EveryDay Strong Advice: How to help a teen struggling in school

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Dear EveryDay Strong,

   What can you do when a child just doesn’t want to go to school? What if they’re totally avoiding going to class, skipping out, and you’ve tried everything and you’re at your wits’ end?

   I know a young man we’ll call Nathan. A year and a half ago, Nathan and his mom came to me because he was failing school, sluffing with his friends and using marijuana here and there. His mom and the school were concerned. He wanted to drop out, since he felt that he’d tried and failed, and that there was no path to graduation. Many adults had tried to help him. He’d had rewards and consequences placed on him; for example, not being able to hang out with his girlfriend if he didn’t do more for school.

   As a psychiatrist at Utah Valley Psychiatry and Counseling, there’s a needs hierarchy framework I use with every patient. The framework is to first ensure a patient has their physical needs cared for (including adequate sleep, food, exercise, etc.), and then see that their emotional needs of safety, connection and confidence are met. Anyone, especially parents, can use this framework to help the children in their lives.

   When I first sat down with Nathan, I thought about the needs framework. To see how his physical needs were being met, I asked him if he was feeling healthy? Was he sleeping and eating well? He had a few issues with sleep and was a little overweight.

   Next, I asked some questions to see how his emotional needs for safety, connection and confidence were being met. To determine safety, I asked who he talked to when he’s really struggling. Who knew what it was like to be him, to walk in his shoes and feel his emotions? It turned out that he felt that no one, not even his best friend or parents, really understood him. He started to see me as a safe person he could talk to. At one point, when his mom left the room, he teared up a little and told me for the last week he’d been going to school and just sitting in the parking lot all day. He’d felt so anxious that he couldn’t get out of his car. Then he’d drive home at the end of the day. His anxiety had incapacitated him. He was eventually able to open up to his mom and vice principal about this anxiety.

   Everything changed for Nathan because he began to feel safe to talk to other people, safe to feel and express big emotions, and, most importantly, safe to be himself. He was able to set his own goals. He ended up graduating. The adults around him needed to realize he was a kid who didn’t feel safe enough to share his real feelings. Safety was the key to changing things quickly in Nathan’s life.

   Anyone can use this framework to help the children and youth in their lives. You can help children around you feel emotional safety by helping them feel safe to talk. Next time there’s an emotionally charged conversation, imagine putting duct tape over your mouth for at least two minutes and just listening to the child. Help the child feel listened to and understood. They will be more likely to share challenges, true feelings and ideas.

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One Comment

  1. Julie Hunt Reply

    I would love to see this topic explored more and also include what happens beyond this initial framework. My family deals with severe anxiety and depression. Some members only experience one or the other while one daughter deals with both. As the mom, I have found a few things to be true as we have sought help and support.
    1- finding pediatric help in Utah is extremely difficult. 2- sometimes even trained professionals in the mental health field with PHD’s or MD’s may understand textbook definitions, but do not understand how that definition appears in real life.
    3- schools and teachers are not trained and do not know how to deal with students suffering with anxiety and depression.
    4- mental health is too broad of a title. Anxiety and depression (in my experience) are far different than schizophrenia and other mental illnesses that more seriously affect those suffering as well as the community around them. Likewise, even under depression, for example, there is a vast spectrum of how it affects people and the severity of suffering one experiences.
    5- no one truly understands how a sufferer feels and what they are going through. It seems each persons experience is different. I can’t tell you how many times a teacher has told my daughter and me, when we were seeking help in their class because of her anxiety, that said”I too have anxiety and completely understand where you are coming from. “ only to then be the worst teacher for my daughter with no compassion or understanding on what she was capable of and the best ways to help her succeed.

    In schools and as a society, we are hyper focused on students bullying other students, on continually raising the bar on material taught and testing results, on academic achievements and requirements we focus on keeping our kids and school staff safe from shootings and others safety threats at school by talking about procedures, gun control, etc etc. But nobody is spending as much time looking into mental health as it’s now termed. Nobody studies how to best help those that emotionally don’t fit in the traditional education box that is presented to them. Teachers for the most part are held accountable for how they interact and treat students but there are a set of people, in our society, that have a bubble around them and they get to play by their own set of rules. Coaches!!! They can do whatever they want, no matter how unfair, politically motivated, or toxic and damaging their actions are to our children. And it’s okay, because we as a society have accepted that this is how coaches get to act. We have no higher expectation. Has anyone ever looked into the emotional and mental affects these coaches have had on our youth. Why do we as parents, society, school administrators think this is okay. Why do we not insist on better training for our coaches. There is a way to coach with inspiration, motivation, and positive construction and get incredible results. But these are coaches are very rare and seldom heard of. The Rugby coach in Forever Strong is a perfect example of this. It is possible. But we don’t care about the effects these coaches are having on our children.

    Our focus as a society has been educate more, push higher academic standards, punish all bully’s, (but not really seeing who the true bully’s are) but we have not looked at the emotional results of these efforts or stopped to look at why some kids are not succeeding in the current programs.

    I

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