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Parents: What to Do When Your Teenager Just Isn’t Living Up to Their Potential

It’s a well-known trope for a reason: sometimes teenagers who are smart don’t always live up to their potential.


There is obviously a big difference between intelligence and dedication, and sometimes, intelligent children learn early on that they can do well in school or other activities simply by coasting on their natural abilities rather than by working hard. It might be a helpful method in elementary or middle school, but by the time these students arrive at high school or college, it becomes clearer that this method isn’t going to put them on top.


This isn’t always what happens to naturally brilliant children; students can have difficulty reaching their full potential for many different reasons. In any case, as a parent it can be extremely frustrating to watch. This post will try to offer advice and helpful insight. Read on for advice on dealing with a teenager who isn’t putting his or her full brain power to full use!


No Perfect Parenting Method(s)


Before we delve into the details, it is important to acknowledge that there are no perfect parenting methods—every parent and every child is different, and methods that work wonderfully for some might be totally useless for others. The good news is that you don’t need to limit yourself to just one method or course of action; you can try out many different things and see what works and what doesn’t. There may not be any perfect solution to help a child who is struggling with reaching their full potential, but with plenty of communication as well as trial and error, anything is possible.


Communication is Key


If you’re reading this, chances are you probably feel frustrated with your high schooler. Maybe you’re operating under time constraints (like college application deadlines) or maybe you’ve been worrying for a while that your teen will end up throwing their potential down the drain.


These are all very valid feelings, and it’s incredibly important to communicate under these circumstances. Talk to your teen about your concerns. To ease into this conversation, you may want to consider finding a jumping off point based off of something recent that’s happened. For example, rather than simply accusing your teen of not trying hard enough, you might say something like, “Hey, I see you’ve registered for all parallel classes next school year. Have you thought about taking any AP classes instead?”


Make an effort to try and find out why your teen doesn’t feel as motivated as you think they should be. Maybe they’ve been distracted by something personal or maybe they’re intimidated by the competitive nature of their high school. Maybe they simply aren’t interested in their courses at school — whatever the reason, it’s important to at least gain some insight on the situation, and to let your teen know that you’re there to listen and troubleshoot, not just to criticize.


Try to have a two sided conversation with your teenager, again, you should be firm but not overly critical. You want to make sure that both you and your teen feel heard; you don’t want them to feel like you’re getting on their case for no reason. Make sure your teen knows that you aren’t pushing them towards success because you will only approve of them if they’re successful—you’re pushing them because you want them to become the best version of him/herself possible. You’re doing it because you love them and want the best for them. Be sure to stay on message: I love you and I want the best for you.


Put in the effort to try to see things from your teen’s perspective, too — you were young once, and while it may or may not be hard to remember how you felt when you were a student or a teenager, remember that your child’s experiences are just as real and valid as your own. Finally, be sure to check in with yourself and make sure that your expectations for your teen are realistic. It’s more than ok to want your child to do well and gain a competitive edge in life, but if you’re expecting them to become the President of the United States or be working at a major law firm by age 15, it might be time to reevaluate.

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Push, But Don’t Preach


In some cases, it might be a good idea to try and lightly push your teenager in the right direction. Maybe they’re unsure of what they want or what they’re good at, or maybe they truly just don’t know what kinds of opportunities are available for a smart high school student.


There’s no doubt that, in the end, your high schooler should be doing the work on their own. But if you want to provide that little extra push in order to get them started on an upward trajectory, you might think about printing out lists of extracurriculars, looking over their high school course catalogue with them, or sending them emails with compelling information you’ve found about colleges or summer programs.


If your child isn’t the best at time management or meeting deadlines, try checking in on their coursework from time to time. Again, you want to find a balance between offering to help your teen without becoming too overbearing or allowing them to take advantage of you.


Try asking questions instead of giving orders. While you may want to say something like, “Your big Spanish paper is due next week and you’re going to be busy with the volleyball tournament all weekend. You need to start your paper tonight, or else!”, but changing your approach to “I know you have that big Spanish paper due next week and you’re going to be busy with the volleyball tournament all weekend. Do you have a plan to get your paper done in time?” might work better in terms of checking in with your child while still allowing them to have agency over their own work.


You should aim to encourage your high schooler to manage their schedule on their own and work on figuring out how to juggle multiple responsibilities and deadlines, especially since they’ll have to do this all on their own once they arrive at college.


Consider Incentives or Positive Reinforcement


Sometimes, incentives and positive reinforcement can be helpful motivators for students who need an extra push. Ultimately, you want your child to be internally motivated to do their best, but small rewards and reinforcements can help teach them that hard work ultimately pays off.


These incentives don’t need to be huge or costly. If your teen makes the honor roll or agrees to join a few extracurriculars, for example, in return you might consider taking them out to a meal at their favorite restaurant, letting them attend an upcoming concert, or allowing them to host a small party or get together at your house.


Remember to offer your teenager encouragement when they tell you about their recent wins, like getting a good grade or receiving positive feedback from a teacher — be sure to let them know how proud of their efforts and their hard work you are.


Final Thoughts


It’s hard feeling like your brilliant child isn’t living up to his or her potential. While there is no perfect one-size-fits-all solution, two of the best things you can do in this situation are to communicate with your child and encourage them to work to achieve their full potential.  


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


For more information about motivation, skill-building and preparing for college, take a look at these blog posts:


What to Do When Your Student Just Isn’t Prepared for College

A View Ahead: Thinking About The Skills You Need for the College Student You’ll Become

What’s the Pressure Going To Be Like? A Guide to Understanding the Stresses of College

What Type Of Student Do Colleges Want?


Does your teen want access to expert college guidance — for free? When they create their free CollegeVine account, they will find out their real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve their profile, and get their questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Encourage them to sign up for their CollegeVine account today to get a boost on their college journey.

Devin Barricklow
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).