How do I help my star student get back on track?

Smart love - October 2005


The Piepers

Q: My 8-year-old daughter just started third grade and is struggling. She seemed to be doing OK in first and second grades, but suddenly she is having trouble keeping up in math, science and history. She says the teachers don’t explain things well, but then we get notes from the teachers saying she isn’t handing in her homework.

This is affecting how she feels about herself—she calls herself "one of the stupid kids," and says she hates school. I am inclined to help her, but my husband says he has always heard it is bad for parents to work with children, that children transfer their natural rebelliousness at parents to the learning situation and won’t do what parents say. What do you advise? B.T., Kankakee

A: When young children who have been doing well in school suddenly begin to struggle, a common explanation is that they need glasses, are having hearing problems or have another physical ailment. Get her a complete physical.

If she gets a clean bill of health, think about whether other worries are affecting her ability to concentrate—a problem in the marriage, illness in the family, a new sibling or some other major disruption. If so, help her to share her feelings about these things so she isn’t trying to cope on her own.

If the root problem turns out to be school related, meet with her teachers to figure out what is happening and enlist their help. Sometimes 8- and 9-year-olds feel self-conscious about asking questions in class because they don’t want to appear "stupid" in the eyes of their classmates. They leave class without really understanding the material and then have difficulty completing the homework, which leaves them even further behind.

If this is the trouble, the teachers can encourage her to ask questions and make sure she understands the lesson. You can help your daughter understand that being smart doesn’t mean knowing everything, but rather means knowing what you don’t know and getting the help you need.

Finally, if you can work with your daughter in a positive way without becoming upset when she doesn’t know an answer, by all means help her with her schoolwork. Working with you will help her develop the confidence she lacks right now. If it turns out that your sessions with her turn into conflicts, ask her teachers to suggest a tutor or find a tutoring center in your area. There is every reason to think that with your support your daughter can get back on the track academically.

How can I help my 3-year-old adjust after moving?

Q: My husband and I recently relocated here from Texas. In the weeks before the move, my 3-year-old was easily upset and cried a lot. I realized she was reacting to the move and I tried to be understanding. I thought once we were in the new house and she started a new preschool and met new friends, she would be fine. But her disposition is worse than before—she tells my husband and me that she hates us and melts down if she can’t have what she wants immediately. Suggestions? P.M., Skokie

A: Moving can be very disruptive for children, who had no part in the decision. No matter how carefully adults explain their reasons for moving, young children cannot relate to adult logic and feel they are arbitrarily being torn from friends and familiar surroundings. They become angry with the people responsible for their upset—their parents.

These are age-appropriate reactions—not signs children are spoiled or egocentric. We suggest you try to be especially patient during this adjustment period. If she says she hates you, tell her that you know that she didn’t want to move and you can understand that she feels angry about it. If she melts down over nothing, reassure her that you know things feel harder than before because she is still getting used to the new place.

Parents often want children to be happy in the new house and to appreciate how much trouble parents took to make the move easier. But before children can begin to enjoy their new surroundings, they need some time to express their feelings of having lost their old way of life. If you are accepting of your daughter’s upset, you will actually accelerate her adjustment to her new life.

Do I punish my teen who never lied to me before?

Q: My son is a freshman in high school. Until now he has been very responsible and so we have given him a lot of leeway. When he says he is going to a friend’s house, we have not really checked up on him. Last week, however, he told us that he was going to a friend’s house and when I called there to see if he wanted a ride home, the friend’s mother said he and the friend were at "teen night" at one of the disco clubs in our area. I would probably have let him go if he had asked me, but I don’t like the fact that he lied to me. I am inclined to ground him for two weeks, but I know you don’t recommend this. What do you recommend? S.R., Aurora

A: Because this is the first time your son has not been candid with you, there is no reason to pull out the big guns. On the other hand, you want to make clear that this kind of deception is not acceptable. Explain in a friendly but firm way that while he is old enough to go places on his own, the condition for this freedom is that he maintains good lines of communication with you and that you can trust him to be truthful.

Tell him that even though he feels quite grown up, you are responsible for his safety and you take that responsibility seriously. If he shows you he is trustworthy, you are willing to take his word for where he is and will give him as much leeway as possible to make plans with friends. On the other hand, if you find he isn’t telling you the truth, you will be calling to check up on him and he will not be allowed to make plans that cannot be verified.

Once your position is clear to him, give him another chance to show you that he recognizes your legitimate concerns for his welfare and can be relied on to be honest with you about where he is and with whom.

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and William J. Pieper, M.D., are the authors most recently of Addicted to Unhappiness: Free Yourself from Moods and Behaviors That Undermine Relationships, Work and the Life You Want (McGraw-Hill), which helps parents and other adults improve their own lives. They also wrote the best-selling parenting book, Smart Love: The Compassionate Approach to Discipline That Makes You a Better Parent and Your Child a Better Person (Harvard Common Press). The Piepers have spent more than three decades practicing psychotherapy with infants, children, adolescents and adults; counseling parents; and supervising other mental health professionals. The parents of five children, the Piepers live in Chicago.


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