Two Things A Youth and Family Therapist Needs To Do

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 214 · Duration: 00:20:10

Two Things A Youth and Family Therapist Needs To Do

What do you do when you’re trying to get your young teen to do his homework, but every day is a struggle and a set of negotiations? Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Two Things A Youth and Family Therapist Needs To Do.

Today we’re hearing from Maddy from St. Louis, Missouri and Maddy writes:

Dear Neil,

We’ve been struggling with our 14-year-old son, who avoids doing his homework at almost all costs. He is smart and can do his work pretty easily when he puts his mind to it, and up until now, he has gotten pretty good grades.  But now the work is getting harder and requires more effort and his grades have gone way down. We’ve taken his screens away and that doesn’t seem to bother him.  He says he’ll never be able to get them, that we are too controlling and don’t want him to have screens.  Mostly, he wants to go out and be with friends and when we ask if his homework is done, he says something vague like, I did it all in school.  Then, we ask more specific questions about each class, and he admits that there is something “small” or a project that isn’t due for a week and we argue about doing it or some of it before he goes out.  Eventually we make a deal of some kind, rinse and repeat.  This is our life with our son.  His brother simply does his work, has decent grades, friends, and we don’t have to worry about him that much.  

Our younger son likes sports and being active, and we don’t take sports away, but now he is rebelling against going to soccer since that is getting harder and his team is playing against better teams. Why does he avoid doing anything hard?  Do you have any ideas for us to get out of the daily Control Battle we have with our 14-year-old? 

Maddy from St. Louis, Missouri

Now to Maddy’s questions:

Dear Maddy,

It sure sounds like life with your 14-year-old has become rather a struggle and as you correctly identify, a Control Battle.  There are a few things to consider here that can be helpful and shine a light on the way out of the battle.

As we know, Control Battles have their own momentum, so Control Battles cause Control Battles. But what might be underlying the difficulty with your son owning his school responsibilities in the first place. 

His brother sits down and does his work without much fuss.  Is it because he’s a better person?  Or is it simply because when he intends to do it, his neurology cooperates, his brain cooperates.  It’s possible or perhaps likely that your son sits down to do his work, and his mind wanders to other things, even when he tries.  After a while, a youth with this profile, can quit trying, decide they’re dumb or school is dumb or that life is stupid, or all of the above.  

If your younger son compares himself with his older brother, he can conclude or convince himself that he isn’t normal like him and that you like his brother better.

Now I certainly don’t know what drives your 14-year-old’s behavior, but I’m sure it has something to do with his neurology.  Whether or not he has a version of ADHD is what a pediatrician, neurologist, or psychiatrist can decide, but his brain is simply not naturally inclined to focus on things that aren’t rewarding.  With practice he can get better at focusing but first we need to create a strategy to end the Control Battle and build a collaborative and supportive relationship with him. 

Also, let’s not forget the profound impact that COVID-19 has had on our youth and the educational system.  Maybe we should think of 12 as the new 14, meaning that 14 year old’s have the social development of 12 year old’s. For an extended period of time, rather than our youth going to school and dealing with their teachers and the educational system and their peers, they’ve been at home often fighting with their parents about what they’re supposed to be doing.

And you’re thinking, great Neil, this is all interesting but what the hell am I supposed to do? Well, not to worry Maddy. 

We can right this ship, no problem.  First of all, you’re not doubling down on what a bad kid you have; you’re asking how to help.  And that’s the right question.  The wrong question is how do I get my kid to do his homework?  The answer is you can’t. That’s his job. 

Your job is to help him, to raise him, help him know himself and how to enjoy and respect his strengths and challenges and come to grips with his areas of relative weakness.Click To Tweet In fact, that’s the challenge for all of us, isn’t it; to know and grow our strengths, and know and manage our weaknesses. We want him to know that being him is a good thing; that we like him, and he doesn’t have to love homework or have an easy time with homework to be liked and to know he’s special.  He surely has many qualities that make him terrific, a sense of humor, maybe art or music?  Perhaps he’s good with pets or younger kids or building things.  You know your son and I’m sure among these things or things I haven’t mentioned, he’s talented in his own ways.  So, we need to focus on those things and be sure he gets that we enjoy and respect these things about who he is.  Then we can talk with him about how to make homework a less onerous event.  

Let’s start with making an appointment with a medical professional who can assess for ADHD.  While you’re at it, ask the school to do an educational assessment. They can screen for any learning disability that could be challenging him and it can put him on the school’s radar that he’s a kid that needs support.  The school may be reluctant because he has a history of success, but that only means he’s smart enough to have done well in spite of having some issues; issues that are showing up now, now that staying focused and being able to process more difficult work is required.

