The most immediate road to your daughter’s future runs through her life at school, and by nearly every available measure girls, as a group, do well academically. They get better grades than boys, are less likely than boys to repeat a grade or drop out of school, consistently outperform boys in reading and writing, do as well as boys in mathematics, are more likely than boys to enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school, outnumber male college students, and are more likely than boys to complete college.
Girls’ academic advantage seems to arise from a combination of nature and nurture. Fine motor skills develop faster in girls than in boys and they promote written and verbal abilities by enabling girls to use pens and pencils and articulate words. Young girls seek one another out as playmates and together they talk, make up stories, and favor other language-heavy activities that reinforce their verbal skills. Further, the areas of the brain associated with self-control develop more rapidly in girls than in boys and make it easier for girls to sit quietly and build early literacy skills. Indeed, many girls begin their academic careers as attentive, persistent, and eager students and continue on that trajectory. Despite all this good news, along the way most girls run into some sort of difficulty at school. And when a teenager hits an academic snag, parents can be unsure of their role in helping her address the challenge.
Trina, a visibly angry tenth grader, and her mother, Michelle, sat beside each other on my couch in my office the first time we met. Trina refused to speak. She had been dragged to the appointment and, frankly, I hadn’t expected that she’d be joining us. In setting up the appointment over the phone, Michelle indicated that she was coming in for some guidance regarding Trina’s schoolwork, so I was surprised when I went to my waiting room to find Trina sitting opposite Michelle, a casually dressed woman holding a large, worn purse on her lap. Standing in the doorway of my waiting room, I nodded to Michelle before turning to Trina.
“Hi,” I said, in a tone that expressed my surprise to see her. “I’m Dr. Damour. You must be Trina.” She raised one eyebrow, pursed her lips, game me a wry “no shit, Sherlock” look, and said, “Yeah.” Hoping to make it clear that I did not have a dog in Trina’s fight with her mother, I asked, “Will you be joining my meeting with your mom?” Though I was offering Trina a choice about attending our appointment, her mom clearly wasn’t. Trina looked at her mother, looked at me, did the mental math, said, “Okay, fine,” then stood up and trailed behind her mother and me as we went to my office.
This is another reason why many talented clinicians won’t work with adolescents: they don’t want to get pulled into a fight between a parent and a teenager. One advantage of working with adults is that they come to psychotherapy under their own steam and they, or their benefits, pay for it. Those of us who work with teenagers routinely juggle competing agendas and the fact that the wishes of the client we are retained to serve (the teen) may not line up with the wishes of those who are footing our bill (the parents). Like any seasoned clinician who works with adolescents, I have a developed choreography for the tricky dance of aligning myself with, and only with, the teen’s best interest. The dance step I used that day was the one where I never insist that a teen come into my office. But I’ll allow a parent to require it while being clear that I’m hoping to be useful to both parties.
Once situated in my office, Michelle spoke first. She began despairingly. “As I mentioned on the phone, Trina was a good student up until last year, when she started high school and joined up with a party crowd that doesn’t care about school. She did okay in ninth grade but not great. This year, her first-semester grades were two B’s, two C’s, and a D in math—and she’s a really smart girl. I tried to help by making her do her homework in the kitchen where I could keep an eye on her while I cooked dinner and answered email. That didn’t work, so I started checking her homework to see that it was done, and done right, before she took it to school. I even stood there and made sure that it went into the right folders in her binder so she would remember to give it to her teachers. I called you right after I got a message from Trina’s tenth-grade advisor. Apparently Trina stopped turning in her work and might fail two of her classes.”
When I think of teenagers and their schoolwork, I’m reminded of the delightful movie The Princess Bride and Vizzini’s great line, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia.’” Michelle fell victim to a treacherous parenting blunder: never get into a power struggle with a teenager who holds all the power. When it comes to their schoolwork, teenagers have almost total control and you have none. If your daughter chooses to take responsibility for her schoolwork, chances are that it will go well. If she chooses not to, she cannot be overridden by parental force. Unless your daughter has a diagnosis that prevents her from doing well in school, such as a learning or attention-deficit disorder, by adolescence she is in the driver’s seat when it comes to how she handles her academics. As the driver, she may request or accept your help or the support of others who have her best interests in mind. But, as Michelle learned, if a teenager does not want things to go well at school, she can easily get her way.
Why would a teenager sabotage herself? Trina was clearly annoyed by Michelle’s efforts to help her with her homework, but why can’t Trina see that her own plans for the future might benefit from her academic success? Unfortunately, some teenagers lack the maturity to see it this way, especially if they feel that doing well in school compromises their drive toward autonomy. Michelle’s efforts to improve Trina’s grades inspired Trina’s need to prove that her mother didn’t have that kind of power. Trina was willing to torpedo her GPA to make her point. Not a mature move, but definitely one I’ve seen teenagers make.
Trina sat sullenly through our meeting and alternated between giving me a dead-eyed stare and looking out the window behind me. After Michelle explained why they had come, I asked Trina if she had anything she wanted to add. I wasn’t surprised when all I got back was a flat “No.” It was abundantly clear that they were playing out in front of me the exact dynamic that brought them to my office in the first place. Michelle could make Trina do her homework, but she couldn’t make her turn it in; Michelle could drag Trina to psychotherapy, but she couldn’t make her talk.
Autonomy. For the win.
I struck a pragmatic tone (because teens cannot stand any sort of “therapisty” speak) and shared what I was thinking. “Clearly, you’re in a standoff. Michelle, you can’t figure out how to get Trina to improve at school, and Trina, you don’t want to be controlled by your mom. I think we can find our way through this, but I’m not sure it makes sense for Trina to join our meetings. Trina, if you ever feel that I can be of help to you, my door is open. I’d be happy to meet with you on your own or with your folks. Michelle, I’m wondering if you and your husband would be willing to meet with me to see if we can find our way out of this impasse. You want what’s best for Trina, but what you’re doing right now isn’t working.” Trina was clearly relieved to be uninvited to our future meetings and Michelle accepted my offer to return with Trina’s dad so that we could figure out how to capitalize on Trina’s drive toward autonomy to encourage her to take school more seriously....