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.

5 Parenting Tips for Back-to-School 

As students put away the flip-flops and put on backpacks this back-to-school season, many parents dread the arguments over homework, the amped-up scheduling and other parental stressors. Here are some tips to help parents manage the September Stress:

  1. What homework? My first rule is simple: Stop asking about homework, hovering over your child and checking homework.

From what I hear regularly from patients, parents today seem to be far too involved in “helicoptering” about homework issues.

What are you teaching your child when you ask relentlessly and anxiously about homework? Is she learning lessons about her ability to disappoint you if she gets a bad grade?  Or maybe that you only care about academic success, not about her social or emotional fulfillment? Or that your self-image is defined by her grades?

Importantly, what are you teaching about personal responsibility when you daily remind an older child to do homework? Younger children need structure and direction most of the time. But as kids get along in elementary school these reminders should taper way off.

The way to teach about consequences is to let “natural consequences” occur. If your child forgets to do his homework, the result is he will feel embarrassed by his “0%” and realize he has disappointed himself, his teacher and his parents. He will not enjoy that sensation of shame, so he will likely change his behavior. By protecting him from learning this lesson you are not teaching him what I believe is one of the most important lessons of life — to acknowledge shame and learn be accountable for one’s behavior.

2. What, me worry?

Apologies for the antique cultural reference from my youth, but parents need to stop worrying about a child’s academic success.

Sure you want your child to be a “success.” But be honest.  Consider the real reason for your worry. Is this worry more about YOUR fears of looking like a failure as a parent if your child does not do well in school? Is this worry largely due to YOUR fear of getting the call from the teacher or principal about a forgotten book report or a poor behavior? Do you have high expectations for yourself and are you passing those perfectionistic traits to your child?

While it is easy to believe that your child reflects on your self-worth as a parent, let go of this belief. Free yourself and your child. Let your child be his own person and make his own path.

3. Put away the tech.

Studies have found that too much exposure to gadgets and games in childhood causes cognitive delays, attention problems, increased tantrums, sleep deprivation, increased impulsivity and more.

Two studies by the University of Southern Maine showed that college students who merely had a cell phone sitting on their desk while doing a simple cognitive test performed 20% worse than students who did not have technology nearby. Just the mental distraction of thinking about the cell phone seemed to worsen performance, even if the students didn’t actually use it.

If kids are working on a computer, have them shut other tabs to social media sites.

4.  Model your values.

You push your child to study and succeed academically. But when was the last time you read a book that was educational? Do you attend community education classes, visit museums or master a musical instrument? Do you watch PBS or educational TV shows? Do you discuss politics, current events, philosophy or religion at the dinner table or in the car?

5. Nix “How was your day?”

This article has 30 conversation-starter questions to use to replace that tired standby, “How was your day?”

In general, parents should focus on reducing anxiety surrounding school and making it a relaxing, enjoyable topic, so that kids experience learning as stress-free and maybe even fun!

Parenting Lessons from Horse Trainers


739035_2008-half-arabian-chestnut-mare_photo_1_1419540419_imgI walked out into the waiting room at work to meet a new family for therapy and they arrived in the waiting room at the same time. The father was pushing their 6-year-old son into the room. The son was very clearly afraid, hesitant and clingy. The father was irritated and dismissively said: “What are you afraid of? There is nothing to be afraid of. You’ve walked into waiting rooms before.”

I had never met this child but I intervened immediately, addressing him directly: “Would you like to stand here by the door for a bit until you feel OK?” He nodded shyly and clung to his father. Thankfully, the father followed my lead and stopped being demanding of his son. I then commented to the boy (also modeling emotional attunement for his parents): “You looked a little scared when you came in. It can be a little upsetting coming to a new place, can’t it? It can take awhile to feel safe.” He nodded his head again.

I then said hello to the parents and by that time the child was fine. He walked into the waiting room himself, checked it out and then calmly followed me toward my office. His fear and clinging disappeared and he was relaxed. Total elapsed time was about 30 seconds.

I recalled a saying used in horse training that applies directly to the patience and emotional attunement also needed for parenting:

“If you act as if you have 15 minutes, it will take all day. If you act as if you have all day, it will take 15 minutes.” 

Just as with horses and dogs, a lack of awareness of a child’s fears and impatience will merely escalate those fears. Pushing for progress in training will guarantee the opposite.

With that anxious child, all it took was someone to notice his fear and honor it. I allowed him to stay where he felt safe and get his emotional feet under himself, and he then was fine seconds later. I reflected his feelings, acknowledged them and validated them. It was normal for him to feel scared and I shared that experience with him.

Imagine if the father had kept forcing the child into the room, telling him there was nothing to worry about, and perhaps getting increasingly angry and agitated himself. It’s not hard to imagine the child having an angry tantrum, sobbing or otherwise becoming emotionally dysregulated. Instead of 30 seconds of delay, it could have turned into 30 minutes of upset.

And the parent would likely blame the child for behavioral problems.

Then the child gets labeled as having ‘ADHD” or “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” and his self-worth gets lower and his behavior worsens.

Long term, if the child and parent experience enough of these incidents, it leads to a strained relationship due to poor bonding or attachment.

Lack of emotional attunement is at the heart of insecure attachments or bonds in relationships.

So many parents — most in fact — are more focused on behaviors than emotions. They fail to notice very important information the child is sending in a rush to accomplish a task or have the child behave a certain way. They often get a negative result — upset kids, oppositional behavior, and arguing.

Of course, the parents in the waiting room were running very late for the appointment and were anxious themselves. That certainly did not help this child arrive in a new environment in a calm, relaxed mood. Again, parents might blame the child for becoming upset, not realizing their involvement in that incident.

