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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