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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.