I have experienced this “15-minutes rule” many times when dog training. When I want to give my dog a shower, I take some deep breaths and relax myself first. Then I calmly approach her and slowly lead her into the shower. If I try to rush the process and become impatient, she will resist, making the job take even longer. If she starts to get anxious, I pause and let her calm down before moving forward into the bathroom or shower.

The “15-minute rule” also applies in the therapy room when trying to push patients through an emotional experience too quickly can lead them to never fully feel safe being in those emotions.

For parents, learning to be aware of or attuned to a child’s emotions can improve a child’s behaviors in the short term and the strength of the relationship long term. Research also shows it leads to improved emotional intelligence, improved resilience and a a reduced incidence of anxiety and depression in adulthood. Big gains from such a simple skill — a skill that even horse trainers know about.

Childhood Stress is Linked to Accelerated Aging

It has long been known that childhood trauma, such as abuse or death of a parent, can lead to psychological and behavioral problems. But this new study also shows that childhood trauma is linked to accelerated aging.

As reported in PsyBlog: “The results showed that both mental health problems and childhood adversity were associated with shortening of telomeres — caps on each strand of DNA which affect how the cells age.”

While I have not read the entire study, previous studies have shown that trauma does not have to be significant for it to affect a child. Trauma does not have to mean sexual abuse or being beaten. To a child, merely the lack of warmth of an accepting, loving parent is enough to be considered traumatic.

This makes complete sense is we understand attachment theory and look at the effect of chronic stress on the body and mind. Children have a biological need for safety and warmth. A child exposed to frightening situations early in life, such as domestic violence, crime or abuse,  becomes primed to remain chronically in “fight-or-flight” mode. The body’s arousal system is then perpetually “on guard,” which is exhausting mentally and physically.

Many people with “mental disorders” have problems with both fatigue and hyper-arousal. The body is not designed to remain in alert mode; it is designed to flee or fight, then immediately relax in the safety of our tribe.

Children with early trauma often have rarely experienced the safe haven of caring, nurturing parents or environments. If their trust has been betrayed through emotional or physical neglect or abuse, they may lack secure attachment to caregivers, which means they may also never know how to relax into the comfort of a caring relationship.

Studies like this confirm what makes common sense: The lack of a feeling of safety in childhood is linked to poor outcomes in both mental and physical health. Quite simply, feeling accepted, protected and loved are key components of childrearing. The rise in mental illness and now of accelerated aging and physical illness can be directly traced to a lack of warmth in parents and caregivers or a disruption in their care.

This makes it all the more clear that parenting education and early childhood interventions can have tremendous impacts on the mental and physical health of millions of people.


Parenting: Dealing with a Teen’s Need to Fit In

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoorsOverheard in therapy from a teenager to her parents: “You made me look like the biggest retard ever.” First: Apologies for the socially incorrect statement. But what does this say about teenagers? (Other than that this comment has not changed in the past 4 decades since I was a teen!)

It signifies that their biggest fear is the fear of social exclusion, a fancy way to say they don’t like to feel left out.

Teenage brains are actually heavily wired to focus on social inclusion, acceptance, belonging or fitting in. There is actually a biological and evolutionary reason for this. In our ancient past, to find mates who were not biologically related young adults were often forced to leave their tribes or clans to venture out and attach themselves to a new tribe. What skills would be needed for a solo young adult to approach and join an unknown group of people? Great social skills!

These “pro-social” skills of approval-seeking, caring, submission, compliance, altruism and a need for acceptance would be life-savers in that scary situation for an adventurous teen.  (See, there is an actual reason your teen MUST HAVE that brand of jacket.)

The teen who uttered that phrase in therapy wanted to go to a party and feared being ostracized by her friends if she did not. Her parents, in attempting to keep this teen safe physically, were provoking an emotionally driven fear response in her. The fear response triggers “freeze-flight-fight-fold” responses as a means of self-protection, either from physical or emotional threats.

If parents react to statements such as this one merely as an attack they may lose sight of the fact that the teen is actually acting in a self-protective way to reduce the feeling of fear she is experiencing. Many human emotions and behaviors are a means to reduce a feeling of fear or to attempt to calm or soothe dysregulated emotions. At this point in her life, the fear of being rejected by her peers is surmounting her fear of being oppositional to her parents.

But today, in situations where teens want desperately to fit in, parents may only focus on the statement above as defiance and strive to get the teen to submit and comply. “Don’t disrespect your parents,” and “You’ll do what you are told,” may be phrases parents say to a teen in this situation. But parents would be forgetting an important fact that underlies the teen’s comment and behavior.

I urge parents of all ages of children to always remember that kids act in ways that help to keep them feeling safe or they may act out with defiance when they feel scared. My parenting takeaway is based on the fear response. Ask yourself: “What is my child really afraid of? Is my parenting making my child feel safe or scared?” A scared teen, whose main fear is being cast out of her tribe of fellow teens, will protest anything that increases that fear. Being kept from a party of her peers will trigger fear and she will protest — scream, sulk, sneak out of the house.

Reflective listening is always a great parenting solution. Rather than immediately impose your opinion as a parent, ask the teen what her real concern is. Reflect back to her what you understand — that she is fearful of being called “a retard” and being rejected by her friends. This fear is normal and age-appropriate, so parents should be accepting of the fear and work to understand it, rather than punish it. If the teen feels her fears are understood, it may de-escalate her fear and then her cognitive brain might be able to comprehend her parents’ decision to keep her away from the party. Or maybe not. But at least she will feel heard and understood, which is a great way for the parent-child relationship to be repaired and to flourish, even if there is disagreement on whether the teen can actually go to the party.