Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: The Big Problem of Even Bigger Homework Meltdowns

You are exhausted by your teen’s resistance to homework — yelling, slamming doors, and refusing to take responsibility for assignments due. Is there any hope for stemming the meltdowns and incentivizing your child to take ownership of homework done well — and on time?

Q: “Though we have a homework plan and agreed-upon schedule, when the time comes to get started my child has an epic meltdown — yelling, slamming doors, refusing to do the work. I’m exhausted by these daily battles and my child’s grades are suffering. I know homework is tougher for students with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and some accommodations may be appropriate, but how do we move forward when my child’s reaction is so strong and so negative every single time homework comes up?”

Homework is complicated — for kids and adults — for very different reasons! While you may have a homework plan to which your kids have agreed in theory, a plan is only as good as a child’s ownership of it. So if kids are having meltdowns and refusing to do homework, it is more than likely that they have not actually bought into the plan.

That doesn’t necessarily mean your son doesn’t want to use the plan, though, or that he won’t in the future. It just means that there’s probably something else going on that is a more pressing problem.

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Perhaps he has not bought in because it’s not his plan; or he’s afraid he can’t do it; or he wants to do it another way; or he just doesn’t see why he needs to do homework at all! The real problem is not yet clear, and therefore even the best homework plan may not be the right solution to address the underlying problem. This is extremely common. Very often, parents put in place solutions before getting really clear about the real problem they’re trying to address.

For example, a parent or school might decide that all students need to use a planner. But what if it’s not a great fit for your child? When the child does not come home with all of her assignments written somewhat legibly in the book, she gets in trouble — either at home or at school. But the real challenge actually has not been discussed — that the child needs an effective way to capture her homework assignments each day. More than likely, no one ever talked with her about what else she might try besides a planner. And so she’s getting in trouble for not using the planner, when in truth she’d do great checking in with a homework-buddy or taking a photo of the assignment on the board, or… you get the idea.

We get upset when kids don’t use the systems we put in place for them. But why should they? It’s usually not really their system!

Instead of starting with the solution, I encourage parents to back up and figure out what’s really going on. If your kids are having homework meltdowns, ask yourself this: “What is the underlying challenge?” You’ll likely find that your child doesn’t see or agree that it’s his job to do the homework. He’s gotten accustomed to relying on his parents to make sure it gets done, so homework is still the parents’ priority, not his. An effective solution to that problem is very different from creating a homework plan. Now, the goal is to focus on helping the child take ownership of his homework.

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So how do you help a child take ownership? Well, it’s definitely a more complicated question to answer, as it involves motivation and a number of other parenting approaches. But I’d suggest you start by getting a better understanding of what your child is actually resisting. It is fear of failure (“If I don’t do it, I don’t do it wrong” or “It doesn’t matter; I’m just going to do it wrong anyway”)? Or maybe fear of success (“If I do this, they’ll expect me to do it every day.”)? Is it boredom? Too difficult right after school when your child is exhausted? What is really going on?

Resistance is a clear sign that your child is struggling with something. You can’t help him learn to overcome it if you don’t understand the real problem. If you accept that the problem is NOT that your child won’t follow an agreed-upon homework plan, then you can focus on the real problem… and you’ll be several steps closer to an effective solution.

[Step In or Step Back? How to Recognize (and Stop) Enabling]

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.