The Disintegrating Student: Struggling But Smart and Falling Apart … and How To Turn Around 

Jeannine Jannot, Ph.D. has worked as a school psychologist, a psychology professor, and an academic coach. In The Disintegrating Student, she holds the hands of parents with formerly stellar students who’ve started to fall apart. Rather than immediately dispensing her “77 Tips to Be Productive and Well,” Jannot takes a back-to-basics approach, walking through common parenting missteps and the science of how each good intention backfires: being permissive, controlling, overprotective, enabling, and more. Cultural forces—including kidnapping fears, the movement to boost self-esteem, an emphasis on testing, and hyperconnectivity—also contribute to students melting down when they hit a “rigor tipping point.” In other words, they can swing academic success despite skill deficits and counterproductive habits, but only temporarily. At some point, students will need to rethink how they approach organization, time management, studying, mindset, stress, sleep, and screens. 

Jannot wants parents to understand how one’s self-concept is impacted “when smart kids start getting bad grades,” and why disintegrating students “will often reject well-intentioned offers of assistance,” even going so far as to create a “decoy explanation for their declining performance.” Importantly, she calls out perfectionism (“Students most at risk of disintegration tend to experience or perceive pressure coming from everyone, everywhere, all the time”) and negative attribution (“The inner monologue of a disintegrating student often defaults to negative explanations for events and outcomes—‘I’m stupid, everyone is stupid, everything is stupid’”). Kids need early experience with autonomy and failure, she concludes, in addition to our undivided attention, active listening, empathy, acknowledging the good, knowing our triggers, and being vulnerable. Oh, and our patience:

The chemical reaction caused by [the fight or flight response] normally lasts about 90 seconds…. In practical terms, this means that when you and your child are having an intense emotional reaction to something, responding within the first 90 seconds is a bad idea.

The ask of parents is both complicated—with loads of best practices and common pitfalls to consider—and simple: “[M]aintain a positive attitude and be more tolerant of normal adolescent behaviors.”

Only after parents have been duly coached does Jannot turn to the 77 practical tips these kids need, including “declutter” and “start something, anything.” (“Once you’ve started the term paper, your brain is going to keep working on it subconsciously,” she explains. “You’ve started an open loop in your brain … and your brain will be itching to close that loop by completing it.”) From as general as “monotask” to as specific as choosing between one of four note taking strategies, Jannot hits many of the essential bases. Remember that stress response? She says it can work for your kid: “Instead of being scared that you’re going to fail a test, be excited to take it and grateful that your body is giving you the energy you need to perform at your best.” In a similar line of thought she asks students to picture two people in line for a roller coaster. One is scared and one is excited. “The fascinating thing is that the people feeling excitement and the people feeling fear will all be experiencing similar physical effects like a rapid heart rate, sweating, and butterflies in their stomachs.” Moral of the story? “There’s a fine line between excitement and fear, and that line is drawn by your thought processes.” 

I would have liked to see issues of race and gender raised, particularly the concept of stereotype threat. Not acknowledging the various forms of disadvantage and trauma that can derail a child’s academic performance is a decision that will, either intentionally or accidentally, limit the book’s audience. 

Still, Jannot offers much of value. If caregivers and students try the strategies, and stick with them long enough to give them a chance to work, she assures, “struggling students [can] get back on their feet and back on track stronger than ever.”

This Boy We Made: A Memoir of Motherhood, Genetics, and Facing the Unknown

“When I have to make a quick parenting decision, I put my motherhood on trial,” Taylor Harris writes, in a different kind of parenting book. She invites the reader to tag along as she advocates, in hospitals and schools, for a medically complex Black boy who has yet to be offered a unifying diagnosis, all while managing her own diagnosed anxiety. “While prayer and my faith help to still the frantic waves of my brain, so does Zoloft,” she writes in a memoir that ends up being much more than an ode to her husband and son.

