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Ask a Professional: My son hates school

Ask a Professional: My son hates school

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Linda-ROPro

Ask a Professional: My son hates school

Hello
My 14 year old son (year 9) hates school and I’m not sure how to help him. He’s never really thrived in the school system, I think he is just one of those kids who it simply doesn’t suit.

His teachers think he’s lazy, because he is actually very clever and capable, so when he underachieves he is told he didn’t put in enough effort. The truth is that he’s disengaged; he doesn’t see the relevance of school and he struggles to focus at all. He gets in trouble all the time for not focusing, not doing his homework, not wearing his uniform correctly, talking to his friends… never major things, he’s not in the challenging behaviours category or anything, just constant small things that wear him down. He hates being made to wear a uniform and conform to so many rules, and he is bored out of his mind in class all the time. He feels like it’s a waste of time and he hates the fact that it takes up so much of his life; it causes him so much stress, but when he’s home he doesn’t want to think about it so he doesn’t ask for my help and I don’t know he needed it until he fails an assessment.

He is far from lazy. He’s a gifted pianist and that’s what he wants to do with his life. He practices every day and plays at university level; he also learns advanced theory. He’s taken lessons since he was 5 and worked consistently at it ever since. So he does learn effectively when it’s something he cares about, and he does work hard. But he can’t see why he needs to learn all these non-music things at school when he already knows he wants to be a musician. He intends to audition for a European Conservatorium and study there. My husband and I support him in that 100%.

I have explained that to do that he needs to finish school, and he understands that, but he’s so miserable at the thought of 3 more years. I am at a loss in how to get him through. He is not bullied, he has a great group of friends and is otherwise happy. I know he’s capable of doing well but I also know that putting more pressure on him will make things worse and that’s not what I want. He doesn’t need straight A’s and that’s not what we expect. I just want to get him through so he can go on and do what he wants to do.

It is difficult to see him so miserable. At the same time I am trying to help him understand his own role in this - his attitude towards school is pretty bad. Whilst there are factors that aren’t his fault and I feel sorry for him in that, I can also see that his attitude is holding him back. He got in trouble this week because he refused to attend a lunchtime detention he got for something minor and it ended up escalating because he was being defiant and argumentative about it. I have taken a harder stance with that because I won’t tolerate him being disrespectful. Ultimately it’s led to me telling him he’s in the wrong, his attitude sucks and he needs to take some responsibility for his own outcomes. And it led to an after school detention that I made him attend.

His school is big on pastoral care and I’m sure he would find them very supportive, but unfortunately he is his own barrier. He tends to put it all under the ‘authority’ umbrella, and doesn’t respond positively to school-based support. I’m trying to make him realise that he’s only hurting himself by doing that; people are there to help him, for him, not for themselves. I think he’s reached that (very familiar if I’m honest) teenage phase where he thinks everyone in a position of authority just lives to ruin his life.

It doesn’t really help that his brother, who is one year older, is a model student - top academic performer in his year, scholarship holder and all round star pupil. They have a lot of the same teachers and the feedback they give about the kids is obviously very different. I’m sure that has an impact, although we have never compared the two or expected the same things of them academically; they both have their strengths and get to shine in their own ways. They have a great relationship with each other, they both support each other’s achievements and there is no negativity whatsoever between them about this. The younger one doesn’t express any resentment or anything like that, I just wonder sometimes if he doesn’t try to impress his teachers because he doesn’t think he’ll measure up to the very high standard his brother has set.


With regards to music support, there is a program at his school which he engages with. It’s fairly new (the school is less than 10 years old) and not super well established, but we have found the music staff to be very supportive in helping to find opportunities for him in music at school.


NLSBH

Dear @NLSBH

I hope it's okay that I combined your two posts into one, I thought this would be helpful for people reading my response.

I can hear that you are feeling frustrated by the situation. You have the perspective to see the way in which your son’s attitude at the moment is adding to his difficulties. You are absolutely right that questioning authority, and being suspicious of those in charge is really common for teens (and that this can sometimes be unhelpful).

You obviously care a great deal about your son having the best possible experience for the remainder of his school years. Because parents do have a tendency to be grouped into that ‘authority’ category, teens are sometimes reluctant to talk to parents about difficulties at school or with teachers, but it is worth exploring the situation with your son a little further, if he is open to it.

