Why Teens Stop Trying — and Achieving — at School
The quest for adolescent independence pushes many teens (especially boys with ADHD) away from school achievement – and the parents who push it.
Why Teens Opt Out Academically
Three main motivation problems tend to impede teens’ academic achievement.
- Teens are under immense pressure to succeed, and feel overwhelmed.
- One primary (and healthy) characteristic of adolescence is separation from parents. Therefore, the more parents push for achievement, the more teens fight it.
- Teen boys are socialized to publicly display their masculinity, and that can make them more likely to disengage from learning.
ADHD acts as a magnifying glass, intensifying each challenge that a teen faces. Instead of approaching head on the demands and pressure they face from parents and teachers, many adolescents deal with this stress in a different, less obvious way. They opt out of the competition all together, and stop trying to do well at school.
1. ADHD escalates teens’ fear of falling short.
ADHD makes teens more emotionally sensitive to potential failure. Experts estimate that, by the time he turns 12, a child with ADHD will have received 20,000 more negative messages than his neurotypical peers. The daily struggle to prove their merit and might can make teens with ADHD question whether they have what it takes to make it in school (and the world). This fear of falling short is more intense for people with ADHD; actual failure can be emotionally difficult to bear.
Executive function challenges make escalating school demands more difficult to manage. In adolescence, responsibilities and academic demands both mushroom. The larger, multi-step projects that arrive in middle and high school are more difficult for teens with ADHD to start — and sustain the motivation to finish.
2. Teens with ADHD reject parental support when they need it most.
Parents of children with ADHD typically provide substantial support in managing daily tasks – keeping backpacks organized, making sure homework is completed, and advocating for academic accommodations.
When teens strive for independence from their parents in adolescence, they may refuse parental help at the time they need it most — when school challenges increase drastically with changing classes, keeping things in lockers, and comprehending more difficult material.
ADHD is often comorbid with oppositional behavior, which can make teens with ADHD even more defiant than their peers as they try to separate from their parents.
3. Teens with ADHD lag behind their peers in maturity.
Girls outperform boys in every academic subject1. This worldwide achievement gap is partially explained by gender differences in adolescence.
Teen boys need up to 20% more time to develop than do girls2. ADHD delays brain maturation even further, leaving adolescent males with ADHD even further behind the neurotypical girls in their classes.
Boys are more likely than girls to “opt out” as a response to this deficit because they are socialized to display masculinity and gain social status by being headstrong and bold. From a young age, boys hear messages like, “Man up” and “Shake it off.” These direct boys to display masculinity by avoiding vulnerability.
When the challenges of school make adolescent boys feel vulnerable, they are more likely to shut down and become disengaged in learning because it is a better choice than feeling incompetent and unmanly.
In contrast, girls are commonly socialized to please adults, and are under less pressure to prove their femininity. They also frequently achieve social status through their friends. Boys, however, gain status not by who they know but by what they do – hit the ball farthest, throw the fastest, or tease the most underclassmen. Teen boys may project a “too cool for school” attitude to avoid feeling inadequate.
“They might not say it, but many boys with ADHD harbor the belief that they won’t ever make it in this world,” says Michael Riera, Ph.D., author of Staying Connected To Your Teenager. With the right support and understanding, you can build your teen’s self-esteem and drive to succeed.
1 Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary. “Sex differences in academic achievement are not related to political, economic, or social equality.” Intelligence, vol. 48, Jan-Feb 2015, pp. 137–151, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2014.11.006.
2 Lim S., Han CE, Uhlhaas PJ, Kaiser M. “Preferential detachment during human brain development: age- and sex-specific structural connectivity in diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) data.” Cerebral Cortex, vol. 25, issue 6, 2015, pp. 1477–1489, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bht333.