It serves that role handily though, capturing their strengths like bugs in amber. We get to know the self-assured, reliable husband “who’d bought a pair of Rockports in his twenties because they were comfortable, [and] showed up without delay or question.” It’s difficult for any parent to navigate a pediatric hospital, but Harris ably describes how racism makes everything so much worse: “A Black male, even one with a crisp goatee and blazer, must inquire in the most peculiar way, his nonverbal cues and tone alternating between calm and concern. He must not offend. He must show his spine. He must not offend.” 

If Paul’s quiet dignity oozes from the pages, Tophs’s imperfect perfection jumps out of them. Harris writes: 

[S]ometimes Tophs’s search for a word reminded me of computer coding. Instead of train, he might say, “What is that box thing that moves with those other boxes?” … Another time, angry at Paul in a restaurant, he yelled from the booth, “You’re not my dad!” He was quoting a line from Annie, starring Quvenzhané Wallis. He used this line again and again … [like] when he didn’t want to go potty. He’d even add, “I’m not an orphan. I’m a foster kid!” The timing of his Annie lines told us he identified with the character’s emotion. Her words became a vessel for his frustration and sense of betrayal. I don’t know if that’s a life hack, but … I saw it as a win, Tophs’s version of texting a GIF.

Harris’s story is eminently relatable. A lactation consultant blames her nursing technique rather than admitting a problem. She missed a feeding early on in Tophs’s life and wonders, “What if all my son’s maladies and challenges can be traced to this one moment … ? What if, in those early hours, I damaged a pathway, a circuit, that never quite repaired itself?” Her rumination feels as familiar as it is uniquely illustrative: “Ice cream is no longer just ice cream when it’s the last thing your son ate before he woke up, a shell of himself,” she writes, and, at another juncture, “I felt silly worrying about how Tophs smelled when we were out, but I did.… What should I say to them? We bathe him. I don’t even eat fish. It’s this medicine he takes, to fix a problem we’re not sure he has. It may be a fluke. He might drop dead.” 

Her family’s struggles are at times quotidian but no less interesting in Harris’s wry hands: “After heavy news, I tend to go numb, then turn inward with existential thoughts, whereas Paul hops over to another box in his mind and does the work in front of him. A profile written on me as Tophs’s mother would be titled ‘Woman Drifts Alone at Sea with Bag of Red Velvet Donuts.’ Paul’s would read ‘Man Gets Inbox Down to Seven.’”

Not everyone will appreciate the heavy dose of spirituality and figurative language (e.g., “the lab would sort through his exome, maybe the way dry cleaners sort through the mechanical rack of blazers and dresses until your garment is found”). The book’s pacing is a bit uneven, sagging under the weight of the middle, but that could be intentional, making us all feel viscerally the frustration of month after month spent craving medical and maternal redemption. “My chief concern as Tophs’s mother remained this sense that I couldn’t consistently get through to him,” she writes, “as though he were a place, and I was an eager but frustrated traveler who might never reach it.” But Harris ultimately does, through a long faithful bearing of witness. At one point Tophs says, “A lot of things have happened to me and I am perfectly made.” All told, This Boy We Made is too.

How To Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance & Other Challenges of Childhood

Joanna Faber and Julie King have a hard row to hoe. Their subject matter – the challenges of childhood – has been covered and covered well, many times over. When I received a copy of How To Talk When Kids Won’t Listen, the odds of it being worth reviewing seemed close to zero. But they nailed it. Part one includes tools for dealing with feelings (such as “simply listen with oh’s, ugh’s, mmm’s, and ah’s”), strategies for getting kids to cooperate, a problem-solving process to replace punishment, and ways to inspire without corrosive praise. What’s special isn’t the content. It’s that they present the basics of research-backed child wrangling skillfully, with comics that help break up the data dump (which, yay, feature drawings with different ethnicities and abilities), end-of-chapter summaries that are easy to post on a wall, and prose that’s relatable, practical, and even anticipates common objections (e.g., “Not every situation calls for acknowledging feelings! … “‘Mom, what does e-n-o-u-g-h spell?’ You don’t need to respond, ‘Sounds like you’re feeling frustrated and unsure of how to pronounce that strange and confusing collection of letters.’ You can simply say ‘enough.’”) 

