Guest Expert

How to Help Teens Who Aren't “Living Up to Their Potential”


“If he just applied himself, he could be earning straight A's! He's so smart…he's just not living up to his potential.”

It's common for parents of teens with ADHD and other executive function challenges to feel disappointed with their teens' performance at school, and frustrated that they are not “living up to their potential.” But what if that judgment – that kids are not “living up to their potential” – is actually getting in the way of helping them succeed?

As parents, it's natural to set high standards for your children. But it's also important to do this in a way that motivates them to do their best.

Generally speaking…

  • Believing in a student's potential to succeed can be useful and supportive, but
  • Evaluating whether they are currently “living up to their potential” can do more harm than good.

Why Evaluating “Potential” is Problematic:

1.It focuses on weaknesses, rather than strengths

The statement “he's not living up to his potential” focuses exclusively on students' failures, and discounts any progress or improvements. Focusing on weaknesses and ignoring strengths can make matters worse by increasing students' discouragement and parents' frustration.

2.It encourages inappropriate, unrealistic expectations

When ideas about a teen's “potential” are based solely on one piece of the puzzle – like IQ or chronological age – it can lead to unreasonably high standards that create frustration, annoyance, and upset feelings for both parents and students. If a student with a high IQ has a B- in algebra, you might say he is “not living up to his potential.” But what if he also has ADHD? Learning differences? Depression? Anxiety? Problems with bullying? Any of these issues can have a major impact on students' ability to perform well in their classes.

3.It's impossible to measure

“Potential” is subjective. How can we ever say for sure if someone has lived up to her full potential? Even for someone at the top of her field, like an Olympic medal winner, it's always possible that she could have performed even better with more practice. Evaluating whether students are “living up to their potential” can be a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction for parents, and cause teens to believe that no matter what they do, their parents will never be satisfied…so why bother trying?

4. It creates an enormous amount of pressure

Most students – especially students with ADHD and anxiety – are already concerned about living up to parents' and teachers' expectations. The additional fear of “what if I don't live up to my potential?” can further increase this pressure and lead to perfectionistic thinking, overwhelm, and procrastination. These students can become paralyzed with indecision for fear of making the “wrong” choice and failing to live up to their potential.

5.There's no obvious solution

Stating that students are not “living up to their potential” conveys disapproval and judgment, without giving them a clear path to correct their mistakes. This can lead students to feel “stuck” and helpless, and reduces their self-confidence.

In general, focusing on whether students are “living up to their potential” creates frustration for parents, puts more pressure and stress on students, and fails to provide kids with any additional motivation or direction.

What Is The Alternative?

  • Accept reality. You may not like the current situation, but wishing things were different won't help. Instead of focusing on how your teen “should” be performing, pay attention to how he is performing, so you can get an accurate measurement of his current abilities.
  • Focus on your teen's strengths. Notice her successes, progress, and improvements, and comment on what she is doing well.
  • Set realistic expectations based on his current level of performance, taking into account all of his strengths and weaknesses – not just IQ or age.
  • Separate acceptance from performance. Reassure your teen that you will support her no matter what. Make it clear that your love and approval are not conditional on her performance.
  • Identify specific solutions. Work with your teen to identify specific areas for improvement, and outline specific steps he or she can take to move forward. Or find a coach or mentor who can help your teen develop and adopt more successful habits, behaviors, and beliefs.

It isn't easy to do, but the more you can stop worrying about your teen's “potential” and start focusing on his or her current reality and specific steps for improvement, the happier you both will be…and the more likely your teen will be to reach his or her potential in the long run!

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