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Raising a Teenager: dealing with bad news

This article is part of a series about how we tried to help our teenage son through his secondary school career, using techniques and practices from the workplace. For an overview of all articles, a good place to start is the introduction (introduction to this article series), where I set the scene and at links to all subsequent articles.

This specific episode is about dealing with bad news.

How the story unfolded

After a few tough months of monitoring, trying to motivate, offering help, asking questions, making detailed schedules together and - unfortunately - poor results, our son went into his 4th grade exams with low expectations. A successful result would be nothing less than a miracle. We knew that even before the first exam had started. And even though it was no surprise, it felt bad going to school together to receive a terrible result. While the teacher committee kept telling us in way too many sentences that this result was simply not good enough to go the next grade in the same track, starting to give a place to the disappointment was hard.


We did not speak much on the way home, but only one or two days later a new challenge appeared on the horizon: finding a new school and a totally different track. This must have been some of the toughest couple of days we’ve went through together, as our son did not seem to show any interest in anything whatsoever anymore. Not only had he given up on his previous study, apparently he had developed a very deep resentment to literally everything even remotely related to school. There were some real moments of despair. Anger. Yelling at each other. Not pleasant at all.

But then, one day we decided to stop using the word “school” in our quest to find a new place where he could learn new stuff next year. We tried to shift focus to things that he was interested in at a more generic level. Stuff like games, building digital assets, connecting online with virtual friends. And after a short discovery round, we found out that there are study tracks that at least have some relation with these areas of interest. And we even managed to get him in the car to visit the place that is now his new school and signed him up for multimedia.

A couple of months into the new year, we see that the time and effort he’s putting into study has not much evolved from last year. But his overall results have significantly improved compared to last year and he’s getting overall positive feedback from his teachers. On several occasions, he shared some of the animations and illustrations he’s made in school and even talks with enthusiasm about some of the teachers. We’re not there yet, but there is a spark again that had gone missing long ago. And we’re really happy for this new opportunity to start moving forward again!

Some lessons we learnt

Breathe, and take a step back

When confronted with bad news, emotions kick in. And that’s a good thing. When you feel somewhere between slightly disappointed or even utterly devastated when something went wrong, it is clear evidence that you care. That it touches you. Give these emotions the time and space to sink in and embrace them. While you are on an emotional high, it is not often a good idea to make important decisions or dive into some heavy discussions.

Since the bad results were imminent for some time, we were fortunate that we could prepare ourselves for the bad news some time in advance. In retrospect, we might have even started looking for a new school or curriculum earlier on, but the school system does not really encourage you to: you tend to follow the cadence of evaluations throughout the year and are not really inclined to change schools in the middle of the year unless you’re told to.

Accept reality

Anyway, the evaluation stated that our son was excluded from the next grade in his current curriculum. Tough message. But there’s nothing you can do to change it. As from there, all the energy you put into fighting or resisting it is basically wasted. So, the sooner you can face reality, the sooner you can channel your energy into discovering your next step. Ideally with a positive mindset.

Find a path forward

People are usually good at finding solutions for problems. We even have a strong tendency to dive in feet first, way before we have a good understanding of the challenge at hand. But in this case, that came in handy. We basically had to find a new class and even a new school. Maybe overwhelmed by the emotions, our son was actually not very motivated to look at new schools. Just the word school itself was like a red flag being waved at a bull at that point, so we started looking just at what type of activities did spark some interest. Turned out that was in the area of graphical and game design. Based on that, we could at least start to look into existing offerings in the neighbourhood. With a clear goal that we could not wait very long to make a decision for next year.

Take that first next step

And so it happened that a few days later we paid a visit to what is new his new school. Going there and talking with some of his future teachers, being able to see and feel that they approach education differently than before and getting a glimpse of how things would evolve, pulled him over the line to sign up there.

Lots of practical things needed to be taken care of after that, but starting to move forward again was really crucial before even starting to think about the rest.


