How to Talk to Your Parents about a Bad Grade

A student notebook shows bad grades in college classes.

Orion-v /

For high school and college students alike, getting a bad grade can cause disappointment, fear, anger, embarrassment, and grief. Those emotions are difficult enough to manage, but students who have to break the news to their families undergo additional anxiety. Talking to your parents about a bad grade is never fun, but if you’re well prepared for the discussion, it can be fruitful.

Don’t cave in to the temptation to lie.

A few weeks before I graduated from high school, the administration at my school discovered that a couple of my classmates had hacked into the computer system to change their grades and attendance records. True story. School officials contacted the police and the FBI about the security breach, and the students were suspended immediately. Not only was this an issue of security, but a school board official noted that the act of changing a grade was “theft [and] deception.”

Telling your parents you received a B when your grade report shows a D—or changing the minus sign at the top of your paper to a plus sign—may not warrant an FBI investigation, but it’s still serious. It’s an issue of integrity, and if your conscience doesn’t motivate you to be honest, consider how much trouble you’ll be in if your parents discover that not only did you receive a bad grade, but you also lied about it.

Get it over with as soon as possible.

Have you ever heard the expression “you’re going to worry yourself sick?” There’s truth to it. Hormones related to stress can cause upset stomach, lightheadedness, and difficulty concentrating, among other serious symptoms, so it’s best to confront the stressor as soon as possible. The sooner you do it, the sooner you can enjoy that sweet, sweet relief. In sum, telling your parents about your bad grade tonight is going to feel a lot better than carrying that weight on shoulders until tomorrow or next week.

Imagine the worst possible outcome. It’s probably not as bad as you think.

Humor me while I tell you a little story. During my recent apartment hunt, I found a place I loved that was out of my price range. “Ask the landlord if he’d take $20 less a month,” advised my friend. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought about it. The worst that could happen was that he’d say no. The stakes weren’t as high as I’d assumed, and I went into the conversation confidently. He agreed to take less.

I tell you this story so that you can better manage your anxiety surrounding any difficult situation, talking to your parents about a bad grade being one of them. When you tell your parents about your bad grade, what’s the worst thing that could happen? They could yell at you, ground you, connect you with a tutor, schedule a parent-teacher conference… The wrath of your parents probably isn’t as bad as it initially seemed. Well, it’s nothing you haven’t dealt with before, at least.

Expect disappointment. If you’re worried you’ll face violence, consult a trusted adult.

Let’s talk more about that “worst possible outcome” thing. Good parents want their children to be happy, to challenge themselves, to learn and grow, and when you present them with a bad grade, it’s natural for them to be concerned. They may feel upset, disappointed, or angry with you, and there are healthy ways for them to show you how they feel. For instance, you might lose privileges at home, you might receive a lecture about not wasting tuition money, or you might have to see a tutor when you’d rather be hanging out with your friends. Remember that these reactions show that your parent really cares about your success.

Reactions that are violent, aggressive, or humiliating, however, are not normal. You should never have to endure a beating, listen to verbal abuse, or suffer any other cruel punishment. If you’re afraid to tell your parents about a bad grade because it’s possible they’ll hurt you, please talk to a teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult as soon as possible.

Present an overall picture of your grades.

Misdirection—a classic magician’s trick. He asks you to focus on one thing to distract you from another.

I’m not encouraging you to deceive your parents, but there’s no reason for you to present them with just the bad news. If you’re talking to your parents about a bad grade, you should also be talking to them about the good. After all, your parents can be simultaneously thrilled about your A in world civ and disappointed in your C+ in chemistry. Here are some ways you can shed a positive light on the situation:

  • Take the classic good-news-and-bad-news approach: “I’m doing really well in science, but I’m having trouble in Spanish.”
  • Aspire to do as well in one subject as you do in another: “I think that SAT summer course is really paying off because I’m acing math. Do you think my tutor would be available for physics? I’d like to make sure my grades are just as strong there next semester.”
  • Point out your overall GPA if it’s high: “My GPA is really strong right now, but I can make it even better if I score higher in English next semester. It’s going to be tough, but I’m aiming for a B+.”
  • If your bad grade was on just one paper or test, focus on your overall grade: “I didn’t do so well on my most recent paper. I had a lot of trouble understanding Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Luckily, my next paper is on The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’ve got a good grasp on it, so I should be able to bring my grade back up.”

If you have older siblings, ask them for tips.

No one knows your parents’ parenting styles as well as you do, except for your siblings. Chances are, your older siblings have braved similar conversations with your parents in the past. They can tell you what worked and what didn’t, what kind of punishment you might expect, etc. Plus, telling your sibling about that bad grade gives you a chance to rehearse the conversation you’ll have with your parents.

If you’re the oldest or only, you’re not out of luck. Your cousins and friends who know your parents can also give great advice!

Show remorse.

A student hides a bad report card behind his back.

VGstockstudio /

Maybe your parents are so chill that you could hang your bad grade on the fridge and complain about your teacher to make them laugh. Since you’re reading this article, however, I’m going to guess that your parents aren’t that chill. Most parents will want their kids to understand the gravity of the situation, and luckily, that’s not hard to demonstrate. When you talk to your parents about your grade, be serious and avoid making a joke or snarky comment about the situation. Let your parents know that you’re upset—or at least that you aren’t pleased. Even if you don’t think the grade is that big of a deal, even if you’ll have the opportunity to recover your GPA or get extra credit points later, showing remorse about your bad grade proves that you know the importance of hard work.

Promise to work harder on your grades next time, for yourself, not for them.

Difficult conversations with your parents end better if you can provide a plan for improvement. It’s not enough to say you’ll do better next time. How are you going to improve? Maybe you’ll head to after-school tutoring. Maybe you have too much on your plate and you need to drop an extracurricular activity to make time for studying. Maybe you need to take better notes, use an agenda to remember your homework, or switch into a lower-level class. Approach your parents with a concrete plan for improvement—and while you’re at it, avoid placing the blame on a “bad” teacher—and your parents will notice your self-motivation, accountability, and drive.

About Gwen Elise

Gwen is an avid traveler who feels most at home in Kentucky and Argentina. Her closet is full of dark dresses, and her walls are papered in colorful maps. She likes to make puns, read, write, and translate to and from Spanish, and she misses Vassar College, her alma mater, which helped her get better at all of those things.

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