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Bad Grades – How Parents Can Help Teenagers Achieve

If you are looking for ways on how to discipline your teenager for bad grades, this post is for you.

Parents who have tried grounding, taking away privileges, or spanking, probably already know that none of these methods work very well in raising the child’s grades.

Even if they work in the short term, they are not long term solutions.

Punishment also leads to power struggles and damaged relationships.

Let’s take a fresh look at how to help your child become the best they can be without the damaging side-effects of those out-of-date discipline measures.

teenager falls asleep studying getting bad grades

How can parents help their teenagers overcome bad grades

Do not use punishment or rewards to motivate

When a child gets poor grades, many parents first think of what kind of consequences they could give.

Often, parents come up with “consequences” to teach their teenagers why they need good grades.

Those consequences are usually in the form of punishment or rewards.

Using threats and bribes to motivate is not a good strategy if you want your child to do well in school.

Punishment and rewards motivate extrinsically.

Research shows that extrinsic motivators are counterproductive in motivating teens because they undermine your child’s intrinsic motivation.​1​

Physical punishment is even worse. It does not help them get stellar grades, and it is proven to harm your child’s development.​2​

You may get positive results temporarily because your child wants to avoid punishment or to get the rewards.

But sooner or later, you run out of things to take away or you have to keep increasing the rewards.

A teenager who is intrinsically motivated does something because he or she enjoys the process rather than wanting rewards or avoiding punishment.

When children are intrinsically motivated to learn, they have a better chance of improving their grades.​3​

Calmly talk about the reason for bad grades

As parents, we sometimes make presumptions that turn out to be not correct.

If our kids spend a lot of time playing video games, we may immediately assume the bad grades come from playing too much video games.

If our kids seem lazy and keep pushing off homework, we may think laziness is the culprit.

But what if a child is silently suffering from anxiety and they have a hard time taking exams?

Playing video games could be how they unconsciously deal with mental health challenges.

What if a child has a mild learning disability or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) that is not apparent to anyone?

They cannot catch up to the learning and, therefore, become unmotivated, and the lack of motivation appears to be laziness.

Until we dig into the issue and talk about it, we will not know what has caused the poor academic performance.

So the first step is to calmly discuss with your teen about why they got those grades without making assumptions or accusations.

Start by asking the following questions in a helpful, non-accusing tone.

  • Are you having trouble understanding the subject?
  • Do you find it difficult to remember the materials?
  • Are you too nervous in the exams to do well?
  • Do you have trouble focusing in class?
  • Are you not having enough time to study?
  • Too much school work? Too boring?

It’s also a good idea to talk to the child’s teacher and academic advisor or attend parent-teacher conferences to get their opinion.

Keep probing gently to get to the underlying cause.

Help your teen make a plan

Based on what has caused the bad grades, help your teen come up with a plan to turn around their poor school performance without prescribing what you want.

It needs to be a plan your child believes in.

Otherwise, it will set them up for failure in carrying it out.

But go on and suggest possible solutions.

Here are some examples.

  • If time management is the issue, do you think not spending too much time in extracurricular activities will help?
  • If you already put in your best effort, perhaps it would help to get some extra help and learn more study skills.
  • Are you having a tough time focusing in class? Can we get you some help by talking to the school counselor?

Allowing your teen to design their plan under your guidance helps them take control of their own education.

Teenagers are motivated when they feel their actions are their own choices.​4​

In addition, children need to know that they are learning for themselves, not for their parents.

Internalizing the value of education helps them develop intrinsic motivation, one of the most important factors in getting higher grades.​5​

Teach the real consequences of bad grades

When we give punishment as the “consequences,” we distract our teens from the real ones.

The bad report card is not about losing the iPhone.

It’s about hurting their college applications and their future.

If we keep pushing the fake consequences in front of our kids, they will keep fighting with us instead of recognizing the real problem.

Having a better understanding of why they need to study is an important step in becoming a better student.

When your child drifts from the plan, remind them about the real consequence, the one that affects their future.

It can be easy to forget about the consequences when they are far in the future. If that happens, the best way is to remind them gently.

Also See: How to discipline a teenager who doesn’t care about consequences

Offer help, not control

It is tempting for parents to become more involved or stricter with their teenager’s education.

However, providing an autonomy-supportive environment is crucial to intrinsic motivation development.

Children with autonomy support from parents have a more positive attitude, stronger mental health, and better grades in school.​6​

Parents who are supportive and allow autonomy acknowledge their children’s perspectives, allow them to make choices, and use minimal control language.

They are flexible and provide reasonable rationales for their requests to the children.​7​

In contrast, teenagers with controlling or helicopter parents feel powerless over their own lives.

They tend to be unmotivated and are reluctant to spend much effort in school.​8​

Strengthen parent-child relationship

A strong parent-child relationship can enhance your teenager’s intrinsic motivation to achieve.​9​

When your child feels accepted and attached to you, they want to adopt your values.

In other words, if you value education, they will want to do the same thing, too.

Keeping a positive relationship with your child is vital because you will become their driving force for school improvement.

This is another reason punishment will not help your child succeed academically.

Love motivates.

A weak or damaged relationship does not.

Tough love doesn’t motivate, and it will only harm the parent-child relationship.

Instead, practice positive parenting to set up your child for success.

Need Help Motivating Kids?

Online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.

Final thoughts on how to discipline a teenager for bad grades

Finally, academic performance does not define whether they are good kids or not.

Education is important, but it is not the only thing that matters in a child’s success or healthy development. Having a strong connection with your teen is as important, if not more, than getting a straight A.

The bottom line is, think of what is the most important thing to you in 20 years, and that will serve you a long way.

For more on motivating teens, check out Parenting Teenagers.


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    Benabou R, Tirole J. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. Rev Econ Studies. Published online July 2003:489-520. doi:10.1111/1467-937x.00253
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    Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A. Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online 2016:453-469. doi:10.1037/fam0000191
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    Cerasoli CP, Nicklin JM, Ford MT. Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic incentives jointly predict performance: A 40-year meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2014:980-1008. doi:10.1037/a0035661
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    Trevino NN, DeFreitas SC. The relationship between intrinsic motivation and academic achievement for first generation Latino college students. Soc Psychol Educ. Published online February 18, 2014:293-306. doi:10.1007/s11218-013-9245-3
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    Lei S. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: Evaluating benefits and drawbacks from college instructors. Journal of Instructional psychology. 2010;37(2):153-161.
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    Vasquez AC, Patall EA, Fong CJ, Corrigan AS, Pine L. Parent Autonomy Support, Academic Achievement, and Psychosocial Functioning: a Meta-analysis of Research. Educ Psychol Rev. Published online July 15, 2015:605-644. doi:10.1007/s10648-015-9329-z
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    Deci EL, Ryan RM. Self-Determination Theory. In: Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology: Volume 1. SAGE Publications Ltd; :416-437. doi:10.4135/9781446249215.n21
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    Grolnick WS, Deci EL, Ryan RM. Internalization within the family: The self-determination theory perspective. In: Parenting and Children’s Internalization of Values: A Handbook of Contemporary Theory. John Wiley & Sons Inc.; 1997:135–161.
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    Ryan RM, Deci EL. Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. Published online January 2000:54-67. doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020


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