My Stubborn Son Won’t Listen

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 096 · Duration: 00:15:43

My Stubborn Son Won’t Listen

My Stubborn Son Won’t ListenWhat is a parent to do when their teenager doesn't listen, avoids school work, starts and gives up on positive activities, and alienates friends? 

Theresa writes. 

We have parent-teen battles with our son. He is very stubborn and does not want to listen to anything we have to say. He has been struggling in school and we are always scrambling at the end of the grading period to get his grades up so that he doesn't fail. He is very smart but not motivated at all. He has gotten interested in a lot of things but doesn't stick with anything. 

Recently he decided to join 4H because he enjoys skeet shooting and has been going to meetings and practice.  Yesterday he said he doesn't want to do it anymore.  Yet again he has lost interest in something we have helped him get into.

He states he wants to be a gamer and will frequently get on his Xbox as soon as he gets home.  If he has home work its a constant battle to get him to finish it and the fights breakout.

I read your article about William the 17 year old and want to know if you can send me information about how to get away from the Parent-child battle of wills. I just want to help my son succeed at life.

One other issue he has is he makes friends and then alienates them by bragging about what he has or picks fights with them because he feels he is better, smarter or just tired of them. At school we feel that he gets teased a lot because he is a bragger about what he has and that turns people off because he is constantly seeking approval by showing off.

He recently participated in a presentation at his middle school where they talked about depression and thoughts of suicide. He actually approached the presenter and told her that he had those thoughts from time to time. We have had discussions with him about this and he just doesn't want to talk about it. 

We are not sure where to turn at this point.  He has seen several therapists in the past and nothing seems to help.

Any suggestion you could provide would truly be appreciated.

Thanks for your question, Theresa. There is a lot here so let me do a quick summary: 

  • Your son is smart but unmotivated.  You have to struggle with him to get him to do his work and pass his classes.
  • He’s interested in many things but doesn’t stay with them. 
  • He brags to friends and gets teased a lot. 
  • After a presentation on depression and suicide, he shared that he has those thoughts. 
  • He doesn’t listen to his parents.
  • He has seen many therapists without success.

What this is all telling us is that while your son has some darn good qualities- he’s smart, extroverted, strong-minded, gets enthusiastic about things, and makes friends - he lacks the internal structure and skills to use these qualities to his own benefit.  So how are we going to help him build that structure and grow these qualities?  Let’s focus in on a few developmental goals for your son. 

Four Developmental Goals

We’d like him to improve in four specific areas:

  • Manage responsibilities
  • Make and keep commitments even when things get difficult
  • Cooperate with parents
  • Improve social skills

Theresa, it’s very common for kids to give up on things and not press on through the difficult part of the learning curve.  For instance, a kid sees a rock star play amazing guitar, and decides he wants to play the guitar.  The fun part is thinking about it, looking at guitars and choosing one and going for his first lessons.  He imagines himself on stage rocking out.  But after a few lessons and minor practice sessions, he just can’t make the guitar sound like the rock star did and he realizes this is going to take work. Maybe he decides he just isn’t as talented as he hoped and should give up on the guitar before anyone finds out how untalented he is. 

Like this kid with the guitar, your son starts, but gives up when things prove difficult.  The good thing is though that he still gets excited about things.      

Your son is a middle schooler so it’s important that we get on some changes in your family before he goes to high school.  Your son needs a supportive structure so that he can move forward.  He needs encouragement and limits, and not just from his parents, he needs it in his life outside of the home.  Yes, you are in a control battle at home and that undermines your ability to offer him the supportive structure he needs.  If you don’t have a copy of Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle, pick one up and read it now, it will help.

Theresa, if your son could make some progress on one interest, other than video gaming, of course, that could do wonders for his self-esteem.  And if he could stay current in school and get some grades that reflect his abilities, that would help him feel good about himself and would reinforce the benefit of prioritizing his schoolwork.  So how are we going to do this?

Building a Supportive Structure And the Benefits of Outside Encouragement

Theresa, we need two things to happen. 

  • First, we need you and his dad to get out of the control battle with him and build some structure with positivity into the home.
  • And second, we need to have his school or his 4H leader, or both support his success.  They need to know that he needs to be wanted and needed; that he needs encouragement to stay with things. 

Let’s start with the home.  Theresa, you sound very defeated, very powerless.  We need to change that.  You need to become an empowered parent.  A parent who takes responsibility for her parental behavior, and lets her son take responsibility for his.  Right now he doesn’t listen to what you tell him so there's no sense on lecturing. We’ll simply make some changes and inform him about them. 

First, inform him that if he wants to keep the privilege of having and using his Xbox, he needs to do his schoolwork first every day and he needs to keep his commitment to his outside activities.  Even though they are voluntary, they are commitments and kids need to make commitments to some healthy personal development activity in addition to school.  Some kids are ridiculously overloaded in this area, but at least one activity should be required.  Stay positive and make sure you have a good idea of what is expected from school and how he’s doing.  Most schools have online access to assignments and grades.  You can contact any teacher you have questions about. 