Faber and King relate to parents who make a muddle of things, writing, for example, “Our intention is to be soothing…. It will be OKAY! But the message they hear is a different one: ‘You can’t have what you want and I don’t care, because your feelings are not important enough to bother about.’” At the same time, the authors successfully put the adult reader inside a child’s head: “How would you feel if your husband …” they often ask.

Part two is a little bit exemplar and a little bit additional justification, using real-life scenarios from letters, emails, and workshop conversations to demonstrate how the tools of part one can be applied in specific situations. You could skip it, but then you’d miss gems like, “When kids complain over nothing, just to get attention, we can just give them attention, because that’s what they need” and “If your child continues to whine, we give you permission to tell them ‘I can’t listen anymore,’ and leave the room!” Highly recommend as a primer for parents of young kids and a reminder for the more seasoned among us looking to better connect with tweens and teens. 

Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine

If you read Michele Borba’s Unselfie, you know what you’re getting in Thrivers: a book organized around desirable traits—this time, self-confidence, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism in addition to empathy—packed with practical suggestions on how to inculcate them in your kids. A characteristic passage reads: 

When kids are missing character strengths … their development is incomplete. They … turn out like beautifully wrapped packages but are missing the gifts inside. It is not too late to fill in the missing pieces in our kids’ development, but it requires switching our myopic obsession with scores, grades, and big fat résumés to a farsighted view of what they will need to lead meaningful lives.

Thrivers mostly covers ground well-trodden by others: our kids need more autonomy, more play, more comfort with failure, less tech, and less micromanaging. It’s also wordy with prose that isn’t gripping enough to stand up to interruptions (reading when the kids are around) or exhaustion (reading after they’re asleep). I thought Borba stepped over the line in a few places, from ringing an alarm bell to catastrophizing around modern kids’ mental health, and from promoting optimism to toxic positivity. Last gripe: The book seems to be written largely about and for “high performers in affluent communities.”

Still — and this is a big “still” — the information contained in Thrivers is so important and useful that it’s worth resolving to power through a chapter a day. Take, for example, Phyllis Fagell’s “maybe” trick for fighting negative attribution bias: “Maybe Kelle forgot to put me on her invite list.” “Maybe my teacher didn’t realize I was raising my hand.” Maybe I read Thrivers too close on the heels of Unselfie. Maybe I would have had more glowing things to say had I not been overwhelmed with other obligations. Maybe to you it won’t feel like taking a medicine you know is needed but don’t love the taste of. 

How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids: A Practical Guide to Becoming a Calmer, Happier Parent

When your kids upset you, Carla Naumburg incisively concludes, “you have two choices: You can either lose it or do Literally Anything Else.” Her nonjudgmental, easy-to-read book about how, exactly, to walk through that second door offers up loads of practical tips in an accessible, sassy tone that only occasionally feels forced (“Every time you blow up, your nervous system gets all jacked up and your stress hormones go through the roof, which negatively impacts virtually every part of your body”).

How To Stop Losing

Stop multitasking. Stop trying to control everything in your kids’ lives. Notice when you’re rushing. (“If you are, take a moment to get real with yourself about whether or not you’re really in a hurry or if you’re just in the habit of moving faster than you need to.”) Get some space. These are just a few of Naumburg’s sensible and helpful recommendations for those who lose their shit occasionally. (If it’s happening more than that, please seek professional help!) And anything you miss on the first pass, she helpfully summarizes in a list of key points at the end. Recommend.

The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence

In many ways, The Addiction Inoculation is a weird book, seemingly written for different audiences in different parts. Opening as a memoir, it makes its way through the history and science of adolescent addiction, and then blooms into a parenting advice tome. That last piece is why it’s worth reviewing here.

Addiction Innoculation

Right around the time Jess Lahey published the wildly successful book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, she realized she was an alcoholic. As a mom, her thoughts quickly moved from her own wellbeing to that of her kids. What could she do to spare them the suffering of following in her footsteps? Despite knowledge accumulated during 20 years of teaching—five of them in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation clinic for adolescents—she needed guidance. “The one book I wanted most was the one I could not find, a memoir of substance use disorder and long-term recovery paired with research-backed parenting and teaching advice.”

