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Unmotivated Teen


I have a 13-year-old boy. He and I seem to get along fairly well most of the time. We work out at the gym together, snow ski together, and ride dirt bikes together. But I have a very tough time getting him motivated for school. When he isn't playing sports and I work with him he usually has a 3.0 gpa or slightly higher. During football I have been unable to get him to maintain focus on school. He and I have a verbal agreement that he is to maintain a 3.0 gpa. If he is missing assignments or has a test he must skip practice if his grade is below a B.  

This year in football he has been the start player. The team has finished the regular season with 6-1 record. He scored over 15 touchdowns and was one of the leading defensive players. He has become arrogant, disobedient, and his grades have fallen well below a 3.0. It seems like we do nothing but argue.

To top this off he was suspended for striking another student.

Dad Needs Help Please


Dear Dad Needs Help
My name is Laurie Prusso and I am one of the people who answer questions from parents and teachers.  I am the mother of six sons and have twelve grandchildren. In my work life, I am a Professor of Child Development at a community college in California.   I welcome you to the world of the parents of adolescents.

What a lucky father you are to have a good relationship with your son and to do such exciting things together.  It sounds like you are very involved together and that you have enjoyed that relationship.  It also sounds like he is a fabulous athlete and that you both enjoy that together.  What an exciting season you’ve had.  I would say right here that the best thing you can do is keep this relationship strong and not let any behavior interfere with your relationship with him.  Relationships are the key to behavior, and when the behavior has passed, you will still have each other.

Adolescence is a time of great developmental change.  Often the things that have motivated children and kept them close to us change.  It is typical for grades to take a dip around the time of middle school.  Once children realize that they are used to better outcomes, they often turn this around on their own.  Children by this age can typically do their homework on their own, and should be responsible for it.  If they need help with algebra or have difficulty, parents can offer brief assistance.  If adults give the message that homework or grades are under the parent’s control, then the child may decide to be defiant and fight for control by not doing work, not turning it in, or failing tests intentionally.

There are a couple of developmental tasks for kids during this period, and adults can be instrumental in encouraging the achievement of these developmental milestones.  If you haven’t taken advantage of the book Positive Discipline for Teens, by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott, I highly recommend it.  In the near future there will be an audio version of an actual workshop, which you might also enjoy.  In a nutshell, the main task of adolescence is to become a young adult and then an adult.  I was fortunate when my kids were adolescents.  A very wise person told me that my job was to help them learn all the skills they needed to move out!  How true that is.  In just 5 or 6 years, your son will likely be going away to college or somewhere else and living on his own.  You will not be there to remind, bribe, threaten, reward or punish him if he makes a mistake.

Without knowing more about the particular situation, it seems that the striking of another student is probably of the greatest concern.  Was he provoked, demonstrating self-defense?  Was he being aggressive and initiating the problem?  Having an open-ended discussion with him about this would be very important.  Being kind and loving to him, while also being firm about him not hitting or using violence would be important.  If this is out of character for him, I’m guessing that something happened and he reacted.  He received the natural consequence from the school.

Hitting and other aggressive behavior is often the result of frustration and situations in which a child feels that he doesn’t have power and thus tries to show others that he does!  This event, combined with some of the other things you’ve shared would lead me to believe that your son is struggling right now with how to exercise his own sense of control and power.  This is a huge developmental task in adolescence.

Some of the skills young adults need are related to a good sense of personal power.  It is wise if we shift our relationship a little now, in early adolescence, so that we can empower our child gradually and give them lots of responsibility and power while they still make “small” mistakes, and while they have us to support them and encourage them when they need us.  One of the greatest principles in Positive Discipline is that mistakes are wonderful opportunities for learning.  Mistakes give children the chance to find solutions, to critical think, and to learn.

When we punish or threaten children when they make mistakes, we prevent them from learning the lessons that they need to learn and internalize.  Natural consequences occur when the parent does not get involved and lets the child experience the world’s response to their behavior.  You have the perfect situation for this.  If your son loves playing on the school team as much as you indicate, then that will be his natural motivator and loss of that opportunity will be the natural consequence.  Creating power struggles around it gives him the impression that you are responsible for him being on the team—and for whether he stays on it or not.  This is clearly his responsibility and decision, but he won’t know that if additional privileges or rewards, determined by you, are connected to it.

I am interested that your son breaks the verbal agreement about the 3.0 gpa.  Sometimes when parents say that they have an agreement with their child it means that the adult made a demand and the child agreed—often perceiving that there really isn’t any use in having a dialog because the parent already has decided the outcome.  Since I don’t know how you came to this particular agreement, I won’t speculate, but it seems that your son either has a different understanding of it, or, he is demonstrating that you can’t “make him;” and, he is right.  Most parents who increase coercion and punishment do not get the desired behavior, rather, they increase rebellion and defiance from their child.  This may be why you report that he is becoming arrogant, disobedient, and argumentative.

Adolescence is a time of potential power struggles between parents and children.  Because you son is moving toward adulthood, psychologically, emotionally, and physically, he is saying, “It is time for me to decide what is important and what is good enough.”  If he feels that it is more important to you than it is to him, that is an invitation for a power struggle.  The more you threaten, take things away, and try to control him, the more he will feel the need to prove to you that he has some say and power over what goes on in his life.  This will feel like punishment to him and will look like defiance and rebellion to you.  If on the other hand, he feels your encouragement, support, unconditional love, and friendship, then he is likely to make good choices over time.  The curiosity questions included in the book will be helpful to you.

You might ask him how he feels about his grades, what he would like to achieve, and what he thinks he needs to do to get what he wants. This will be effective only if you are truly curious—not trying to get him to say what you want. Most important, it will help if you start by letting him know you love him unconditionally—no matter what his grades are. It is important to create a connection before working on correction. Correction should always involve working together to focus on solutions that are respectful and work for everyone concerned.

If a child has the goal of attending at a particular university, that is often a motivator to get good grades.  If a state school or other educational goal is at the top of his list, then high grades may not seem so important.  You may want to explore why his grades are so important to you and see if his goals are aligned with yours.   Grades only represent how well a student’s work matches teachers expectations.  There are many other significant characteristics that are not graded which are actually more reflective of whom we become.

Teens are often outspoken (arrogant), disobedient (making choices and learning lessons from life), and are less interested in school than previously.  Parents often report that all they do is argue.  It is encouraging to know that in most families, children actually turn out much like their parents.  If allowed to use their power, make some choices different from what you want, and to remain in the circle of the love of their parents, they will want to be like us and to be with us.

Your son sounds like a great kid who is stepping into the scary world of the teen years.  He needs to know that you are on his side and that you will always love him no matter what! One other book you might find helpful is, “The Anatomy of Peace.” Congratulations again on that winning season!  Good luck with the book and please let us know how things work out.

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