I’m sure he’ll be angry and threatening because this is a change in the rules at home and because getting angry has worked in the past. Stay strong, encourage him and let him know that you believe in him and want to make sure that you support him in growing good habits and learning how successful he can be.  If he defies you and doesn’t do his work and goes to his Xbox, don’t fight or try to get him off it.  Wait until he’s at school, and remove it and be sure to put it someplace he can’t see it or find it.  This way he’ll learn that your words actually mean something and he should listen to them.

So we’ve implemented three structures (1) work first and play second,  (2) you need to make and keep commitments to positive activities, (3) and you are accountable to your parents who will offer privileges only when you earn them. 

Now the next thing I’ll encourage you to do is to talk with the club leader and let him or her know that your son gives up easily and will need encouragement and a positive role in the group.  Let him know that he has trouble knowing how to relate with peers.  Talk with his school counselor and let them know he’s struggling with knowing how to make friends, staying with things, and feeling good about himself.  Ask the counselor to help him get involved in a school activity with support for growing a positive role for himself.  With support and encouragement coming from outside, and your son more involved with outside activities and more structure and less fighting at home, things should steadily get better.

Theresa, right now your son isn’t introspective or self-evaluating.  He sees problems on the outside, not within himself and that makes him not a good candidate for individual therapy.  If there is a counseling group for kids his age to learn social skills, that would be appropriate.  For help putting all this advice into action, family counseling would be good.  It can support you in providing a healthy structure in the home and help your son negotiate with you and his dad in a positive way to earn back his gaming privileges and perhaps other privileges. 

If your son makes progress as we’ve outlined, it’s very likely his negative mood and dark thoughts will improve.  If you are getting counseling, the therapist should be able to evaluate your son’s mood and see if there is anything else that should be taken into account.  But I think if you start by building some structures into his life so that he can have some success, things will improve greatly.

In Conclusion

Individual therapy is not a substitute for healthy positive structure in a child’s life. And when parent-child and parent-teen dynamics undermine a healthy structure, we can expect emotional and behavioral symptoms to show up.Click To Tweet  Yes, it is hard to change those relationship patterns; those patterns become part of us and disempower us, but unless we change the pattern, developmental problems will persist.

Let’s all think of one relationship pattern we have, that we need to change for the better.  A pattern that we are allowing to undermine what we know is our best self.  Are we allowing a relationship pattern to keep us from speaking up where we can, not set limits or articulate our needs the way we’d like to? 

Now, think of a change you can make to break the pattern and be your more empowered self. And remember, any change you make will be most successful if you do it with confidence, good intentions, and grace.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and thanks for your question Theresa.  The last week or two I’ve asked our listeners to post a brief review on iTunes for me and you know what, a couple of folks stepped up and did.  I’d like to make the same request again because if we get plenty of reviews, more people will know about my podcast and that would mean a lot to me.  Thank you!

And please remember to take care of yourselves.  You Need It, You Deserve It, You’re Worth It.  Bye for now.

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  1. Thanks for your question Leané.
    That sounds like an unfathomable amount of abuse against this mother and it certainly is curious that she isn’t reporting it. My best guess is that there is a long history of this young adult acting out to the point of being abusive and mother not holding him accountable. The son needs help and the mother needs safety and support. I’m not sure what relationship you have to this very difficult situation.
    With the very little information you’ve given me, here is one way to deal with it.
    1. Mother reports it to the police and the youth is arrested
    2. Mom gets a defense attorney for son who negotiates for deferred prosecution pending this youth attending and successfully completing an extended residential treatment program.
    That way mother can feel that she’s helping her son by holding him accountable, not just sending him to jail.
    If you are worried about the mother’s safety, you can consider reporting it as Elder Abuse to the Department of Social Services in your county.
    Best wishes,

  2. A 22 year old who still lives with his single mother stole both his mom’s cars while she was on holiday in another country. When she came home the house was trashed and she noticed her cars were gone. She does not want to make a complaint at the police station and has lost complete contact with her son. He is still talking to close friends or her but does not want to tell anyone where he’s staying. What should we do about the situation?

  3. Dear Dr. Kelly,

    Thanks for checking in with your question. If we have a 17 year old acting out that severely against his Mother, I’d say this has been going on for a long time and now it is getting over the edge. I’d say Mom should go to the police and discuss the situation with them and get them involved. Different law enforcement agencies deal with youth and family issues differently, but this young man is breaking the law by stealing from his mother and growing cannabis, even in a legal state he is under age. Also, the threatening behavior is close to illegal as well.

    Going to law enforcement can accomplish several things.

    1. Demonstrate that Mom will not be controlled and abused
    2. Will give the young man a dose of reality and if he is going in an aggressive direction, good to get it addressed when he is a juvenile and not an adult when consequences will be more severe.
    3. Get him and her some help as law enforcement generally will want to keep domestic youth issues out of the court and into the mental health arena. We may be able to get an informal probation status where counseling is mandated. Then we can get an evaluation of this young man and get him and his Mom the help they need.

    Hope this helps.
    Warm regards,

  4. How might you handle it when a 17 year old risk taking teen grows MJ in the house and when Mom (51 yr old cancer survivor) removes it he takes her important documents etc. and holds them ransom till she returns his pot. Any ideas would be welcome.

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