How to step in when grades come at the cost of mental health

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

The first sign of a mental health issue in teenagers is often a drop in grades. Here’s what parents can do when it’s time to make a choice.

Mental health is a hot topic today, particularly when it comes to our kids. If you’ve never had a close experience of depression, anxiety or psychosis, it’s hard to know what to look for or what to do. And for parents of teenagers, it gets trickier when you add into the mix those moods and attitudes of their age.

Our house is no stranger to the black clouds of depression and anxiety. I’ve written other articles about what depression is, how to support a suicidal teen, and what to look for with anxiety.

But there’s a bigger debate about what to do when you think your child’s school work is the cause. How to know when it’s time to put their wellbeing before their grades.

“Grades don’t measure anything other than your relevant obedience to a manager.”

JOHN TAYLOR GATTO

Why grades matter

By the time kids reach Year 10, they’re expected to choose a pathway that takes them through to the end of school and out into the workforce. It might be to university, a trade, or straight into a job.

The message our kids hear is that to get to this magical land of grown-upness, it all comes down to their grades. There are subjects they can’t do in the later years of school if they haven’t done well earlier. There are some courses at university that rely on them passing things in school. Life can start to lurch from one assignment to the next, and from exam to exam as well. With the pressure to pass or do well adding layer upon layer.

But kids need to understand that while school is a bit of a conveyor belt, the space beyond is an open field. That choosing a life after school isn’t about following one path. Their grades at school rarely matter.

Putting mental health before grades

When kids grades start slipping, or their mental health suffers, many parents panic. There’s a lot of stress and emotion in the house, so this response isn’t surprising. But if you’re worried about your child, there are four things you can do to help them get back in control.

1. Push the pause button

Mental health and ill-health aren’t like a broken bone. They don’t happen in an instant. Mental health issues build up over time, as layers of worry, stress, and pain build on top of each other.

Once you realise your child is in trouble, it’s important to bring things to a stop. A day or two to rest and let their body work on their mind.

As a parent, you’ll need to step in and let the school know they’re in trouble and need a break. There are lots of things school can do about assessment that’s due, so look for the best option.

Try to avoid just moving due dates though. At some point that will all catch up and your teen stress again. If their mental health is needing care, then it’s time to take things seriously and punt an assignment or two.

“Grades don’t measure tenacity, courage, leadership, guts or whatever you want to call it.” – Thomas J Stanley

2. Get help

Pausing things is only a temporary fix. It gives kids a bit of space to settle their mind. But the longer-term recovery needs expert care. See your family doctor, book them in with a psychologist or contact your local Headspace.

There are some great services around, but teenagers tend to be shy when it comes to getting help. They’ll need lots of support to know that the pain of asking for help will be worth it.

There’s also a familiarity with their current mess that teenagers can try to cling to. The fear of having a mental health issue, or dealing with it, can convince them that life isn’t so bad at the moment.

Kids with mental health issues need strong parents. Parents who will kindly push them to get help and keep them accountable for not settling for a poor life.

3. Make life manageable again

Instead of looking for work-life balance, we need to seek “work-life satisfaction”. Balance is all about getting two things even. But in life, we can never get our work side in balance with our personal or family needs and interests. Chasing satisfaction, where we’re doing what we need to do, but feeling valued and purposeful is much better. And one all kids can learn, even in the busy days of high school.

So get them to look at their week and strip out the things they don’t need to do and don’t like. If there are things they do need to do, like school, that are a real drag, it could be time to look for some other options. Whether that’s moving into a job for a while or starting a trade.

Kids with mental health issues need parents who are willing to put their own hopes and dreams aside for their child’s wellbeing. To see that a detour for a year or two, or even a decade, doesn’t stop their child being successful. It’s that satisfaction again. If your child finds some “work” they enjoy, everyone will feel more satisfied again.

And when you’re putting this manageable life together again, make sure it has a bit of everything. Some work, some fun, some rest and some play.

4. Look after yourself

Mental health issues are draining for those who have them, and those who live with them. It can be easy to get into a pattern of just getting through each day. Look after your own work-life satisfaction and don’t let your wellbeing suffer.

Keep in touch with a couple of friends who know the whole truth and can be a listening ear. Make sure you access professional help if needed. And make times for rest and play yourself.

Whatever happens, when life comes down to a matter of grades or a child’s mental health, mental health needs wins. Every time. Our kids can always change career, go back to study, or learn new skills later. But having a well mind is something that will carry them through life. And learning to care for that mind will set them up better than any grade in school.

Have you struggled with this issue of grades and mental health? What did you find worked for you? I’d love you to share your thoughts below.

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