedly telling you or showing you that he is very unhappy at school, I suggest you give the issue some serious attention. Bad days or tough stretches happen, but teens do not deserve to be miserable at school every day.
Invite your teen into problem solving:
“I know school is really not going well for you right now. Would you be interested in doing some problem solving about this?” OR “I’m concerned about how unhappy you are with school and I’d like to figure out the problem so we can work on making it better.”
Your goal is not to “fix it” for your teen, but to work together on solving the problem.If they say no, that is OK. You have taken the issue and framed it as a problem to be solved together. Even if your teen says no to your offer, he knows you hear him and you are willing to help. (And he may come back tomorrow and say yes.)
Current brain science research tells us that just the act of working to solve a problem helps people feel better. Isn’t that cool? When you engage the logical decision making part of the brain, you take it back, at least a little, from the more primitive brain that has often hijacked thoughtful decision making and emotional regulation.
Step one: get curious.
● Ask open ended questions. What specifically do you hate? (getting up early, being around so many people, specific classes) Is there anything you do like? Any best part of the day? Any worst part of the day? Don’t drill, just be curious.
● Listen (again) to what he has to say, about school, about feelings all of it. If you shut him down when he tells you about the bad stuff, you will have no chance of getting to a better understanding.
● Observe: Changes in mood? Changes in grades? Sleeping more? Seeing friends less? New friends? New interests? Lack of interest?
● Talk to others. Talk to anyone who will give you helpful information. A favorite teacher? A trusted sibling?
● Special education: if your child is involved with special education, and has an individualized education plan or a 504 plan that needs to be part of your assessment: How does the school team feel he is doing? Is he showing progress with the plan?
● If you are not comfortable with the IEP/504 plan or progress, it may be time to get a private assessment, or possibly a special education advocate. Read this for more information.
It can be helpful to record any information that you gather, to help you and your teen sort it out: write it down, draw it, use mindmapping. When the issues are laid out like this, they are often less intimidating than when they sit inside your head.
Step two: evaluate
● Talk with your teen about what you’ve discovered, in a curious, nonjudgmental, “Here’s what I see,” kind of way. Check in, “Am I understanding the situation?”
● Use the information you have gathered with your teen and identify the key issues that are making him unhappy.
● Insert HOPE: “You hate school and there is hope for the situation to be better.” In a type of therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), there is a “dialectic” between helping clients accept the reality of their lives AND learning to change their situation. You hate school AND it can be better.
Step three: look for Solutions
Again, collaboration is key. Be open to ideas. You don’t have to commit to anything just yet. Your teen suggests boarding school in Hawaii? Don’t buy the plane ticket, but write it down.
Here are some ideas and options to consider as you go through this process. I have seen all of these work for students, but they may or may not be right for your situation.
Consider/evaluate mental health issues:
The information you gathered about mood, social interaction, interest in activities- that will all help you decide if there may be a mental health issue with your teen. If so, that has to be addressed first. Here are two articles from Hey Sigmund that may be helpful: Depression in Teens: The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through and Anxiety in Teens – How to Help a Teenager Deal With Anxiety
If your teen is anxious or depressed, a noisy crowded place, with lots of expectations can be overwhelming. It can be a chicken or egg kind of thing- is he depressed because his school experience is so tough or is his school experience so tough because he is depressed? You may need the help of a mental health professional to sort this out. If he won’t go to therapy, you can go for support and to figure out how to help.
A change of schools?
Does the problem relate specifically to the school they attend? Are there other options? Charter? Private? Learning cooperatives? Ask your teen to invest time in this exploration of alternative school possibilities. High schools are not all the same and there may be a school with a different focus, different climate, etc that will work better for him. Again, this is not a promise to send him to a new school. It is part of the problem solving. He loves that private school in the next town but it costs 40K per year? Talk about finances (a good learning moment) and maybe he can find out about scholarships. There’s a regional agricultural school that looks interesting? How do you apply? Who do they accept? Again, even if none of this works out, the process is empowering.
Tilt Parenting is a wonderful resource for parents of "differently wired" kids and teens. Tilt has an evolving list of schools all across the country identified as "friendly to differently wired children ." This list is "crowdsourced by the TiLT Parenting community. All of the information below was submitted by families with first-hand experience and knowledge of the schools or by the schools themselves." HERE is a TILT parenting podcast discussion, "When School Isn't Working," that also might be helpful.
If your teen is in recovery from Substance Use Disorder, sometimes the traditional high school environment can be a challenge. Recovery high schools can be a great option, but there are not many of them. Find out about recovery high schools at the Association of Recovery High Schools
Could there be changes/adjustments made at the current school?
Do they offer any flexibility in course selection, taking outside courses, work-study, etc. Is there a club that might help your teen connect with like minded peers? School counselors should know the answers, but school counselors are not all created equal, and many do not have a lot of time to spend on finding creative solutions. Don’t rely only on them exclusively. Is there a college & career office that may know about work-study options? Maybe the local community college would know if high school students ever take classes there? Is there an administrator or teacher that your child connects with, who might be willing to think out of the box?
● Is lunch time a problem? For some teens, lunch is the best part of the day. For others, it’s a lonely miserable time. Could the school allow your teen to eat lunch in the art room or another safe space? Teens need to learn to manage stressful situations, but for some teens, the high school cafeteria is a stress zone best avoided if possible.
● Sleep: If the early school start time is part of the problem, your teen is not alone. There’s tons of research that validates the negative impact of super early rising on teens. Read about it HERE. Some high schools have adapted and moved to later start times. Could your school be encouraged to consider this option? This is not an immediate fix, as it often takes years to make this change. BUT being involved in making change happen could be empowering to you and your teen? Visit Start School Later to find out more about these efforts nationwide.
