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August 30, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 83

How Do I Get My Teen to Take School Seriously?

Episode 83

After more than two years of pandemic-related disruption, there’s a lot riding on this school year. But what do you do if your kid doesn’t seem to care about grades or how things are going academically? How can adults get kids to self-motivate and without micro-managing? Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss how parents can get kids to take school seriously, what kind of support is most useful, and the most common mistake adults make when trying to help students get back on track at school. In Parenting to Go Dr. Lisa provides tips that will help every family have the best possible start to the new school year.

August 30, 2022 | 29 min

Transcript | How Do I Get My Teen to Take School Seriously?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 83: How Do I Get My Teen To Take School Seriously?


The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.


REENA: It feels so good to be back, Season 3.


LISA: I know, Reena. We’ve talked a bit over the summer, but I’ve missed being in touch like how we are when we’re in full season. I am thrilled to be back with you. 


REENA: I know, and I need your help. And based on our inbox of emails that we’ve gotten from around the world, lots of people need your help. 


LISA: Well, here we go. Let’s just get down to it. 


REENA: Get down to it. You know, back to school. This new report, we’ve noticed, kind of got our attention. It’s by this non-profit, NWEA, and they’re saying that the amount of learning lost during the pandemic will take three to five years for students in elementary and middle school to actually recover from, all of that loss. 


LISA: Oof, and I know they didn’t look at high school students, but I can tell you there was a lot of learning loss in high school too, and it’s not good. And of course, and awfully, it hit the kids who were already behind even more. Kids in tough situations, stressed communities, impoverished families, so there is a lot of catching up that needs to happen and it’s going to be pretty uphill for a lot of kids and a lot of families. 


REENA: Uphill, and for so many students it’s motivating has been so hard. And this letter really stood out to us. It says: ‘Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, thank you for your podcast. You’ve really helped me to see around corners better since I’ve started listening, especially in light of so many pandemic-related challenges. Here’s a challenge we’re facing now. My oldest daughter is starting high school this fall. She’s smart and talented but refuses to put in effort needed to help reflect that outwardly. She has ADHD and struggles with getting work turned in. She tells me she’s doing it and doesn’t. She misses the extended deadlines they give her. We talk about this regularly and how it becomes more important as we go into high school. She’s also a talented artist and singer. She’s passionate about music and theater but refuses to take any lessons to help her develop. As a highly driven person, I’m constantly frustrated with this situation because I know she could be a straight A student. She spends hours on her computer “doing homework” but still has these issues. I’m guessing she’s really not doing the homework. How can I support her without completely micromanaging her?’ We struggle, so many of us parents. We want them to self-motivate but we don’t want to micromanage. But they’re not doing the work. 


LISA: Yep, and this is a girl who’s about to be a ninth grader, and I think whatever has been going on prior to ninth grade I think families feel like there’s a little room to work, but then, as soon as the kid’s in high school, there’s a sense of, okay, this is a transcript that’s going to follow this kid and may really close doors for this kid. So, whatever anxieties or pressures were there before high school, it all goes up many notches as you’ve got a kid who isn’t doing the work and now, they’re in high school. 


REENA: So, this particular parent, the child is struggling with ADHD, so what does that mean as far as trying to get the work done?


LISA: So, ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a diagnosis this child as and is a major player in this story, but I also hear the exact same story from kids who don’t have ADHD, so we’ll play it out both ways because I think this is a very broad and common scenario that this parent has brought forward. So, for ADHD, and when I hear that that diagnosis is present, of course my first question is what interventions are in place, what has been tried, what has already happened, and based on the letter, one of the interventions it sounds like has happened, is the girl has a plan, or accommodations at school, or an IEP, it’s called different things in different places, because the letter writer mentions that the girl has extended deadlines, that she’s still missing, but she has extended deadlines. So, I think, okay, there’s a good chance they’ve gone through the process of getting a diagnosis, sharing it with the school, developing a plan. That’s all good, but it’s not working. So, I think that that’s one of those things that I see in schools where they’re like, we did all these things and then they get stuck or the family gets stuck or the school gets stuck. So, I think one of the places I would want any parent with a plan and a kid on a plan to feel empowered is to go back and be like, so appreciate the plan, it’s not working, what else do you have? What else can we do? Obviously, there’s a medication question here. This is something every family would want to evaluate individually and hopefully with the care of a really good team, but that can help for some kids with ADHD, but what’s happening here, and this can actually then take us to just thinking about kids broadly, the girl’s not doing the work, there are things getting in the way of her doing the work, and she might be able to access more supports. But the supports that would help an ADHD kid would also help a kid who doesn’t have ADHD but has this profile. And it’s stuff like support around executive functioning, support around what school’s for, so we can start to think about all the things a family might do, with or without an ADHD diagnosis, that would help in a situation like this. 


