Help Your Teen With A Shift From Will To Skill

A well meaning parent I once worked with tried to motivate her 15 year-old to improve his grades with an incentive system based on screen time. In this system, all A’s would result in unlimited screen time, A’s and B’s would lead to some restrictions, C’s more restrictions, etc.

That seems perfectly reasonable on the surface, and it worked briefly. But over time the only thing that increased was anger, disappointment and apathy for all.

This and other incentive systems to improve grades ultimately fail for two reasons. First, they’re based on an assumption that poor grades are solely a result of not enough caring or willingness to do their work. Viewed this way, our job is to get them to care, in which case carrots and sticks are a logical path forward.

The second problem with this is that teens are then doing it for their parents and they end up feeling controlled. Developmentally, this is the opposite direction from where they’re supposed to be going, which is towards more autonomy and independence.

A More Helpful and Empowering Approach

Kids get straight A’s in school because they can, not because they care so much more than everyone else. Memorizing and test taking may come very easy for them. They may be able to focus and drown out distractions easily. They may be great problem solvers and have a high frustration tolerance thanks largely to good genes. They may not be dealing with the added burdens of anxiety or depression. Or they may just barely be keeping it together, that is until they get to college when their fragile seams of togetherness will start to fray.

What’s important to keep in mind is that your child does care and is likely trying very hard, or at least has at one point. To this you may respond with something like, “playing video games, smoking weed and skipping school sure don’t seem like the behaviors of someone who cares and is trying”. If this is the circumstance you’re in, I get your frustration and confusion. They say they want to do better but their behaviors don’t match. If this describes your teen it’s probably because they haven’t figured out how to work through their struggles, if they even know what their struggles are. As a result, they’re feeling discouraged, and possibly embarrassed or ashamed, and have resigned themselves to failure and disappointment.

Shifting the Focus from School to Skills

We need to teach our kids that improving at something isn’t usually about trying harder but trying smarter or different. This might include things like asking for help, thinking of creative solutions, slowing down or learning to tame the negative voice in our head. But these are skills that are learned with time and deliberate practice.

Success in high school and certainly college requires focus, self restraint, problem solving, stress management and planning. Deficits in these areas, are much easier to mask at younger ages. This is why so many kids hum along through 7th or 8th grade and begin a nose dive soon after.

The development of these skills are the critical tasks of adolescence (12-25). Our job as parents then isn’t to help them get better grades (I see just as many struggling A/B students as I do C/D/F ones), but to help them develop these precursors to happiness often referred to as “non cognitive skills”.

Help Through Conversations

Plan on having multiple conversations with your teen about the upcoming school year. Ask them about what they see as their strengths and what they’re looking forward to. There’s a good chance that they’ll think a “fresh start” is all that’s needed. We both know that rarely works out. But that way of thinking is just another example of undeveloped self reflection and planning skills.

It can also be helpful to anticipate the potential obstacles in as open and honest a way as possible. Then try to come up with a plan. That way when challenges do come up it won’t be a surprise and it will be much easier to talk about and manage because you already came up with a plan. It may be worth revising the plan, but at least you have one.


I think you’re a good parent and you have a great kid. I know that because you’re reading this, which is an indication you don’t think you have all the answers and you want to continue to grow and learn. All any of us can ask of ourselves as parents is to do our best to stay open, adapt and respond to the circumstances that face us at any given moment. We all fall short at times.

As you and your child start to see their mistakes and deficits as a product of their predictably undeveloped skills and traits, you will both gradually find your anxiety morphing into hope. You’ll realize that your child wants to succeed even more than you do. You won’t need to rely on incentives or bribes. Instead, the work you’ll be doing together over the next several years will involve engaging in the slow and deliberate process of reducing those barriers that are blocking their path to happiness and achievement.

I get how frustrating this can be and you may have your work cut out for you. Your job is to stay curious and open to new ideas and approaches including support from others, and focusing on the positive attributes in you and your child. And, as Mr. Miyagi instructed the Karate Kid, “don’t forget to breathe.” My best guess is that your kiddo will come through this just fine.