Adolescents and the Homework Wars

 In Adolescent Therapy, Articles, Depression & Anxiety, Mental Health Therapist, School & Behavior Issues

Parent-Adolescent Homework Wars

Do you dread the end of summer break because you will have to battle with your adolescent about doing homework?  You ask yourself, “Why doesn’t s/he just DO her homework?”  As one parent said, turning in homework is a “gimme” or a “lay-up.”  Just do it!  To make matters more confusing, it can be difficult for parents to know whether an assignment has even been completed.  For example, an adolescent may lie about turning in an assignment so s/he can get to go to a football game or a friend’s party.  The word obfuscate seems relevant!

In addition, your adolescent may tell you that some assignments are unclear or that the teacher has not entered the grades yet.  More obfuscation.   A teenager reasons that s/he will just deal with the consequences after they get what they want—the football game or the party.  Instead of delaying the gratification, the teen just delays the consequences.

Power Struggles

As a mental health therapist, I have been privy to some major power struggles between parents and children.  From the perspective of the parent, turning in every assignment seems to be something mostly or nearly wholly within the control of the student.  It seems simple but, as anyone who has fought these wars knows, it is not simple.  Also, parents and their children might not know if ADHD is a factor or executive skills need to be developed.  When we get down to the nitty-gritty, work (and stress) is involved in monitoring these issues.  To see our blog about whether behavior is a choice, click here.

Even from my perspective as an adolescent therapist, there is a part of me that thinks it should be simple to “do all of your assignments.”  Parents of teenagers can get very frustrated with the uncertainty and their inability to know whether an assignment is done AND turned in.  Their adolescent may back them into a corner, pushing for a decision about a party before the parents can know whether the assignment has been completed.  Exasperated, parents may give in.  These issues can be doubly (or triply, I would argue) difficult in single parent homes.

Helicopter or Let Them Fail?

I have even had adolescents ask their parents, “Why don’t you just let me fail?”  As a mental health counselor, I know that natural consequences are an effective teacher of responsibility.    Would it be acceptable to let a child fail?  The natural consequence of not doing your work is bad grades.  Should we just let them fail?

Many psychologists and counselors are rightly concerned about adults “always” trying to protect children from failure.  Someone who hovers over their child making sure s/he does everything and does it exactly as the adult deems best is called a helicopter parent.  Some parents go so far as to call the deans at the colleges where their adult children are enrolled.

Which Battles are Worth Fighting?

Adults can be over-involved or under-involved in the lives of adolescents.  As a mental health therapist, I see a lot of energy and fight put into these homework wars.  It is a BATTLE, a fight.  But, is it worth it?  Each family must decide for themselves.  Looking back, however, I am not sure how much people care that I went to a good school (William and Mary) and even fewer care whether I completed my homework.  Honestly, I do not think it has mattered to anyone.  It may have mattered to the company that hired me out of college, but that was in 1985—and three careers ago!

Adolescents need some choice and flexibility.  Therefore, requiring 100 % homework compliance may not be a standard for which it is worth fighting.  If a teenager can still get a B while not turning in some assignments, then why not let them be responsible for the consequences of that choice?  The most common parent response is that a child needs to get into the best college.  It may be worth asking, however, whether 7 years (middle and high school) of micromanaging each assignment is worth the possibility of getting into Georgetown versus UNC-Chapel Hill.

Adolescents are usually smart enough to figure out that if they leave out several assignments, they can still get an A or B.  So, why stress out so much over each little assignment.  Many adolescents are aware that even a few Cs will not ruin them.  These adolescents may also know that freshman year grades are not as important as are the grades of their junior year.

Each Rule Creates a Battle

I like to tell people in mental health therapy that there is a certain number of “rules” a family needs to have to be healthy.  In fact, the optimum number of rules is probably a range and may vary from family to family.  Zero rules are too few and 500 is too many.  For the sake of argument, however, let’s assume we need 10 rules to build an effective family system.  Many families I see in therapy might have 50 or 100 rules, or things they are trying to enforce.  The more rules we have, the more effort (and stress) it takes to enforce the rules.  As the saying goes, we need to pick our battles.

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