Questions about Parenting Teenagers

Q: Our 16 year old daughter says she wants to get into a top college but doesn’t take her homework seriously, complaining that it is boring, and ends up with lower grades because of missing or poor quality assignments. We have nightly conflicts about this and feel very confused because what she is doing is inconsistent with what she claims to want for herself. We are also frustrated because she is very bright, does very well on classroom tests, and could be getting higher grades. Any suggestions?

A. For some reason, your daughter has drawn you into trying to take responsibility for her homework and then, by not doing it, upsetting you and creating a very negative parent-child relationship. The key issues here are to allow her to be responsible for her work, accept that she may get into a lesser college if she continues this pattern, allow her to sort out if that is really important (she could be saying that because she thinks that’s what you want to hear), and shift the focus of your relationship with her to enjoying her positive qualities in the brief time left that she will be living at home.

Discuss this shift in tactics with her and explore her thoughts about why she really doesn’t do the homework. Perhaps she is too tired by the time she gets around to it or has too many other commitments? Is the homework problem true in all her courses or is she more responsible when she likes a course (or a teacher)? Be realistic about the outcome of this. If she’s bright and tests well, she probably will have solid S.A.T. scores and will still be able to get into a quality school. Getting into the “best school” is not a necessary goal for the vast majority of students since it has very little relationship to success in life, financial or personal. Having a quality relationship with your daughter is far more valuable to all of you. Remember you will be parenting her for many, many more years after high school. She will need you as guides and confidantes when she begins to struggle with the more serious issues in the real world as a young adult. Don’t undermine that relationship with endless nagging and conflict while she still lives with you on a daily basis.

Q: We have a son with severe learning disabilities who drives himself to be successful in school. We are concerned that his life is all work and no fun. He has only a few interests and a couple of friends, but does little else besides study. It takes him about twice as long to get his work done as other students. How can we help him to lighten up?

A. Is this your problem or his? In other words, is your son unhappy with his life or does he get a great deal of satisfaction from his hard-earned accomplishments? Sure he’s missing out on some adolescent good times but I suspect he will catch up with that some day. Again, it is important to understand if he’s doing this because he’s scared of failing in life and it’s making him depressed or anxious, or is he simply rising to a challenge as a part of his personality style? You may want to explore if he is using his time efficiently but for the most part you should focus on being proud of his drive and accomplishments. Talk to him about the fact that for students with learning disabilities, going to school is usually the most difficult part of their life because it constantly makes demands upon their weaknesses. When these students get out into the real world and find some type of work that fits their strengths, work can become much easier than school and very rewarding.

Q: My husband and daughter clash because both are very driven, compulsive, and very critical (of themselves and others). It is clear to me that she eggs him on by purposely doing things that will irritate him. I can’t stand their nightly confrontations. It impacts on everyone in the house. Help?

A. The challenge is to work with your husband in helping him to back off. Most likely he means well, i.e., he believes what he is doing is trying to help “fix” his daughter’s bad traits and help her to be more successful in life. Stress this positive aspect of his caring and try to help him to focus on his chronic distress from these confrontations. It’s bad for his health, and everyone else’s! Also point out that his efforts are not only not working (your daughter keeps repeating the same unacceptable behaviors) but their relationship is probably a key reason she’s not changing her ways. By now she is probably angry at him for his chronic criticism, feels she can never please him so why bother, and , as you’ve noted, probably continues to do some of the undesirable behavior just to irritate him.

They have lost the ability to enjoy each other. If they used to have fun when she was younger, urge him to remember that and stress how important that was to both of them. Suggest that he sit down with her and talk about wanting to have a more positive relationship with her and ask her for some help in trying to do that. She may reject his outreach at first but if he can persist at it, she’s likely to be willing to give him a chance. Urge him to realize that one of prime causes of adult children not being able to experience or enjoy success in their adult years is because they carry around a voice in their head that keeps telling them whatever they do is not good enough. Don’t be that voice!