REENA: So, I think a lot of parents wonder, when is too much intervention when dealing with your kid. So, if you don’t have a child that’s struggling with ADHD, what are your red flags? What do you think is important for parents to know?


LISA: Well, it’s such a good way to frame it, Reena, like, what’s too much intervention? And what we’re also talking about here is a 14-year-old, and the nature of adolescence is they want autonomy, they want to be independent, they want to do things themselves, and this letter has a lot of that in it too where the girl is a talented singer and actress, and the mom’s like, you want to take lessons, and the girl’s like, no, I don’t want to take lessons I’ll do it my own way. And that’s so wonderfully and also frustratingly adolescent in this. So, what it reminds me of, Reena, is a situation I’ve seen myself in in schools where I’ve learned a lot, where a kid isn’t doing the work, the kid is just not showing up academically, and I watch the adults around the kid just do so much, provide so much support and so much intervention and are super creative about all the things that can happen without really involving the kid all that much. They’re throwing all the ideas on the table, they’re coming up with all the cool strategies, and I’ve watched kids completely tank those scenarios. When the kid feels like, oh look everybody’s gotten really busy and doesn’t really have any skin in the game, doesn’t really get invited into the process of trying to help them get serious about school. So, especially with a high schooler, you want to make them want help, and it’s not even clear right now that this kid wants help, and that’s, I think where the parent’s getting stuck out of the gate, with or without the ADHD diagnosis, is the kid’s like, meh, and the parent’s like, agh, and so it’s hard to know how to go forward. 


REENA: But what if they don’t ever want help? What if they’re just okay just being in this phase and you know there are consequences, especially in high school, this mom’s saying. In middle school, we try to get them to understand why it’s important to push forward, but by the time you’re in high school, so many people are just so drained already. If they don’t feel like they need to ask for help or want it, how do you motivate when they don’t want to self-motivate?


LISA: Okay, so this is really interesting and it’s a really, I see this all the time, Reena, I just want you to know, this tension where the parent’s like, oh man, you are shooting yourself in the foot, and the kid’s like, whatever I really like this TV show. It’s a really painful moment at home. So, my general advice in situations like this is the kid has to feel some discomfort around this and it’s often the job of the parent to make them feel some discomfort, so that they want help. And the way to go about this, here’s one strategy, is that one thing that all teenagers want is freedom. That is a true thing. It’s very rare that a teenager does not want more independence and more privacy and more autonomy. And so what parents can do is they can attach functioning well at school, turning in one’s work as one’s supposed to, to freedoms that have nothing to do with school. So, if a teenager’s like, I want to go to a concert on Saturday night with my friends, a parent can say, I want to let you go to that concert on Saturday night with your friends. Here’s the thing. That requires a fair bit of trust in you and your good judgment for you to handle yourself independently and I’m not seeing that in the one place where you could really show it to me, which is the management of your academics. So, when you are getting your stuff turned in on time, when you are getting the kind of grades you and I are in agreement you can totally get, you should talk it through with your kid, it should be a fair expectation, when you are showing me in the domains where I can observe it, which is school, that you’ve got good judgment and are on top of things, I can then more comfortably say, yes, go use that good judgment at a weekend concert with your friends. That’s how you can link up things like getting to hang out with one’s friends with turning in one’s work. It’s that it’s about judgment and responsibility and demonstrating it. 


REENA: Tell me, I love this concept, what other pressure points have you found over the course of your experience that high school students that could be pressure points that get them to self-motivate. You mentioned the concerts. What else are things that they want more freedom that you can use as leverage?


LISA: So, it can be things like how late their curfew is, it could be things like how closely you’re monitoring them if you insist that kids come over to your house versus letting them go over to other kids’ houses. But the nice thing is most teenagers are asking for things their parents are ambivalent about. Like to go hang out at a house that you don’t really love how things go down at that house. In normally developing teenagers there’s always some press towards more freedom or lack of supervision than parents are good with, or not good with, readily comfortable with. 


