Meet Alex, a gifted young man attending Yale University on a partial scholarship. Throughout his life, he's excelled not only in academics but also in water polo.
However, college life presents new challenges: homesickness, academic pressure, and the temptations of campus culture. These factors converge, and Alex starts failing his classes.
Keen not to disappoint his parents—his dad a judge, his mom a corporate strategist—he keeps his struggles a secret. He convinces himself, 'I can pull this together.'
But he doesn't. Instead of catching up on assignments, he loses himself in video games. Rather than studying, he uses marijuana as a stress reliever.
22% of students polled in the 2019 ACHA National College Health Assessment reported marijuana use in the last 30 days
Despite the downward spiral, Alex maintains the facade of success in his regular calls home. "Everything's great, Mom. Classes are challenging but manageable. Oh, and I aced my last midterm," he assures her.
His parents, proud and relieved to hear of their son's supposed achievements, suspect nothing. That is, until they receive a jarring phone call from the university.
The voice on the other end informs them that Alex is on academic probation and, worse still, his scholarship is at risk of being revoked due to his failing grades.
The carefully constructed image Alex had maintained crumbles in an instant, leaving his parents shocked and disappointed, but more importantly, concerned for their son's well-being and future.
Now, Alex must face the difficult conversation he's avoided for so long, and together as a family, they must confront the reality and repercussions of his actions.
Why do students lie to their parents about academics?
Alex's situation isn't unique.
According to the Spring 2019 ACHA National College Health Assessment pulling from a final data set consisting of 67,972 students at 98 schools, found the following:
53.3% of students "Felt overwhelmed by all you had to do in the last 2 weeks."
51% of students said within the last 12 months, academics had been traumatic or very difficult to handle
Navigating the complexities of college life can be a formidable challenge for students, especially when expectations for independence and fear of disappointing parents collide.
As exemplified by Alex, a Yale student who finds himself on academic probation, the situation can quickly spiral out of control.
Expectations for independence, fear of consequences, and a lack of executive function skills can collectively contribute to a cycle of academic failure and deception.
The overwhelming expectation of independence
One significant factor is the expectation of independence. Many parents send their kids off to college with the understanding that this is a time for them to become self-reliant adults.
This expectation can create unspoken pressure for students to handle their struggles on their own, further discouraging open communication about challenges they may be facing.
Students often internalize this pressure, seeing it as a sign of weakness to admit they're struggling. They don't want to tarnish the image their parents hold of them as capable, independent young adults. So, they keep up the charade, often until it's too late to easily remedy the situation, as was the case for Alex.
The need for students to appear independent can create a cycle of dishonesty that helps no one. Recognizing this can be the first step for families to develop more open, honest relationships that better support the student's well-being and academic success.
Fear of consequences
In the case of Alex, the fear of disappointing his high-achieving parents creates a psychological barrier against coming clean about his academic struggles.
He worries that his parents might view him as a failure, thereby diminishing their trust in him to manage his own life. The potential loss of his partial scholarship adds another layer of complexity; the financial implications aren't just about his education but the family's status and long-term goals.
Alex is also fearful of immediate repercussions. His parents, with their professional backgrounds, have a reputation to uphold, and news of Alex's academic probation could tarnish their social standing.
Moreover, he fears the emotional fallout within the family and the possibility of parental support being withdrawn for future educational or career opportunities.
For Alex, lying becomes a self-protective measure against a web of perceived negative consequences.
A lack of executive function skills
At the core of Alex's struggles is a lack of executive function skills—critical mental processes for managing tasks, controlling impulses, and solving problems.
As he confronts the unique challenges of college life, his underdeveloped executive function skills make it difficult to prioritize his workload, manage time effectively, and resist immediate temptations like video games or marijuana for stress relief.
These deficiencies make it hard for him to take appropriate actions to turn his academic performance around.
Had Alex possessed stronger executive function skills, he would have been better equipped to balance his responsibilities, communicate transparently with his parents, and seek help when necessary.
Instead, he resorts to lying as a temporary solution, failing to address the root problem and exacerbating his difficulties in the long run.
The lack of executive function skills, in essence, becomes a catalyst for a cycle of academic decline, deception, and emotional stress.
What can parents do to support their students who are not being honest?
Recognizing the root issues plaguing Alex's academic performance, his parents decide to take proactive steps to turn the situation around.
Contact an executive function coach
Engage in regular Family Team Meetings
They also commit to regular Family Team Meetings to foster open communication and emotional support.
At the start of each month, the family gathers for a Family Team Meeting to discuss Alex's challenges and achievements. These meetings serve as a safe space where Alex can be honest about his academic struggles without fear of judgment.
The family uses these sessions to set realistic goals, assess progress, and discuss coping strategies, fostering a collaborative approach to problem-solving.
They also allow Alex's parents to understand his specific challenges, helping them provide more targeted support.
Weekly sessions with an executive function coach
Simultaneously, Alex begins twice-weekly meetings with an executive function coach who specializes in ADHD.
These sessions are instrumental in teaching him how to prioritize tasks, manage time, and control impulses.
Get assessed for a learning disability
In light of his struggles, Alex also decides to undergo ADHD testing, which results in a diagnosis.
After taking a free executive function skills assessment, Alex and his parents work together to find a professional assessor to evaluate his learning needs using the Executive Function Specialists directory.
Work with the school disability resource department
Armed with this information, he works with his school's disability department to secure accommodations and additional support, further leveling the playing field for his academic pursuits.
This multi-pronged approach not only addresses the symptoms of Alex's struggles but also targets the root causes, providing a more sustainable path toward academic and personal success.
A year later, the changes in Alex are both remarkable and heartening. Gone are the days of skipped assignments and stress-fueled gaming marathons.
Instead, Alex is managing his courses effectively, earning grades that reflect his capabilities. He's become an active participant in classroom discussions and has even started a study group for challenging subjects.
His newfound time-management skills also allow for a balanced social life and continued involvement in water polo.
Perhaps most significantly, Alex has discovered a profound sense of purpose. Fueled by his own experiences and struggles, he decides to pursue a career as a special education teacher.
He wants to be the guiding force for students who grapple with challenges like ADHD and anxiety, helping them harness their strengths and navigate their weaknesses.
His parents, observing this incredible transformation, couldn't be prouder. They see not just the restoration of their son's academic standing, but the emergence of a compassionate, self-aware individual committed to making a positive impact in the lives of others.
The journey wasn't easy, but the family has emerged stronger, united by the shared experience of overcoming adversity to achieve success.
If you would like to learn more about how working with an executive function coach can transform your student's school experience, reach out today to book your free consultation.
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About the author
Sean G. McCormick is the founder of Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered. He also founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains special education teachers, school psychologists and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges. He lives in Petaluma with his wife and two daughters.