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When Teens Struggle: How To Help Them Own Their Behavior

For Austin Hise, every school year started out strong: He had a binder for everything, he stayed on top of his assignments, and his grades were looking good.

“For the first two quarters of the year, I would be organized,” says Austin. “Then winter break would come, and I would relax. I would go back to school not organized, and I stayed that way.” As a result, his grades took a slide, and he fell further and further behind at school.

As college loomed ever closer, Austin’s mother fretted about him getting bad grades. “It’s hard to watch a disaster unfolding and not be able to stop it,” says Amy Hise.

Rejecting Help

“I tried to give him techniques and tools that I thought could work for him. I reminded him about his homework every day.”

Her efforts were not well-received.

“When a parent is nagging you to do something, you’re just not going to do it,” says Austin. “I can’t tell you why. That’s just the way it is.”

The nightly battle over homework resulted in angry meltdowns for both parties, and Austin’s grades did not improve.

Shifting to Hands-Off Approach

In frustration, Amy took a completely hands-off approach. “I thought maybe he would take ownership if I let him make his own mistakes,” she says. The results were no better.

Dona Matthews, a Toronto-based developmental psychologist, explains: “At this age, it’s common for teens to find school boring and irrelevant to their concerns.”

Matthews adds that teens are also sorting out their identity and need to separate from their parents. “When parents put too much emphasis on grades, kids often show their independence by doing poorly in their academics,” she says.

Whatever the cause, low grades can definitely be a source of angst for parents.

Expert Recommendations: Hover Less But Stay Involved

So, what’s the right approach? Emily Levitt, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning, says parents do need to stay involved. However, the goal is to gradually reduce the parent role and increase the student’s independence. To accomplish this goal, parents may also find it helpful to enlist the help of a third party, such as a tutor or therapist.

“Whatever amount of hovering you start with needs to decrease throughout their high school years,” says Levitt. “In middle school, you might need to check their assignments every week, but by high school, perhaps it might only be once a month. It depends on the individual needs of your student.”

Levitt provides an example of what a gradual transition might look like:

  • Seventh Grade
    Review homework on a daily basis with your student; help design a study schedule.
  • Eighth Grade
    Go over grades once a week with your student, and make sure assignments are being handed in.
  • Ninth Grade
    Check in with your student monthly to make sure long-term assignments are on track.
  • Tenth Grade
    Before final exams, make sure your teen is up to date on work and has a study guide in place.

Get Outside Help if Necessary

If your teen is reluctant to take ownership of their work or the nightly battle over homework continues, an outside source may be your best bet.

For Austin, working with a therapist helped him develop his own way to organize his day and stay on top of homework, without any (well, not much) nagging from his mother.

By breaking up his day into shorter periods of study and using online scheduling tools, Austin was able to stay focused and organized.

But the key component was his ownership in those solutions.

Amy agrees. “The unhealthy pattern of nagging, bribing, threatening—none of that works. There has to be buy-in,” she says.

Is your teen struggling in school?

While it may take time to find the right balance of intervention and independence, finding a solution with—not for—your teen will go a long way toward restoring harmony at home.

Jennifer Proe was a writer and editor with Your Teen Media. 

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