My 13-year-old son has been going through a tough time recently. He has always done very well at school, but has started falling behind, which is worrying us. I have myself only just recovered from a very long and serious illness and I think this might have affected him more than we realised. I’d like to know how to support him.

I’m so glad to hear you have recovered from your illness. This must be a great relief to all of your family. As you rightly point out, it seems likely that your son’s difficulties at school are related to this difficult family time. Being thirteen, he is at an age where he’s dealing with a whole host of turbulent feelings and trying to make sense of them.

Seeing a parent, someone you love and on whom you totally rely, facing a major battle in their lives can be very destabilising for a young person. Inevitably, they want to stay strong for that person and give them the support they need, but sometimes this means repressing those feelings of uncertainty and fear.

This can only work for so long before those feelings begin to bubble up in other ways and it seems that might be causing him to feel disengaged or overwhelmed by the academic demands upon him.

I think the most important thing you and your husband can do to support him is to be as open as you can when it comes to talking about the difficult times you have all been through as a family.

He might have internalised a great deal of worry about the future, which has not been fully dealt with. Perhaps setting aside some time when you and you husband can immerse him in some fun family days, away from all of the issues, will allow him to relax and open up a little more about how he feels.

The key to this is not to press him for information, but to start conversations with opportunities built in. For example, ‘It’s lovely to see you having fun, it must have been hard for you too in the past few months…’ Keeping those lines of communication open with teenagers is so important, because often their first instinct is to close them down. However, it’s equally important not to put too much weight of expectation on his shoulders and allow him the time to work through those complex feelings.

Liaising with the school is also a good idea. If you haven’t already done so, talking to his teachers about the fact that he might be dealing with some issues related to your recent illness will allow for them to be supportive and encouraging too.

It will give them a deeper understanding of the situation, so they can avoid putting too much academic pressure on him and also give him extra support when he needs it.

It’s also worth drilling down into where exactly he is falling behind. Is it across the board or in certain subjects? This will help you to further target anything he’s struggling with, so that you can help at home too. By which I don’t mean being overly involved in his homework – it’s important he retains his independence with this, but be aware enough 
to step in when he gets stuck with something.

His confidence may have taken a bit of a knock too, so building this back up will in turn filter positively into other areas of his life, including school.

Encouraging him to be involved in an activity unrelated to school once a week would be a good start. Socialising, and if it’s sport based, maybe getting fitter and running off a bit of steam, might help bolster his confidence and be a bit of fun away from the serious business of school.