How this relates to the workplace

Shit happens at the workplace too. We all make mistakes, we all miss a target every now and then. It is a very common saying that every failure is an opportunity to learn. And yet, it is not always easy to see that while you’re still in the middle of it.

While the majority of what we do at work is much more work of the mind, we are all still human beings trying to do stuff together. We do not leave the emotional part of our being at home when we walk out the door on the way to the office. So when things go wrong, it is best to recognise that people involved may have certain feelings about that. It is a good thing to acknowledge those, give each other a moment to let them sink in.

Dealing with emotions at work requires a great deal of trust among team members. It’s a topic I expect to touch in future episodes. But in short, everyone on the team has a responsibility to help establish this on a team. As a manager, it’s crucial to show interest in the human being that each of your team member is. Help establish a culture where it feels safe to be oneself. And make people feel that wins are worth celebrating, but losses are equally absorbed and learned from as a team. As a team member, given a safe environment it is equally important to contribute transparently to a culture of openness. If you’re in trouble, your project seems to be getting off the rails, don’t be afraid to seek help. The sooner, the better. In the end, people will find out somehow anyway. And the longer that takes, the worse it often gets.

The steps we took to move forward after a (major) setback with our son are generic enough to apply in the workplace as well: let the emotional reaction sink in, accept what has happened, look at your options to get on track again and then take that first step forward again.




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Hi @Walter Buggenhout ,

It's great to hear that it finally worked out great for your son! It is amazing how one can be successfull once they do what they're really interested in - even not putting that much more effort into it. It just comes naturally. Your son is lucky to have open minded parents like you.

Thank you for sharing your story about this difficult time! It encourages me to have an similarly open mind when things might get difficult with my children.

Like # people like this
Christine P. Dela Rosa
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
Jan 30, 2023

Your son's progress coupled with your support is so heartening to hear! But more importantly, the road you took to get there came from a place of empathy and optimizing for your son's energy versus force-fitting an outcome. 

In addition to your very relevant lesson on trust, I think your story shows that the behavior we want to say has a lot to do with our motivation for that behavior. By nurturing options for interests and then aligning where the sparks to work, your family was Team Goal Alignment.

Amazing, @Walter Buggenhout👏

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Walter Buggenhout
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
Jan 30, 2023

Thanks @Lars Fessler! It is really great that our story does inspire to some extent 💙. Since I was in school myself, quite some time ago now, I've always felt writing down things works for me to clear and order my thoughts in some way. And it also helps to review things at a later time.

While I would not say we've achieved 100% success, finding a curriculum that aligns more with our sons intrinsic motivation did reduce some of the stress related to school. All in all, the current stage in life is just a step to prepare for what comes after; it's a fascinating journey, to say the least 😅 

Like # people like this
Walter Buggenhout
Community Leader
Community Leader
Community Leaders are connectors, ambassadors, and mentors. On the online community, they serve as thought leaders, product experts, and moderators.
Jan 30, 2023

Thanks @Christine P. Dela Rosa! Love the Team Goal Alignment metaphor; maybe that should/could end up on a t-shirt one day! 

Like Christine P. Dela Rosa likes this
Atlassian Team
Atlassian Team members are employees working across the company in a wide variety of roles.
Feb 08, 2023

Good read. Thanks for sharing!

Like Walter Buggenhout likes this
Çiğdem Büyükaşik
Marketplace Partner
Marketplace Partners provide apps and integrations available on the Atlassian Marketplace that extend the power of Atlassian products.
May 08, 2023

Great article @Walter Buggenhout
I love the way you link it to work places as well. "As a manager, it’s crucial to show interest in the human being that each of your team member is." 

Definitely a must, not so common though. But one thing I know is that we need to grow as human beings as we grow professionally. The ability to understand the nature of human beings takes time and needs to be built with determination. Not an easy job. 

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