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Re-thinking Homework Refusal in Teens

Have a teen who refuses to do homework? Some teens even do the homework, but do not turn it in or “forget it”, ensuring them a failing grade. This makes no sense to parents, who only read this behavior as irrational or oppositional:  “He’s just doing it to piss me off,” or “He’s just lazy and irresponsible.”

Instead, let’s look at this behavior through a compassionate lens, which gives us an understanding of the likely emotional underpinning of this behavior.

Teens who are brought into therapy always have issues with low self-worth (same goes for adults.) This is the core cause of issues with low motivation, depression, anxiety, and especially suicidal or self-harm tendencies.

So, if we understand low self-worth as the core issue, it plays out with homework in the following way.  A teen has come to believe she is “stupid,” yet she does not want to turn in homework and have this fault confirmed by earning a bad grade. So she refuses to turn in the homework or loses it, because it is easier to be labeled “lazy” or “oppositional” than confirm the fear that she is “stupid” or “worthless.” Not turning in the homework allows her to protect her self-worth to some degree by keeping alive the thought that she might not actually be stupid.  “I’m not stupid. I just didn’t do the homework.”

Teens are also extremely sensitive to peer judgment. A teen who feels “stupid” does not want to expose this presumed fault in front of her peers. Avoiding turning in homework may be one way they attempt to solve this problem.

Yet parents do not understand and teens often can’t or won’t express these fears. (Because admitting feelings of shame or low self-worth is very difficult to do!)

When parents respond with labels of “lazy” and “irresponsible,” this feeds the child even more shaming messages, guaranteeing the misbehavior spiral will continue.

Parents: Rethink your child’s reluctance to do homework. Find a time to calmly and gently inquire about how she feels when doing homework or how she feels about turning in the work. Try to uncover any fears about grades and feelings of low self-worth.

When you have this talk, don’t immediately reassure the teen that she is “smart.” Just listen. Be fully emotionally attuned. Reflect on her emotions and experiences.

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