Lahey makes no apologies for her conservative approach. She believes in gateway drugs (“if we can keep kids away from cigarettes, vaping, beer, and marijuana, we are more likely to keep them off the harder stuff”), that the situation is both dire and time-sensitive (“[k]ids need to know that if they start using alcohol now, they are much, much more likely to develop substance use disorder than if they wait until their brain is done developing in their early twenties, and the earlier kids start using any addictive substance, the more damage it does to their brains and bodies”), and in zero-tolerance policies. (She quotes an expert saying, “you should have an unrealistic no alcohol or drug use policy until they are out of high school.”) 

Her arguments are research-backed, though many would take issue with Lahey’s slants. For example, Ayelet Waldman presented a very different spin on LSD in A Really Good Day. And Lahey’s approach to divorce doesn’t jibe with what I’ve read. She’s got all the right pieces: high-conflict divorce constitutes an adverse childhood event, pre-split dynamics and economic hardship explain a lot of kids’ distress, and co-parents can do loads to decrease the stress surrounding familial restructuring. But she puts them together in a way that’s unhelpful for families for whom divorce is the best option.

That said, there’s a consistent logic to Lahey’s conclusions: anchoring. Aim high, think in absolutes, and you risk falling less far. Take that zero-tolerance policy. A lot of kids are going to deviate from their parents’ recommendations, but deviating a bit from “don’t do it at all” is likely to have far less severe consequences than starting with permissiveness and moving a bit deeper from there.

Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing

Elissa Altman writes of her gorgeous, charismatic mother, a former TV personality, “one had to squint to see her clearly, as though her vibrancy made it too dangerous to look directly at her without corneal injury…. [She] was devilishly, fabulously flirty; even young children can detect innuendo in the set of a jaw.” But throughout Altman’s childhood and adult life, her mother was as volatile as she was vivid: “An acquaintance with a new outfit, a new hairstyle, a new boyfriend, a new lipstick could send her into a tailspin for days.” Motherland chronicles the co-dependent, tumultuous relationship that results when an adult with an undiagnosed psychological condition entangles their child in a grasping, consuming brand of love.

We bob and weave; we love and we loathe; we shout and whisper, and the next morning we do it all over again. Like tying our shoes or brushing our teeth or shaving one leg before the other, this is our ritual, our habit. We know no other way. 

Or, as Altman puts it in an equally evocative passage: “It was not the alcohol to which I was addicted; it was she, and together we fed on our affection and rage like buttered popcorn.”

Altman crafts her tale expertly, making what is a fairly common form of dysfunction uniquely riveting. Her metaphor-laden prose is a thing of beauty, and at the same time, function, as Altman puts the reader there, in the moment, at the whim of her mother: 

The edge in my mother’s voice caught and then stopped, like a serrated knife…. She is no longer smiling. The air around her suddenly crackles like a hot wire; so much joy, and then a plunge. I shiver. If she is not asked to sing with the wedding band, to coil the microphone cord around one hand the way she once did so expertly years earlier when it was her job, the joy of the day will wither like an autumn leaf, and the mood shift from celebration to catastrophe…. To be the child of such splendor and love and rage—to be kin to it, its daughter—is to live in a world of magical thinking, with the belief that one has the power to right the ship and straighten its course. It would take me a lifetime to understand that my mother was at the helm of her own craft, and that she alone could sail it into the wind or run it aground.

That said, Altman can overdo it at times (e.g., “I metabolized the foreign syntax of resentment and unfulfilled appetites that my mother spoke in every sentence; I secretly yearned for the mundane and the serene, the tedious B side to an extraordinary universe whose angry dialect fell from my young lips like a dying native tongue.”). Still missteps are so rare that five stars are easy to give and the word “perfection” is not entirely misplaced.

