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When Teens Aren’t Working Up to Their Potential: A Potential Problem

​Author: Patrick C. Friman, Ph.D., ABPP, Boys Town

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is that their teenage children are not working up to their potential. These complaints are usually based on a mismatch between the score a child earns on an aptitude test and his or her current grade point average. (Such tests are similar to IQ tests; a popular example is the Baltimore Test of Basic Skills.)

Although a high score on an aptitude test suggests certain kinds of abilities in children, it is a very poor indicator of a child’s full potential. After I meet with the parents and hear their complaints, I often joke with the children, telling them that if only they’d “bombed” the aptitude test, their parents would be delighted when they brought home C’s and B’s. But because they scored so high, their parents expect A’s. There is much more, however, to earning straight A’s than a mere high aptitude test score.

More closely linked to success are capacities such as being able to defer gratification, focus on and put forth effort, organize tasks and self-motivate. Unfortunately for parents (and children and teachers), there are no widely used standardized tests that measure these capacities in kids. Consider this: There are homeless persons in cities across the country who have high aptitudes (high IQ’s). But I would be willing to bet my last dollar that no homeless person anywhere in this country has well-developed capacities such as those I just mentioned. Why? Because these are the capacities that always lead to success. A person who possesses these capacities and can achieve high aptitude test scores has an even greater potential for success. And a person who possesses these capacities but earns only average aptitude scores still usually does much better than average.  

My parenting advice for those with children who have exhibited a high aptitude but are currently performing at an average or below average level is to assess whether their sons and daughters are deficient in the capacities I have sketched. If that is the case, and I strongly suspect it usually is, I suggest that parents stop talking about potential and start a conversation about how to help their teenagers develop those capacities.  Obtaining professional assistance might be a good idea, but only if the professional is willing to work on developing capacities needed for success and avoids diagnosing or discussing “failure to meet potential.”

This content was created by Boys Town expert Pat Friman. To learn more about him, visit his expert page here.

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