Advice: He's Miserable at School

Hara Estoff Marano gives advice to a parent of an unhappy 13-year-old.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on February 2, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The Lowdown on Junior High My husband and I are struggling with a decision for our 13-year-old son, who is in the eighth grade at a public exam school and unhappy in his second year there. He says he does not like the school, does not try very hard and is just getting by academically. He wants to leave next year for high school. That will entail an expensive private school. We don't want him to spend his high school years being unhappy, which makes our home life unhappy as well. He is very intelligent and I hate the thought that he is not working up to his potential. Yet there is no guarantee he will work hard in a new school either. What will help the three of us make the right choice?

Talking to your son and finding out what is reallygoing on at his current school. I would be willing to bet that there is an unfortunate peer situation that is making your son unhappy. The social climate of school matters greatly at any age. No child can learn in a sea of hostility or discomfort. School is a very aversive place if kids feel their peers don't like them. Junior high is a particular challenge socially and prime time for bullies to ply their special brand of meanness. Perhaps your son is being bullied by one or more students.

Asking your son directly whether he's being ignored, teased or bullied is not likely to get you anywhere. Being victimized is so humiliating (kids think it's their own fault) that children rarely initiate discussion of it or own up to it, unless a safe climate of understanding has been established. But haven't you observed whether your son has friends? Does he bring anyone home or spend time with any schoolmates? That's your first big clue.

What you must do is demonstrate to your son that you are really interested in the nature of his school experience without getting anxious, emotional or judgmental. And that you will be supportive to him. I suggest that you carve some time out when you have nothing to do but listen and approach your son. It should be at a time that's unhurried for him, too, such as when you are driving somewhere together in a car.

You want to find out what your son's day-to-day experience is like. Ask him what he likes about his school. Ask him what he doesn't like. Ask him to name some kids he likes. And to tell you about some he doesn't, and why. Ask him who he thinks likes him. You should be having these kinds of conversations with your son regularly, anyway.

To improve academic performance it's often necessary to foster social functioning. Remember, bullies do not pick on just anyone. They pick on kids who lack social skills.

To learn more about these issues, I suggest you pick up a copy of my book. "Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me?": A Guide To Raising Socially Confident Kids.