High school to university - Dr Alexis Mordoh with Eleni Vardaki

High School to University: Lift-Off or Crash-and-Burn?

WHAT’S THE ISSUE: Do good grades in High School guarantee success in University? Dr Alexis Mordoh is a Clinical Psychologist who has a lot of experience working with youth who failed in university. His advice to parents who want to learn how to help their child make a successful transition from high school to university includes:

  • understanding the impact of Helicopter Parenting and of Curling Parenting on kids’ mental health and long-term success.
  • practical examples helpful questions and phrases parents can use to boost their kid’s mental health and wellbeing.
  • how parents can help their kids to become self-motivated, lifelong learners.


ELENI VARDAKI: How can parents help students during the IB?


DR ALEXIS MORDOH: Right, I wanted to say a couple of things about why I proposed this topic. 


The first part is that I have worked with a lot of adolescents and young adults, who have not been able to go through this process successfully.


These are young people who have not been able to go to university, or have gone to university and have crash-landed. If they were abroad they have come back. They had to quit school, either because of poor academic performance or because of behavioral problems. So I have dealt with them mostly after the problem has come up.


I have a lot of experience working with that particular transition phase. When you are a Clinical Psychologist, you see the problems. I have seen a lot of the failures and it’s something that concerns me a lot. 


The other part is I work a lot with high school students.


They talked a lot about their distress and anxiety and confusion, depression – and sometimes suicidality. 


They feel that their parents don’t understand them and pressure them a lot.  They feel that the school program is extremely stressful for them. And so I have been dealing a lot with that part.


The third part had to do with my own personal experience. I have a daughter who just graduated from an IB Diploma Programme this year. 


And was very successful with her academic performance in school and went to her first choice of university, which is a very good university. But over the years she was tremendously stressed and tremendously upset a lot of the time. Many times crying. Many times saying: “I can’t take this anymore – this isn’t human.” 


And even though she carried on and she did very well, I just witnessed first-hand her distress.


And it had to do with the academic pressure, both in terms of the workload and the time pressure that they are under.


So that’s why this topic is very close to my heart. 


In addition to the distress and the confusion and so on, the other very big topic that I see all of the time in my clinical work has to do with the choice of course study.


In the US students can go for the bachelors and first two years they can shop around, basically, they can take a lot of transit from different schools. And that helps them mature a little better and settle down. But in the European system, they need to declare a major before they go to university. So basically, when they’re 17 they need to choose the field of study.


I find that most kids don’t have a clue at 17 as to what they would like to really study – except some of them who have been brainwashed since childhood. 


And it’s an unfair choice and an unreasonable choice that they are being asked to make. It’s a forced choice you have to choose when they are really not ready. 


So adolescents, and you know, students get very anxious about that part about choosing the field of study. 


And again, they feel they’re under a lot of pressure from parents a lot of the time. 


So that’s the other topic that concerns me a lot.



DR ALEXIS MORDOH: I am addressing parents, now.


This also concerns educators by the way, because the educators are parents who are on-site in the school.


The students spend more time with the educators and the teacher rather than the parents. Many times they have a greater influence on them.


So the same things that I’m addressing towards parents are also towards teachers.


Ask the parents to be aware of who they are as a parent. 


Many times parents confuse their own aspirations and their own goals with those of their child.


Sometimes they are their own frustrated goals and expectations.


These parents are expecting their adolescent to fulfill their own dreams, or to follow their path, or maybe do something that they were not able to do.


I think it’s very important for the parents to think:

  • “Whose goal is this?”
  • “Whose aspiration is this?”
  • “Is it mine, or is it the adolescent’s?”
  • “Am I imposing it on my child?”


The other image is of a Curling Parent. 


Curling is a sport that’s very popular in Canada, where basically they slide stones – heavy stones – on ice, and you are supposed to get close to a pack. 


A part of the curling team is two guys who are in front of the stone who are brushing the ice to make the ice melt, and they direct the stone to where they want the stone to end up. 


So sometimes there are Curling Parents who are brushing the pathway in front of their adolescent, helping clearing out the hurdles and steering them in a particular direction. 


That’s an equivalent picture to the helicoptering, which is hovering over. 


So what can we do with the students? 

The things that I am going to mention by the way have to be done from birth on – but let’s talk about the IB. 

Kids and adolescents have a natural curiosity and love for learning. Especially young kids. They are curious about the world and their environment. 

We can do a lot of things that help them cultivate and build on that natural curiosity and their love for learning. 

My hero is Leonardo Da Vinci. He is the example of a natural curiosity where he sketches a fort. Then he would sketch a bird in flight. Then he would sketch the water. Everything caught his interest. He was interested in how things work, how to depict them, and so on. 

Kids have that ability and we need to help them cultivate it. 

That’s the first thing. 

A very important way to do that is to model it for them. What kind of a parent or a person are you? 

Are you naturally curious?

Do you talk at the dinner table about what’s happening in the world? About something you learned, or something that you noticed? 

Or are you buried in your cell phone, or in your newspaper, or on the TV screen?

If you are a naturally curious person, you help your child develop the same way. 

