My child is throwing away their education, from Dr Justin Coulson

What should you do if your senior student isn't engaged in their studies? In this extract from his new book, parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson explains how a 'need-supportive' approach can help.

One major challenge many parents face is a senior student who’s choosing not to work hard, and may not achieve a university entrance rank that’s high enough to enrol in a course that’s meaningful, either to the child or the parent. I’ll share a personal story about the need-supportive way we’ve approached this issue in our own home. As I write this book, my third daughter has just completed her final year of high school. We’ve been here multiple times.

Reassurance and engagement

As Grade [Year] 11 begins, my wife and I sit with our child and affirm our support and delight in her. We explain that school is almost done, and we ask what her hopes and aspirations are. We then assure her we’ll do all we can to support her in what she seeks, but we won’t be responsible for her school attendance, study, or results. Those things, we gently indicate, are on her.

Next, we ask what we can do to help. Would she like tutoring? Changes to her study space? Regular reminders from us to do things? Peace, quiet, and autonomy? Pocket money rather than a job? (In our family we’ve always encouraged our children to have jobs.) We play with ideas and solve problems, letting our daughter take the lead. Through warm engagement and involvement, we establish structures together that are volitionally determined by her. And we reassure her that if things change, all she has to do is let us know.

 A need-supportive process facilitates conversations about expectations in ways that preserve the relationship and elevate autonomy.

Believing in your child's competence

It demonstrates that we believe in our child’s competence, and allows us to develop structures that will be supportive. It enables our children to find joy in their final years of school, feel autonomous and choiceful, and focus on their personal goals rather than ours.

 A last word on this. Not every child needs to go to university or should go to university. Only around 30 per cent of Australian adults have university degrees, and the majority without tertiary qualifications contribute significantly to society and provide well for their families. (You might argue that they contribute more, in case after case, than some with degrees.) Allowing your child autonomy to follow their energy and interests is a pathway to what will generally be a life well lived. And it will take the pressure off you and your family.

 Once again we see this need-supportive process replicated. Become involved by exploring their world to meet their relatedness need. Trust in their innate growth tendencies and desire for mastery to support their competence need. And solve problems together to support their autonomy needs.

Remember – your dreams for your child are yours. Our job is not to raise a child who satisfies all of our hopes and dreams. It’s to raise a child who can pursue and fulfil their hopes and dreams. And if they shrug their shoulders and say they don’t have any dreams for the future, that’s ok for now. The process stays the same. We patiently encourage them to persist in working hard so they have options when they do discover what path they wish to follow. And we gently but clearly work with them to find a pathway forward that is productive and positive.


Abut the book and Dr Justin Coulson

This is an edited extract from The Parenting Revolution: A guide to raising resilient kids by Dr Justin Coulson (ABC Books, $34.99).

Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host and parenting expert on Channel 9’s ‘Parental Guidance’, the founder of, and one of Australia’s most trusted parenting experts.

He has written many books about raising children, multiple peer-reviewed journal articles and scholarly book chapters.

You can watch a webinar Justin presented for The Parents Website, Guiding your children sensitively through tough times