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Teenagers, Schoolwork, and Motivation

Teenagers, Schoolwork, and Motivation

Judy Rader, MA, LMFT
January 28, 2008

Teenagers, School, and Motivation

Parents frequently worry that their children lack motivation regarding schoolwork and test preparation. As their sons and daughters go through the high school years, this worry often intensifies, as mothers and fathers understandably hope their teen's high school transcript will afford a full range of choice in college selection. Many parents "step in," and give unwanted advice, comments, or lectures about the need for a higher degree of motivation - which their teen typically tunes out. So what is a parent to do? How should parents effectively intervene to help their children become more motivated? At what point should parents intervene? And what particular pitfalls might parents expect?

As a family therapist, I often see parents and teenagers entering therapy to address upset with schoolwork. Typically, the teens are "shut down," the parents are angry and anxious; and consequently, there is little effective communication. To understand how a parent's desire to be helpful can become a source of conflict, it is important to first understand the developmental needs of teens.

Adolescents are developmentally driven to embrace independence, self-initiative, and greater control in their lives. Meanwhile, they find themselves at a critical point in their development between childhood and adulthood - a period that draws them to explore different beliefs, opinions, and ways of conducting their lives towards the goal of forging an identity of their own.. This confusing and often distressing period is truly a rite of passage -- a part of growing up.

En route to achieving a mature identity, teens understandably sift through some immature and irresponsible behaviors. They may try on a lackadaisical approach to homework completion and test preparation. Or they may test out the belief that because they deem a particular teacher boring, for example, they do not need to 'reward him' with carefully completed homework. In such instances, parents will typically notice poor grades or teacher comments indicating a lack of motivation and effort -- that will indeed require parental intervention.

In order to effectively intervene and avoid your teen tuning you out, here are some helpful tips:

    • Normalize that your daughter will make mistakes in judgment (including some related to schoolwork) as she embraces her developmental task of trying on new behaviors.
    • Do not become overly anxious and move in too abruptly or intrusively by using a shameful tone, lecturing, or hyper-vigilantly questioning your teen about his schoolwork.
    • If your child receives a poor first report card, sit down with her and respectfully discuss whether she senses her low grades are due to: (1) difficulty with understanding the subject matter (which might require tutoring, after-school teacher help, or parental help); (2) a lack of time and effort devoted to schoolwork; or (3) depression (which would require professional help).
    • If your child admits that his poor grades are due to his cutting corners on schoolwork, institute an appropriate, short-term consequence such as: "For two weeks there will be no television or non-academic computer use until you finish your homework and show it to me. If you demonstrate during those weeks that you have carefully and thoroughly completed your homework, we will allow you to assume control of your homework completion again."
    • If your relationship with your teen is already distressed to the point where she ignores you or hurls nasty comments at you for your rightful involvement, it is probably time to seek the help of an experienced adolescent therapist.
    • If your child is earning good grades on tests and report cards, but you still feel he demonstrates a certain lack of 1) motivation (in terms of time devoted to homework, for example) or 2) focus (watching television, listening to music, etc. while doing homework), it is best not to intervene. Parents lack leverage to complain when their teens are achieving good grades -- and teens will most likely find admonitions to spend more time on homework both intrusive and annoying.
    • Know your child well - and always encourage her to work to the best of his/her ability. But avoid the common pitfall of asking for or expecting certain grades. Children who are pressured to get better grades than they are capable of typically experience shame - which often is externalized as anger. And teens who are satisfied with a B average (and may not be interested in getting into the "best college"), but hear their parents urging them to study for an A average, will likely experience their parents as intrusive and will continue to tune them out.

The most important gift we can nurture in our children is healthy self-esteem. Three critical ingredients of healthy adolescent self esteem are: 1) a sense of self-agency and independence (vs. being over-monitored or micro-managed), 2) the satisfaction of having done good work borne of careful attention and good effort (as opposed to their "dumbing themselves down" by laziness and/or a lack of focus), and 3) the sense that they are accepted for who they are (for example, a solid "B" student, or a teen who feels too pressured both studying and going out for a varsity sport.)

While parents must become involved when they determine that their teen's poor or mediocre grades result from lack of motivation, that intervention risks bumping up against a very powerful adolescent drive to maintain as much control over his or her life as possible. Understanding the 'when' and 'how' of such interventions is critically important. The ability to balance parental interventions with teenagers' developmental need for independence will greatly enhance their mutual relationship.

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