You sound very understanding that school is not his priority but rather something he needs to get through. For someone of his age, three more years no doubt feels like a lifetime, so even though he knows and acknowledges he needs to finish school, no wonder he is feeling stressed.

Sometimes, parents will find that spending time just listening to their teens' perspective and acknowledging why they feel the way they do is a really important step in being able to work together with them to address challenges.

The attitude with which someone approaches a situation can definitely make a difference, but if he is feeling like no-one understands him, then he is less likely to be willing to try a different approach.

If he feels genuinely heard regarding how much he dislikes school, he may be more willing to work with you to identify some coping strategies, or ways to respond that will be helpful, rather than get him in more trouble. The key is having a shared goal, which both of you agree on. This might be something like “getting through school with as little stress as possible”. But, it is important for your son to define the goal.
Once you have identified a goal, the two of you might be able to identify where some of the challenges are, and problem-solve these. It sounds like your son has some really outstanding strengths (such as persistence, and dedication), which you are able to see in the way he approaches his music study. He might also have ideas based on how he has gotten through challenges in the past which could be applied to school, or ideas about how you might be able to support him.

Alternatively, even though he is not willing to accept school-based support, he might be more open to a counsellor or psychologist who is not associated with the school. Sometimes teens are more willing to talk to someone who is separate from the school. Goals, motivation, difficulties with focus, stress at school and other life challenges are all topics a psychologist or counsellor can work through with teens.

If he’s not willing to have this discussion, your approach of setting boundaries around some areas (such as not being disrespectful to teachers), and being flexible regarding things like grades is a really good one.

This is a difficult situation for you as well as for him. Don’t forget to take time out from looking after your kids to look after yourself as well - and to acknowledge your own hard work.

Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.

Parent/Carer Community Champion
Birdwings

Re: Ask a Professional: My son hates school

Dear NLSBH,

I'm glad I came across your post. I just sat down with a cup of tea and fresh biscuit and thought I'd check into the parent forum. Perhaps, I was meant to read your letter. 

I ave an 18 year old son and a 16 year old daughter who is in Year 11. Our daughter is training to be a ballerina and we are immersed in this world of young people studying dance full time, versus school and the hours that need to go into becoming professional. There's also this mindset of absolute focus which goes with it which is what they need to succeed but can make it hard for them to juggle multiple hats. I often hear the dance years in Year 12 being quite dismissive of their HSC even though they're smart because they're not going to need it. They are made of different stuff. 

My grandmother was an international concert pianist who went on to work as a music critic and taught at the Con and my mother was her pupil, which is how my parents met. So, I'm very familiar with this world of pianos and what's required. My grandmother did 4 hours of practice a day as a female and men were expected to do six. It is all-consuming. 

One thing that crosses my mind is whether this school is the right fit for your son and whether he would be better suited to a performing arts high school and whether you have one in your area. I wonder whether they would understand the way he thinks better. If he's a square peg trying to make him fit could be a battlefield at best.

The other thing I'll just mention is there are some general character traits which go along with these intensely talented people and I put myself in the same boat s a writer. We can be intensely focused, obsessive and can become very narrow in our focus. I also mention Asbergers which doesn't correlate to the current DSMV definitions but being a non-conformist and doing your own thing can be an overlap between creatives and people on the spectrum. I come from a large family so I've been able to see how the talent pool plays out and we have quite a few quirky characters and some very high academic achievers. I have been fairly direct in my approach to all of this. I have always tried to extend my kids into multiple spheres. Both our kids did scouts which got them outside and camping etc. Practical. Our daughter is working at McDonald's. She was in the OC class in primary school and is gifted for her processing speed. She's lost interest and covid really derailed her. However, people have started calling her dumb and so she's now decided to fight back and wants to be dux. She's very competitive. There are many different ways to do the HSC these days as well such as via TAFE and doing mature entry. 

All that said, it all stresses me out. I am academic and I worry my kids are going to end up uneducated let alone unemployable. HOwever, we laid the ground work with doing reading and talking about current affairs etc and we're seeing them start to take that onboard for themselves. 

I hope that helps and I'd be happy to stay in touch.

Best wishes,

Birdwings

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