Respond to what they are curious about. 

It might have to do with the piece of music that they’ve discovered. Or even an item of clothing. Or a place that they went to. 

If you respond to what they are interested in, you enhance it and you cultivate it. You expand it. 


Help your child and the adolescent to develop their own autonomy and their own self-confidence.

Their independent judgment. 

And that, again, starts from scratch. From birth. With very young children, when it’s cold outside:

  • “You need to wear a jacket. Do you want the red one or do you want the blue one?”
  • “Choose a pair of socks that you want to wear. Which set of underwear do you like to wear?”
  • “Which pictures do you like? Why do you like it? What do you like about that?”

That has to do with judgment and personal preference.

The other thing with autonomy has to do with the “You can do it on your own” approach, you know, from a very young age. 

Kids can learn to get dressed and help themselves feed themselves and so on. The same thing with adolescents.  It becomes more tricky with adolescents because adolescents ask and demand autonomy and privacy. 

And then the next minute they may be asking for a hug and support that the child gets. 

So the parents have to be flexible. 

Allow the adolescent to cultivate their own sense of autonomy. In other words:

  • “You can come back home on your own tonight. Let’s just make arrangements and agree what time you will be back, and how you’re going to get back. But I don’t need to be following you around or bringing you back myself so that you are safe.”
  • Or: “Which course do you want to choose? Why do you like that class over that class?”
  • “Which teacher do you like best?”
  • “What interests you?
  • “Why you are in this particular class?”

So that has to do with personal interests and preferences, right?

Help them set their own goals and priorities. 

I see a lot of parents who try to impose their own goals and priorities on the adolescent. 

It’s very important to allow them to do that, which means they are going to make stupid choices.

They’re going to make mistakes. 

My daughter had chosen one elective course in the IB. Her mother and I had told her, “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” She said, “No, I really want it. I am interested.” And then she would have regretted it. Okay, she survived the experience. And she learned something from that. 

Express faith in your adolescent’s abilities:

  • “I believe in you.”
  • “I believe you can do this.”

But don’t set perfectionist expectations regarding the academics. 


Many times adolescence hear from parents: 

  • “You have to do this for Mom.”
  • You have to do this for Dad.”
  • “You have to make us proud.”

They have to do it because it makes them proud, and it makes them happy.  

Examples include:  

  • “I am very happy for you – very nice job.”
  • “That’s a very nice job that you did it.”
  • “What did you learn from it?”

Do not pressure, blackmail, or bribe the adolescent into achieving good grades and good academic performance; pressuring has to do with emotional pressure and emotional blackmail. Examples include:

  • “You have to make us happy” 
  • “You are such a failure.”
  • “Why are you doing this to us?”
  • “We sacrificed so much for you.”
  • “You have to make it up to us.” 

Or sometimes it has to do with practical blackmail or pressure, you know:

  •  “You cannot go out, unless you get this grade or that grade.”

Bribing has to do with: 

  • “We’ll get you a new phone, if you get an A.” 

Sometimes I hear people say:

  • “You will get a new car, if it you get an A.”
  • “We will take you on this trip, if you get this grade.”

All of those things can work in the short term, in terms of you may have achieved your purpose of your kids getting better grades – but they are not motivated him or her, internally. 

They will not make them a better person, really, in the long run. 

And as soon as you are out of the picture, they will usually struggle and fail. If you pressure them you set up a power struggle, which is a lot of what I see happening in families, here. 

You will lose the power struggle because you cannot force the student to study

You can’t force them. You can lock them up in the room. You can take away their phone and computer but you can’t really force them to concentrate and learn. 

In the same way you can’t force them to sleep. You can have them locked up in their room with the lights out but they will only sleep when they want to. So you can’t really force them.

Usually, you will lose with your power struggle – or if you win, because you are blackmailing them in some way, you will end up with an adolescent who is angry, or who is a defeated and passive child.

And I see a lot of those adolescents going on to university and they collapse, because their parents are not there after them – pressuring them and blackmailing them. 

They are so angry, or they are so passive, that when they need to continue on their own momentum, they don’t have it. 

And they just collapse.


I’ve talked with a lot of adolescents who said:

  • “I got an A minus, and my parents reaction was “An A minus? So why didn’t you get an A? Try and do better next time.”

I think this is terrible stuff to impose. 

Praise him or her – if it’s a boy or girl – for their accomplishments, because you are happy for them. Not because they do it to make you happy. 

Ask your child, you know:

  • “What course interests you?”
  • “What do you think you’re going to do with these grades?”

Maybe you get good grades in one class and maybe not so good in the other class.


It’s okay.


I’m going to say something (and maybe it’s controversial – or maybe it’s not).


Not all students need to go to university to be successful; not all successful adults have gone to university. 


They are millions of successful, happy, productive, prosperous adults who have never seen a university class in their life. 


So if a student wants to become a dancer, or an artist or a craftsman, you know,

many things that parents look down on because it’s not intellectual work, and it doesn’t involve diplomas – they can. 


They should be allowed to explore those careers.


And they can be awfully successful.