Here is a conversation you can have with your son, and I’ll call your son Michael.

Michael, we’ve been fighting about homework and responsibilities way too much and it isn’t healthy for you and it isn’t healthy for us.  You're an absolutely terrific young man and the way we're fighting all the time would make it seem like you're a bad kid or there's something wrong with you. And worse yet it makes it seem like we're always against you. Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but we fight to get you to do your work because it's important for you to be able to manage your work and we care about you being successful. We care about YOU.  Fighting with you however is absolutely wrong, and it makes it seem as though we're against you and for that, we owe you an apology.   That's completely not the case. We are on your side, and we need you to be on your side too which means we need you to care about your responsibilities, your school responsibilities as much as we do. You don't have to love doing schoolwork and you don't even have to be great at it. There's no doubt that you are smart and capable but staying focused on your schoolwork is not your best or your favorite thing. And that's fine. Like I said you're smart you're funny you're a likable you're a talented athlete you're great with little kids you're great with your friends and all your friends’ parents think the world of you. We think the world of you too. So let's work together to figure this out because you're going to be in school for several more years and it's important that you find a successful way to be a student. First of all, we made an appointment to see if you have ADHD or something that makes it hard for you to focus. But it is hard for you to focus so let's just accept that and figure some things out. There are plenty of books on how to improve focus so let's take a look at them and work together so that you can get your work done in a way that is most suited to you. For instance, working in short spurts, taking breaks, having support, getting organized, building in rewards are all strategies to build motivation and ensure success. There are lots of other tools but I'm not an expert, so we'll look at some books and speak to some experts. Once we have a plan in place and we're working well together, we can build in time for you to hang out with friends. But for now, let's limit that to the weekends and let's get our act together.

See what we’re doing here Maddy?  We’re connecting with your son and laying out a path forward.  We aren’t trying or should I say struggling to get him to do his homework. The struggle is really his. He’s a bright kid from a child oriented and caring family. He needs to learn how to manage his educational responsibilities given that schoolwork isn’t his best strength, and we want to support him in getting on with his personal challenges productively.  Having this conversation isn’t going to change his attitude immediately.  Since we have a bona fide Control Battle in place, it will take a while to manage our way out of it.  Your son will continue to fight rather than cooperate and you can be positive, patient, and persistent. Cooperation is his ticket to being able to hang out with friends.  When he sees that you aren’t fighting or going negative with him, he will come back your way.  He needs you and no doubt misses the closer relationship with you that he had in his childhood.  It will however, take a while for him to grow into the reality that school success belongs to him.

Oh yes, and to your question about his not wanting to continue with soccer and your concerns about him not wanting to do hard things? That isn’t a great way to think about it.  A lot of kids start soccer early and enjoy being on the team and playing.  At your son’s age, the play becomes more serious and the intensity of the play and the demands of the games and the coaching gets a lot more serious.  At that point, many kids move to other activities even if they’re good soccer players.  To keep going in the sport requires a dedication and a commitment to competition that isn’t a good fit for every kid.  

So parents, therapists and folks who work with families.  We can get so focused on a child, teen, or young adult’s behavior, that we can’t see the forest through the trees. 

We can’t reward or punish a behavior to change a behavior.Click To Tweet That’s up to the kid.  Locus of control is in them.  As with Maddy’s situation, we will be able to help our kids if we think about what is driving a behavior.  If we’re stumped or see something that warrants a professional assessment, by all means, take that step. It will help us know our child and help our child know themselves.  The result of an assessment can offer resources and a plan and that can be a rallying point for change and ending a Control Battle.  But when parents seek therapeutic help to change a behavior, they’ve undoubtedly tried many things to deal with it before they sought help, and that indicates a Control Battle is most likely in place.  A good therapist will do two things:

  1. Understand the underlying driver of a behavior and
  2. Help the youth and family, end their Control Battle.   

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to you Maddy for your question. Before we end today, continue to do a little something to relax our minds and bodies. Have you been remembering to do some slow deep breathing throughout the day? I hope so; it makes a big difference.  Let’s take a slow deep breath right now.  (inhale…exhale…..) How’s that feel? Good. Let’s do the exercise we did last week again.  Let your arms and hands flop comfortably to your sides.  Now let your arms stay limp, roll your shoulders back, then-up then forward and back down, so you’re making a circle with your shoulders.  Try that slowly, say five times and then rest.  1,2,3,4,5.  Now do the same thing in reverse so that you’re rolling your shoulders front to back.  Try that slowly five times.  How does that feel?  Do you notice the tension release?  Try five more back to front and then front to back.  Once again, a small thing makes a noticeable difference.  And these small things are important because as I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again, this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.

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