Dear Career Doctor:
My son did very well in elementary school. Teachers told me he was bright and a pleasure to have in class. In middle school he started not to do as well and to not want to go to school. These problems have gotten much worse now that he is in high school. I’ve tried everything to change his attitude, which has gotten very bad. I am really afraid he will drop out and waste his good mind.
At wit’s end
When I hear stories like this from parents in my office, I think of two possible problems: either the child has gotten involved with drugs and alcohol, or the child has undiagnosed learning problems. If I were you, I would explore both possibilities.
Many bright kids who have undiagnosed reading or other learning problems do well through elementary school because they can remember enough of what the teacher says to pass tests. But as reading assignments get more intense in middle school and high school, they can’t keep up with the work. They are accused of being lazy or “not trying hard enough” but know that isn’t true. They feel angry and stupid and act out these feelings.
So, the first thing I would do is to talk to the school psychologist. Ask two things: Is my son hanging out with a druggy crowd? And will you test him for learning problems? If the school will not test him, call your local psychological association for a private referral. The Westchester County Psychological Association for example (telephone number: 914 723 3030) will give you a referral with a sliding scale if necessary.
Whether or not your child has learning problems, if you suspect that drugs may be causing his bad attitude, order some home urine tests that screen for multiple kinds of illegal substances. Teens using drugs often will not tell the truth about drug use unless confronted with solid evidence from these tests or if you have found drugs in their room. While I believe children have privacy rights, those go out the window if parents suspect drug use and need to search because of this.