You know what I’m talking about.

It’s about 10pm on a Tuesday night. You walk by your kid’s room on your way to (finally already) going to sleep, after sending that last email, brushing the dog’s teeth, calling your mom, figuring out how to get more than one family member to many, many more than one locations all in the space of an hour, and swiping up the *&!!@# crumbs from the counter AGAIN.  You walk by their room because you want to have an encouraging exchange with your ever-so-studious kid about how proud you are of them finishing up that stack of late assignments. You want to say this because it’s been so long since you felt positive about said kid and homework. Smiling, shoulders thrown back, you glance in and……the room is empty. Sure, there’s evidence of an ATTEMPT towards homework. But the room, and the attempt, look a lot like the last time you poked your head in. Three hours ago.

This is a story that has too many chapters; the one on the tense talks about falling grades, the one on agreements, and the one on consequences you doled out that your teen still hasn’t forgiven you for. And still.

If you’re like the parents I sit with in my office, you are past patient, communicative, nervous, and watchful.

You have reached the end of your rope and you don’t know what to do next.

Let’s sit together for a sec and talk this through. This looks and feels bad, and of course it brings up some deep and primal fears and urges about future security and success. What’s so confusing and concerning about this is the why. Why would someone jeopardize their success and walk away from opportunity for a little extra time with friends, to sleep, or get on their phone? And why would they let it go on and on and become a huge problem instead of a small mistake?

As we parents see it, homework is assigned by teachers so that their students are showing competency in improving their study habits, are working independently, and are satisfying a hefty chunk of requirements towards earning A’s or B’s. It demonstrates knowledge, motivation, self-respect and respect to teachers and parents.

Adolescents see it differently. One 17-year -old junior told me that he knew that doing his class and homework assignments was non-negotiable, but he wasn’t doing them. He didn’t want to say why, but after a minute he offered up “I just can’t concentrate, and I don’t want to tell anyone (translation: “anyone” means his parents, his baseball coach and his math teacher) that I just don’t care anymore, because that doesn’t make any sense. I’m totally freaking out but mostly I go to the batting cages and hang out with my friends when I can’t study”.

When missing assignments or missed school days pile up, there are other factors at play:

  • Rebellion. Sometimes, becoming your own person is doing the opposite of family, community, and societal expectations and norms, commonly known as rebellion. Carl E. Pickhardt, PhD, writes in Psychology Today that there are two types of rebellion: non-conformity and non-compliance. He says that rebellion, although unavoidable, shows up in a few different ways and can lead to self-defeating and self destructive behaviors – a perfect breeding ground for falling off of the homework wagon. If your teen is figuring out who they are separate from you and schoolwork becomes the chosen battleground, the more parents express concern with this area, the less likely a teen is to change their behavior. More likely, they will double down.
  • Anxiety. Our teens are really vulnerable to perfectionism (stay tuned for a future post on this relevant topic), due to multiple types of peer and cultural pressure.  Millions of people live with chronic anxiety that stems from being perfectionistic and don’t have a name for the overthinking, pounding heart, trouble concentrating, and feelings of dread and guilt they live with. People get short term relief from using distraction to manage anxiety, and social media is the number one way teens distract themselves. An anxious teen is going to struggle mightily with the sustained attention span and recall needed to excel academically, and gravitate towards the short term relief of technology as distraction.
  • Who Am I? Teens are often most comfortable with, and feel most like themselves with their friends. These are rich, emotionally based relationships that provide round-the-clock available acceptance, support, fun, and a sense of belonging. If your teen’s peer group doesn’t prioritize schoolwork, it will be harder for your teen to break away from this and engage in what they do value.

Here’s how to respond.

  • Get on it. Even though you’re the only one in this parent/child relationship who thinks so, it is essential to engage quickly. And even though they may not admit it, your teen is probably more concerned than you are about failing grades. Missed school and homework piles up very quickly and can be very difficult to catch up on. Step in as gently as possible, let your teen lead the meetings with teachers, counselors, or deans, and come up with a plan pronto. You’re modeling the importance of honesty and hard work, and reminding your kid how important it is to have long term goals by insisting on small and consistent behavior changes now that add up to a better future. This is not doing it for them; it’s showing them how to treat themselves.
  • Mistakes are an opportunity to learn. Frame this time as positively as possible as a form of encouragement and self acceptance. No matter how far down the rabbit hole the situation has gone, you can remind your kid they always have choices. If mistakes are an opportunity to learn, your teen can reframe their self esteem and messaging and realize they’re not a bad person, but they have put themselves in a bad situation. Guidance counselors and teachers want your kid to graduate, they don’t want them hanging out on campus forever, and they have flexible and accommodating policies that allow students a chance to fix the problem.
  • Be loving and kind.  Use this as an opportunity to send a message of love and acceptance. My heart is softened every week as I listen to a teen tell me, with tears rolling down their cheeks, how scared they are to disappoint their parents. Saying “I love you” helps ease the sting of a difficult situation and allows your teen to get onto the path of mutual respect between the two of you. AND improved grades!

I’m going through this too, and I hope, if you’ve hit this wall, you now feel you’re not alone and there is a step-by-step approach to staying attuned and connected while you navigate the sticky spots. I’m rooting for you big time! Let me know if this is helpful, or you want to talk more about this or any other parent topic you don’t want to figure out by yourself!