REENA: Yeah, we don’t want to give it up.


LISA: We don’t, and so, I think that the job of the parent is to sit in that tension of being like, uh, you can go over to Jimmy’s house where everything always feels a little out of control, when you are showing me you’ve got really good judgment on x, y and z, and so making it predictable, making it short-term, like if you didn’t turn in your work this week at school, the weekend is going to be a lot more boring. If you get it all in this week, you’ll have a lot more freedom this weekend, you can start again on Monday, every week. So having it be kind of quick chances for kids to get it right, they will not always get it right, so they have one lame weekend, they get back in the saddle with another fun weekend if they’re on top of it. But what’s really hard about this is the kid has to feel some downside to not doing the work, and what we’re hearing about this child developmentally, and this is true for a lot of them, they’re not yet at a place maturationaly where they can connect not doing the work in ninth grade with having fewer options in 12th grade. It’s just too far away. And most kids do start to connect those dots somewhere in high school. And so this kind of, for lack of a better word, foot on the neck approach, 


REENA: Yeah, the pressure points.  


LISA: The pressure points, like making it painful for the kid to not do the work around things the kid really cares about. Usually, you don’t have to do it forever. Usually, development kicks in and the kid is like, actually I just saw so-and-so’s big sister went to this college and it looks like a really cool college, and you can say, great, to get there you’re going to need these kinds of grades. And then suddenly it comes from within the child. But not all 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds or 15-year-olds are there. 


REENA: Wow. Gosh I never thought of back-to-school, figuring out what your kid’s pressure points are to get them to self-motivate might be homework number one for parents everywhere. I mean to go back to my son, who graduated from fifth grade, and all summer he has been doing research trying to explain why he should have a phone, and I don’t want him to have a phone, but he has taken on some extra responsibility on his own to prove that. And it could all make sense to me now that you’re talking about self-motivating and trying to get kids to do things you want them. You’ve got to find out what it is they really want and use that as motivation to get them to do stuff. 


LISA: Absolutely. And I think the way I think about it is the drive towards autonomy in teenagers, it’s the train they’re on, and you’re either on the train with them or you are under that train. There is no other place to be. The way you get under that train with a kid around school, and this is what this letter writer is so trying not to find themselves in that position, where you are leaning on them, like I’m going to supervise you while you do your homework, I’m going to monitor everything. And I will tell you, Reena, I can’t believe how many times in my 25 years of practicing, I’ve watched families do this where they just absolutely micromanage the bejeezus out of a teenager, they can’t stand it. They will get the finished work into the kid’s backpack, they will watch the kid put it into the kid’s backpack and the kid doesn’t turn it in because they are so annoyed that they are being micromanaged so thoroughly. So to try to attach it, like, you want to go out on the weekend? Okay, great, I want you to go out on the weekend. You know what you need to do, and then the parent stepping back and living with whatever that kid does, which is painful, and if the kid messes it up and doesn’t get the work done and if the kid’s really mad that they’re not going out that weekend, then the parent can say, I’m bummed too. I wanted you to be able to go out, but what kind of parent am I if when you’re not showing me good judgment at school, I let you go into situations where I know you need good judgment, let’s try again next weekend. 


REENA: Wow, that’s good. First off, we don’t want to micromanage. 


LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Okay, so that’s the relational side. The other thing I think that’s important is you can anticipate some of this. You could say to a student who’s about to start the school year, all right, what kind of grades do you think you can get? I think that’s a very fair place to start. Like is it fair of us to ask that you get As and Bs. Get agreement on that, and you usually can, and then say, okay, we’re in agreement, you can have As and Bs, or Bs and Cs, whatever feels fair for that child, and then say, we’re going to attach some meaning to this. You getting these grades or you getting your work turned in or whatever you use as the metric, that’s going to be what dictates how much freedom you have on the weekends, do you want our help with making sure you can get the work done because that’s not something that has come very easily to you. Asking the question, do you want our help, is essential. Because sometimes kids will be like, yes. And then you can say great. Do you want to start doing your homework in the dining room so that you don’t get so distracted like you do up in your bedroom? Or do you want me to sit next to you while you work? Or do you want to go to the library after school and we’ll give you a ride and we’ll pick you up from there? Do you want to partner with us in thinking about structural features that would make it easier for you to focus and get the work done like you want to and like we want you to be able to?


