Thursday 23 November 2017

What do I do with my son wanting to take the easy route in school?

David Coleman

David Coleman

I would be grateful if you could advise me on a problem within our home. Our 17-year-old son wants to leave the secondary school he is in and attend a school project for youngsters who have "fallen through the cracks" so to speak. He says he will do his leaving cert if he is allowed to go there.

He is an honours student and we have had several meetings with his current school who are very keen to keep him. I feel he may have an anxiety problem. He says he cannot bring himself to get up to go to school each morning.

I have spoken discreetly to the lady who runs the school project he wants to attend. She focuses entirely on the needs of the student and it certainly seems to be a more relaxed way of learning. She did confirm that he would still be aiming for the leaving cert but not at honours level.

I'm worried that my son seems to be lowering his expectations and since some of his friends are not too bothered about school I'm afraid he, too, will settle for less. However he is doing nothing at the moment and would it be better for him to at least achieve something? I feel he needs to talk to someone on a psychological level, which his current school will provide, but he does not seem to want to be talked out of his decision to drop out of one school and start up in the other school project.

I sense a great deal of disappointment in the tone of your query. I'd guess that you can see huge potential in your son and his academic ability. I imagine that you'd love him to use that ability to the best that he can.

Student-focused as the project school appears to be, you seem to feel that he won't be challenged as much as he could be.

From what you describe, getting some kind of a leaving cert result is preferable to getting none, and yet if he is forced to continue in his current school he may just drop out entirely.

Perhaps your aim should not be to try to talk him out of a decision to move from one school to another but rather to try to explore with him the reasons why he wants to make this move.

Clearly he is unhappy in his current school. Understanding the reasons why he is so unhappy may help you and him to see if there is anything that can be done to make it better for him there.

When you talk to your son he may not be able to describe, for you, what bothers him about school, although you seem clear that something makes him anxious.

Think yourself about what that might be. Then, suggest those possibilities to him rather than waiting for him to identify them for you.

Some suggestions to explain his anxiety about school include that he is being bullied, that he is afraid of failing to achieve his potential, that he doesn't want to disappoint you by failing to meet your expectations of him, that he feels he has opted out so much already that he can't now catch up or that he can't decide what he wants for the future and feels too much pressure to achieve good leaving cert results.

By thinking about another school where the academic expectations may appear to be lower he can avoid many of these possible anxieties.

If he is getting a message from any friends at the project school that it is 'easier', or that you get treated with more respect, then I can imagine that it is an attractive option.

In an ideal world you will be able to have this kind of conversation with him, maintaining a semi-neutral stance to allow him to talk openly, and really take on board his point of view.

I know from experience that it can be almost impossible for parents to remove themselves far enough from the emotions of a situation to get the perspective required.

Similarly, many sons and daughters feel their parents will never understand and so never trust them enough to open up. If this is the case then independent counselling or guidance could be a really helpful way forward.

You say that the school he is in now are offering to arrange some kind of guidance or counselling for him and that is great. I could see him rejecting this, however, if he feels that it is solely focused on keeping him in his current school. He may not feel that it is independent enough.

Have you the resources to consider getting him some counselling or guidance that may have a more open agenda (or at least that he can acknowledge is independent and has no fixed agenda)?

This is the dilemma that you face, because at his age he needs to be fully involved in every decision that affects him and you may have to let him make some decisions, even when you fear the outcome may be disastrous.

At least if you trusted his counsellor to guide him as best he or she can then you may be more accepting of how he feels right now.

The most important thing is that your son explores his reasoning for, and is fully aware of the consequences of, any decision that he makes.

If he is fully informed in this way, and his desire to move remains as determined then you may find it easier to let him forge his own path.

Encouraging him to take his head out of the sand and make this kind of informed choice about his future should be your goal. Perhaps your only decision needs to be whether he does this with you or with a counsellor.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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