That’s especially true because Altman’s literary toolbox comes equipped with dark humor: “Ben … slowly drank himself to death in front of The Cosby Show every night when they got home from work. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage, which my mother was certain was an allergic reaction to the shrimp and lobster sauce they’d ordered from Empire Szechuan on Seventy-Second Street.” In her retelling, even the darkest of tales can take on a tinge of light:

“So can I borrow your shorts?” she says. “I’d ask Ellen, but she’s too fat.” 

“Ellen’s a six, Mom—” Our next-door neighbor is tiny, an Auschwitz survivor who, tormented with grief and guilt, stopped eating once the war was over. 

“I want yours. The pleated ones.” 

“You hate pleats.” 

“GIVE ME YOUR SHORTS OR I WILL KILL MYSELF!”

Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Dr. Michele Borba, an educational psychologist, “flew the world, spoke with hundreds of researchers, conducted focus groups with more than 500 children, and visited dozens of schools.” Her conclusion? Empathy is neither a biological inheritance nor a trait, but a skill that can be taught: “a talent that kids can cultivate and improve, like riding a bike or learning a foreign language.”

Borba identified “nine essential competencies,” including emotional literacy, moral identity, perspective taking, moral imagination, self-regulation, kindness, collaboration, moral courage, and altruistic leadership. Under each of these headings she doles out dozens of little strategies and techniques for inculcating “the foundation that helps our children become good, caring people,” as well as feeling more fulfilled.

Some of it gets filed away in the “duh” folder. For example, “parents who have warm, close relationships with their children are more likely to raise empathetic kids.” Other bits are less intuitive and far more specific. Take, for example, “Reverse sides. Next time there’s a sibling battle or friendship tiff, don’t offer advice. Instead, make your kids ‘reverse sides’ to see things from another perspective.” All of it is worth your time. 

Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different

Lisa Selin Davis wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “My Daughter Is Not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” In it, she raises the specter that “we might be confusing cisgender girls with stereotypically masculine interests with those who needed to transition, socially or medically—and in the process telling them that they’re not actually girls, and thus narrowing that category.” Her book is in some sense a lengthy reply to the criticism that followed, and she sums it up well: “If the word and idea of ‘tomboy’ are problematic, they are symptoms of a much larger problem: the problem of hyper-gendering of childhood.”

Tomboy

With that, Selin Davis leads a guided hike through the gender terrain trod before her by Peggy Orenstein and Jo Paoletti, among others. But there’s new stuff too. Did you know the word “tomboy” has a connection to eugenics, “once referred to a boisterous boy or an adult woman’s sexuality,” and had a heyday in the 1800s before the 1970s one? Then “a Big Bang of convergent cultural shifts,” Selin Davis explains, all but vanquished the classic ‘80s tomboy: “unchecked capitalism, advances in reproductive technology, homophobia, anti-feminist backlash, a declining birthrate, deregulation of kids’ TV, and the rise of ‘girl power.’” She shares not just fresh information, but also ideas I had yet to encounter. For example, feminist parents may be relieved when their daughters drop the princess phase, Selin Davis says, but really what it means is they’ve internalized sexism: “Kids learn early that what matters about boys is what they do and what matters about girls is appearance…, [and] asserting a tomboyish side [is] a way to push themselves higher on the status ladder.”

Selin Davis agrees, albeit in a begruding and belabored way, with trans advocates who suggest the terms “gender nonconforming” and “nonbinary” can encapsulate cisgender girls with stereotypically masculine appearances, approaches, and interests: “It’s as if all those words and ideas have been superglued, so the one way to break them apart, to be free of gender stereotypes, is to get rid of the boxes and blow up the gender binary altogether.” But still, “the feminist in me couldn’t help questioning why we couldn’t widen that girl category to accommodate people like Jessie or Phoenix or Mere. Did it have to be abandoned in order for people to feel free to be themselves?” She left me feeling torn, and yet, hopeful. If the historical trajectory of the word “tomboy” ultimately teaches us anything, it’s that “it is possible to steer the big ship of our culture toward more gender-equitable parenting.”

