Teenagers and Homework

Dear Sharon,

I have a 12 year old who is a homework problem kid. He doesn’t want to do anything but computer games and hang out with his friends. We end up fighting a great deal of the time. We want him to do well in school and prepare himself for the future and the competitive world he will soon enter. Any advice for a frustrated parent who has a smart kid but a distracted one and one who doesn’t take much of life seriously?

Dear Parent, You are not the only parent of a distracted preteen. It is not uncommon for 12 year olds to have difficulty understanding or remembering the importance of long-range goals. Fun with friends or exciting technologies can be hard to pass up in exchange for a future that is hard to imagine.

It can be no simple feat to help a pre teen “take life more seriously,” but here are a few things to keep in mind that might help.

Arguments with an adolescent often don’t bring the results parents are hoping for, especially if the same fight is happening over and over again. It usually works better if a parent can figure out ways to stay calm when discussing complicated topics such as schoolwork and social life. However, when parents feel “at their wit’s end” and a productive conversation seems like a remote possibility I often suggest that they take a break from the tension and do something with their child that is fun and relaxing.
They might watch a movie, listen to music, go shopping, or even sit down at a video or computer game together. They could also do something that used to make their child happy a few years ago (even though a pre teen can act “all grown up”, they are still very young.) Some parents I know have cooked favorite foods, gone on bike rides, stopped by the park or rubbed their child’s back at bedtime. This kind of time can lower a parent’s frustration, help them remember what they like about their child and ultimately improve their ability to communicate their concerns. After a nice time with Mom or Dad a child often feels more open to an adult’s ideas as well.

When a parent feels ready to try and communicate again, I often suggest that the discussion take place out of the house where the distractions and responsibilities from home are not as heavily on everyone’s mind. A favorite restaurant (even one the parent doesn’t particularly like to go to) might be a good place to talk but if a teen likes to walk or exercise, the park or playground is also fine.

I also suggest that if possible the parent begins the talk by helping the child open up about the pressures in his or her life. Unfortunately it is not easy being 12. Peer, academic and hormonal pressures are abundant at this age and many junior high aged children need a caring and supportive Mom or Dad more than they did at the end of grade school. There may be lots of factors involved in slipping grades; girlfriends, boyfriends, erratic teaching, test anxiety or a host of other things. If a child gets to talk about any of their frustration or concerns (school related or not) it can help them think more clearly about the tasks before them. They might even come up with possible solutions that could help.

If talking isn’t enough (it sometimes isn’t) many parents I know have brought in extra help. Some parents hire tutors to help their children conquer difficult subjects. Others have very successfully hired a high school or college student as a homework helper. This kind of help is less expensive and can often reduce battles between parent and child as the “cool, fun” older teen shows up and gets the younger teen organized and more motivated.

Good luck as you help your bright, engaging pre teen live up to his potential. I believe that everything you try will eventually make a difference.