Why Is My Smart Teenager Getting Bad Grades?

One of the most common complaints I get from parents is this one:  “I know my teenager has the intelligence to get good grades but he/she doesn’t and I don’t know why!” There is always a reason for this problem.  In my experience, smart teenagers who get bad grades are preoccupied with something else.  The majority of the time it is not by choice but a reaction to emotional difficulty.  The energy that is supposed to be going towards preparing for the future is instead spent on trying to help make themselves feel better because of other things in life that aren’t going well.  Usually the culprits are present and/or past family troubles, social problems with friends, or actual/potential romantic relationships that end badly.  Teenagers who have a hard time expressing their emotions about these problems in words tend to internalize the problems in the form of depression or anxiety or externalize the problem in the form of drug use, defiance or aggressive behavior. 

Teenagers tend to respond to trouble in their lives in a characteristically intense adolescent way.  Difficulties in life can produce emotions that are difficult for them to tolerate.  Emotions like sadness, worry, anxiety, or fear can feel overwhelming for developing minds.  They may also feel that their emotions are not OK to talk about.  In an attempt to deal with these strong emotions teenagers pay a lot of attention to them.  They can ruminate and brood, or try desperately to distract themselves from or avoid what they are feeling. 

The part of this equation that parents can overlook is this: these emotions do not just turn off, trying to deal with them is a 24/7 job, and since emotions always exert outward pressure to be expressed, that job is draining and exhausting.  So much energy is spent trying to manage these emotional troubles that relatively little energy is left over for school work and other responsibilities.  For me, when a smart teenager is getting bad grades it’s always a sign of some emotional trouble. 

So why aren't they getting better grades when they are smart enough to do so?  The answer is they are too tired from the effort required to deal with emotions that at times can be overwhelming. Teenagers in counseling learn to put their emotions into words and find that they can indeed work through them. The energy that has been spent trying to keep those emotions at bay is released and can be used to improve other areas of their lives such as grades.  This is often the case in my practice.

Side note: Parents of smart teenagers commonly respond to falling grades with tutors.  I believe that this response should be reconsidered for two reasons.  First, smart teenagers can figure out how to improve their grades on their own if they were able to release the energy that they spent trying to address emotional problems.  If this is the case tutoring may not be dealing with the root of the issues but only a symptom of it.  Second, if there is an underlying emotional problem that has not been dealt with, sending your teenager to see a tutor can inadvertently send them the message that it is not OK to talk about their feelings and that they should try to power through emotions without dealing with them.  In the end this message tends to make the underlying emotional trouble worse.  This can sometimes be the root of some of the teenagers I see that are already “workaholics”.  They try desperately to avoid their difficult emotions by losing themselves in their school work.  

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If you are concerned that your teenager's emotional well-being is affecting their grades at school or if you feel that your teenager may be putting too much pressure on themselves to succeed please contact me for a free consultation by calling 786-664-7426 or by filling out the form below. 


Miguel Brown, M.S.Ed

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By Miguel Brown