That said, Selin Davis needs a wee bit of help at the helm. I’ve read extensively about neuroscience and gender, and I think she gets almost everything right until she unquestioningly cites disputed research for the proposition that there are even small innate differences between boys and girls before puberty. But the dismount, she nails, concluding: “The way we’ve gendered childhood is a construction, not rooted in biological differences between sexes. Still, what is constructed becomes reality, so much so that we abide by the divisions of our invention as if they are unassailable truths. And the problem is: Many children’s experiences don’t match up with the ‘truths’ about gender that adults believe.”

And there’s no question that Selin Davis achieves her stated goal—“to get parents, especially, to question where their ideas of normalcy for boys and girls come from.” 

What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood

Alexandra Sacks and Catherine Birndorf are reproductive psychiatrists: medical doctors who specialize in using therapy to help women navigate pregnancy and its aftermath. “Even if motherhood has been a lifelong desire,” they report, “once it arrives, many women find themselves feeling lost somewhere between who they were before and who they think they should be now.” In What No One Tells You, Sacks and Birndorf try to help women reconcile those two people by pushing back against what they call the “bliss myth,” the idea that motherhood should be pure joy: 

[T]his wasn’t the last time in her pregnancy or motherhood that she would be troubled by mixed feelings—about her son, about herself, about her choice to become a mother. And for Julie, as for many mothers, these ambivalent feelings sent up red flags. Anything less than joy and contentment, Julie thought, must mean there was something wrong. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The expectation that babies bring ultimate happiness is not only unrealistic, it’s dangerous. Our culture reinforces a story of motherhood that has left out doubt, uncertainty, and the bittersweet, and this myth has become hazardous to women’s mental health. It’s time to rebirth pregnancy and bring parenting down to earth…. Everyone understands that adolescence is an awkward phase. But during matrescence, people expect you to be happy while you’re losing control over the way you look, feel, and relate to everyone around you.

whatnoonetellsyou-1

The bulk of the book isn’t this philosophic, however. Rather, it explains how the concept of the “good enough mother” can prevail in various scenarios. Traveling for work. Stopping breastfeeding. Interacting with childcare providers. Sleep deprivation. In-laws. Sacks and Birndorf have helpful, practical tips for each of these contexts and more. “If you’re feeling extra-sensitive,” when it comes to financial woes, for example, “try to find a way to explain your fears to your partner so she can understand that it’s anxiety, not anger or manipulation, behind your strong feelings about spending.”

Throughout, there was plenty that didn’t apply to my life now, or to past-me either. And yet, I felt that they just got the struggles I experienced upon becoming a mother. “With so much out of your control, it can be tempting to become extremely strict about what you can control, but this can lead to an unhealthy all-or-nothing mentality—as if a normal level of being good isn’t good enough,” they write. Guilty as charged. I also count myself among the mothers who “find themselves feeling like their mind is never in one place.” Sacks and Birndorf say they hear this so often in their clinical practices they came up with a term for it, “the divided mind.”  

We think of the divided mind as a cognitive and emotional state that is a consequence of the changes in how you spend your time and attention when growing and then caring for a totally dependent human being. Your mind is literally divided, as you’re dealing with your own life while tending to another’s.

I also felt seen by their recognition and normalization of competing interests: “[Y]our friends and family, and even your spouse or partner, will be competing with your baby for your attention. Motherhood will also compete for the time, energy, and resources you’re used to investing into your own life: eating, exercise, recreation, organization, sexuality, and work.” Some tensions, some unpleasant feelings, they assure, aren’t fixable. The goal is learning to process and tolerate—not eliminate—the push and pull, the contradictions, the impossibilities, and the resentments.

“Motherhood, like all complex experiences in life, is a mix of both positive and negative,” they conclude: “Loving your child doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the work of caretaking is not fun. Yet for many moms, admitting that there are moments, days, or even weeks when you want a break from your [child] is scary because it can make you ask yourself: Am I trapped with this feeling forever? … Does this mean I don’t love [them]?” 

Spoiler alert: The answers are no and no. I figured that out eventually, but it sure would have been nice to read What No One Tells You at the get-go.