REENA: Why is that so important? Because to me I’m like, I don’t even need to ask that question, I already know the answer to that question. You’re a hot mess. I need to step in. But you’re saying, wait, wait, don’t do that just yet. Ask them if they need the help. 


LISA: Or if they want the help. We know they need it. We know they need it. You’re right, and that’s what’s really hard as a parent. And especially since ninth grade is still really young, you’re like, obviously you need the help. I’m going to tell you how this works. And then of course this fantastic letter writer’s like, I’m really driven, I’m really organized, which makes it that much harder because you’re like, I totally know how to make this work for this kid. 


REENA: Like, hello. 


LISA: So, I’ll tell you, though, Reena, having been in those scenarios with a kid who is, I kind of call them like a black hole, like they’re sucking in all the resources but nothing’s happening, having been in those meetings and watched adults just activate, activate, activate around that child, it’s kind of amazing, and when I’ve watched it enough I’ve learned to get all the adults out of the meeting and say to the kid, do you want help? Do you want this help that we’re talking about? And no matter what the kid says back, it is a really valuable question to ask. 


REENA: But why? Why is that question so valuable to ask? You know we just intervene and pick it up and move forward, but you’re saying we need to ask that question first. Why?


LISA: Yeah, because I think I’ve had kids say like, I don’t really care, or it becomes clear the kid’s depressed, right? Like they’re like, whatever I do, it’s not going to make a difference so why do I care? Like all these things are not going to matter. It doesn’t always tell you exactly what to do next when you’ve asked this question, but it gets you into a conversation that you need to be in with a kid because then they might also say, I do want the help but I don’t want my mom to be the one who’s monitoring. I’ve had kids say that. Or my dad, he’s so annoying the way he goes about it. So I’ve sometimes even brokered stuff with kids where they don’t necessarily talk about school with one parent or the other, or there’s an advisor at school who stays on top of things and then communicates to the parents if stuff’s falling apart, but the parents stay out of it. So, sometimes kids will take the support, but they need to put some of their own conditions around it. And if we’re talking high schoolers, you have to respect that. You can’t make a teenager do things. And that’s what’s so painful as a parent. But you’ve got to work with that reality. 


REENA: So, what if the kid is like, look, it’s not going to make a difference I don’t care. Then, what do you do?


LISA: Well, I would be really interested in that answer, right? If the kid’s like, you know what? I’ve tried it all, I tried studying at the library, I’ve tried talking to my teachers, I’ve tried working in the dining room. None of it’s making a difference. I think the first question, and this mom has this question in this letter, is are you really studying? Or are you messing around? I think that that’s where you would start to scrape away a little bit. But then, Reena, sometimes it is the case where the kid is really working and spinning their wheels, going backwards, and there’s one of two things often happening there. One is, they may have really lousy study strategies. And that is a true thing. There are kids who study very effectively, and there are kids who study very hard, not effectively at all. So, one question I would ask is, when you say you’re studying, what do you mean by that? And I’ll tell you, I was talking with a teacher recently who had a kid who was doing quite terribly in school, and the teacher said to the student, it was a boy, when you’re done studying, how well do you know the material? And the kid looked at him blankly. Like the kid had not linked up, and this was a high schooler, studying until you know the material. Like the kid studied a while and then stopped, and then he was saying to the teacher, no but I’m studying, but he wasn’t actually learning the material while studying. 


REENA: Yes. 


LISA: And now you’ve got an interesting place to work. The other thing that one would have to rule out is a learning disorder. Because sometimes there are kids who are really trying and really working and they don’t take in information in the way that it is presented at school, and that would need to be diagnosed, and it can sometimes happen that for one reason or another, the learning disorder does not become obvious until the high school workload hits. So, if a kid is feeling helpless and hopeless around like, none of this is going to work, none of this is going to matter, I would really get into questions about, show me what you mean when you say you’re studying and also, do we need to check to see if you’ve got an undiagnosed learning disorder. 


REENA: Got it. Are there things that parents might overlook that are basic that can really help us in self-motivating and getting kids to do their homework?