● Are there educational or behavioral accommodations that could be made at school to help your teen? Is there an IEP or 504 plan and is it working? If you and your teen think that this is a problem area that might be contributing to the “hate school” issue, address that with the school team, or if needed, get a private educational evaluation.
● In particular, 504 Plans can be very creative in helping your teen have a better learning experience. A 504 plan has a broader definition of disability than an IEP, which covers special education services for 13 specific disabilities. I know a 15 year old girl who was miserable at school, primarily because of her anxiety about the many oral presentations she was required to give. The 504 plan allowed her to present first privately to the teacher for the grade, and then to the class, with no pressure about grade evaluation. The 504 also included incremental steps to move her towards not needing this accommodation. While it was needed, it made an amazing difference in her feelings about going to school.
● School Climate: If the 'hate school' issues relates to how your child is being treated by other students or staff, or how safe or unsafe they feel at school, try to include your teen in any plans to address these issues. If you have a serious safety concern, do what you have to do to keep your child safe. But, do not let your deep love for your child and pain at their mistreatment to cause you to rush into interventions that might not be helpful in the long run.
This option will not work for many families for concrete reasons. But many other families rule it out because it seems strange to them and is outside of their experience. For some families, it is a viable option and some kids thrive outside of the institutional school setting. Here is a Ted Talkx by the founder of North Star, an alternative learning community in Massachusetts, talking about the option of “not going to school.” (Note: I don’t recommend homeschooling as a solution for a teen with mental health problems, unless it is part of an overall strategy that includes treatment. Isolation is a risk for teens and families who do not actively seek engagement.)
● The HSLDA website has a state by state list of regulations about homeschooling. In my area, there are a range of options for homeschooled teens, including a teen based cooperative, classical education focused program, and Wilderness based programs.
● Blake Boles is an interesting resource; he calls himself an ‘indie guidance counselor’: “For more than a decade, I’ve worked with self-directed, non-conformist, and highly independent (indie) young people, helping them transition into college, career, and gap years.”
● An example of a creative homeschool program is Education Without Walls, a program started by a homeschooling parent in New Milford, CT. EWW uses a small walkable town as a base for teens to take classes and explore interests, while having some age appropriate freedom! Some teens even take classes at community colleges.
● Here’s a comprehensive article about high school options from Shauna Reisewitz of Pacific Sands Academy, She mentions traditional online high school programs, with specific classes completed for credit, and also some alternative paths
● Here in the Northeast, I know some families who have used NARHS, an accredited regional high school that helps students create customized high school programs.
With careful planning, some teens can graduate early. If this option appeals to your teen, have them do the footwork to figure it out. I worked with a teen who was eager to leave high school and happily worked very hard in her Junior year so that she could graduate in December of her Senior year.
There are a few “early” colleges, that admit students as High school Juniors and Seniors. Simons Rock in Massachusettes is an example. Also, some community colleges allow high school students to take classes, either in lieu of high school credits or additional to high school credits. For some teens that could be added stress, but for some it could be just the change of scenery they need.
Get some help outside of the school:
Of course, you should utilize helpers inside of the school: High School administrators, teachers, counselors, social workers, coaches, etc. usually care deeply about their students and want to help. But sometimes they are overworked and just don’t have the time and energy to devote to your teen; this can especially happen when your teens is very unhappy but is not a behavioral problem in school. Also, people working within the system are sometimes, just sometimes, not open to or able to see nontraditional solutions. Here are some people outside of school who could help:
● Therapists: Your teen doesn’t need to be having serious mental health issues in order to benefit from therapy. Therapists can help your teen sort out the issues, develop coping skills, and problem solve.
● Executive Function coach: If your teen’s unhappiness relates to stress over getting stuff done, an executive function coach might help. It’s sort of like a tutor but more focused on the big picture of what’s getting in a student’s way. Seth Perler, Executive Functioning Coach is a terrific online resource for individual support, and his website has tons of videos and other resources for parents, teachers and students.
● Life outside of school: If the identified “why school sucks” problems can’t be easily or viably solved, and the pros of staying in your current school outweigh the cons, try focusing on enriching life outside of school. Is there a Spark that could be cultivated? An internship or mentorship? A hobby that can be started or resurrected? Of course, this is up to your teen to take action. There is also the indirect strategy of flyers left on the kitchen table, or inspirational podcasts that happen to be playing when they are around. Sometimes if one part of life is not so great, it is better to focus on another part that is or can be more satisfying and enriching.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of teens feeling uninterested, bored, and even miserablein school. There’s a larger societal issue regarding how high schools can and should do a better job engaging and educating students for today’s world. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Born this Way Foundation did a 2016 survey of 22,000 diverse high school students. The opening question, a simple “how are you feeling at school?” had a 75% negative response. It gets worse: “Students noted they were bored in school 70% of the time, and stressed 80% of the time”. When they asked students how they would like to feel, students used words like “happy,” “inspired,” and “respected”. InspirED is an organization started by the Yale Center and Born This Way to address this concern about how kids feel (and so, how they learn) at school: “This discrepancy between how students were actually feeling and how they wanted to feel was a call to action and the driving force behind the creation of inspirED.” The website has a lot of information and opportunities to be involved.
Some say suffering through high school is good preparation for life. I’m not in that camp and I wish and I hope that preparation for adult life can include, for your teen and all teens, a safe, meaningful, supportive, and inspiring learning environment.