LISA: Yeah, I think that, I’m thinking about the line in the mom’s letter about being very driven herself, and I think what we have to remember is by the time we’re adults, and maybe this isn’t an adult who’s always been driven, but it’s a lot easier to get excited about work you like than it is about work that you’re just assigned. And I think one of the hardest things about school that we don’t talk nearly enough about is that kids are expected to be motivated when they’ve basically been told what to do. They haven’t had much choice or much say. And one adjustment we can all make as we start the new school year with our kids is to just talk much more plainly about the fact that there’s going to be work that your kid is into and there’s going to be work that your kid is totally not into and there’s nothing wrong with that. And that doesn’t say anything about your kid and that doesn’t mean your kid’s not a good kid or a serious student, but the nature of school is that we expect them to be equally motivated across a variety of things that they were assigned, that they haven’t had say. So, even that piece of not thinking like, why isn’t my kid motivated? If we just change it instead to when is my kid motivated and when does my kid need a lot of help to get motivated for no reason other than just being a kid who’s been told to take this class that they otherwise would never take. That adjustment can put you much more in alignment as a support for your kid, as opposed to feeling frustrated wondering why your kid isn’t always in the mood to do what’s asked. 


REENA: Have you found in your experience that there’s a particular place in the house that kids do better at with homework?


LISA: Well, so it’s interesting. I mentioned the dining room. I’m a big fan of that. What I would say is, a lot of families default when kids have the luxury of having their own rooms, a lot of families default to the kid doing their work in their room. I don’t think that works nearly as well as people think it does. I think there are definitely some highly disciplined kids who are really good at getting to their desk and getting their stuff out and just getting down to business. Rooms are distracting. There’s a lot of fun stuff in your room. There’s baseball cards, there’s outfits you can try on. So, in that conversation where we say to a kid, do you want my help thinking about how to structure this year to set you up for success, I think there should be a conversation about where do you work best? And do you want to do some experimentation for the first couple weeks of school? Do you want to use my office, if you have an office? Do you want to do the dining room? Do you want to try your room and see how it goes? But treating it like a thing to sort out, as a critical feature, because when I have seen students really thrive, it’s not necessarily that they’re the smartest kid at school, it’s that they are a kid who knows exactly where in the daily routine, they know where they work and they know when they work. There’s no figuring out day by day, when should I do my homework and where should I set myself up? They really, they have essentially an office they go to and they know when they go and they go there and they get it done. 


REENA: Wow, lots of stuff here. I mean the first thing is figuring out pressure points, letting kids ask if they need help, asking them if they need help. Wow. Lots to unpack and think about that I hadn’t thought about in kicking the schoolnyear off. 


LISA: It’s a big one, Reena. And I think some of what we’re going to face this year is going to be pandemic hangover, and some of it is that it’s always been hard for kids to motivate at school, that it’s not like prior to the pandemic kids were like, yay, give me all the work, I love all my classes. So, if there’s anything we can draw from the pandemic is that we are actually talking more bluntly and directly about how kids are not always into it or don’t always want to do it, and they’ve got to do it anyway. And so I think it’s okay for us just to meet them right where they are and acknowledge that school is not everybody’s cup of tea but it is the path that they’ve got to be on for a little while longer, so how do we help them leave school with as many doors open as they absolutely can. 


REENA: That’s good. So, what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?


LISA: Let’s start this year treating motivation like the complicated thing it is, that sometimes we’re in the mood, sometimes we’re not in the mood to do the work, same for our kids. And talking openly with our kids about what helps them do work that they don’t feel like doing, and really getting creative with them. Like, would it help them if you sat nearby? Would it help them if you set a timer and they got up and walked around after every 20-minute module of work? Would it help them if after 20 minutes you brought the dog around and they rolled around the floor with the dog for five minutes? Would it help them if they knew that they were going to have a snack after 20 minutes? I think we should in no way make our kids feel like there’s something less than about them as a student if they need all of these things. I think we should treat it as normal and acceptable in the school year. 


REENA: I’ve never thought of it that way, that this is just normal development and something that you’ve got to have a little bit more patience with but talk through with your kid. 


LISA: Absolutely. 


REENA: And next week we’re going to talk about what do you do if your kid makes bad friends? How do you get them to rethink that relationship? I’ll see you next week. 


LISA: See you next week. 


The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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