Know any teen boys who do just enough to get by? Who have time for YouTube but not homework or household chores? Who aren’t in real trouble, just disengaged?
An “opt out” teen is like a Chinese finger trap: the harder you push, the more he’ll resist, says Adam Price, a psychologist with a practice in the New York City/New Jersey area, and author of “He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself” (Sterling, 2017). Parental concern that manifests as nagging does not help. Instead, start with understanding, which leads to productive interaction.
Deep down, your opt-out is afraid of failure, exposure, pressure and, most of all, the future, says Price, who writes the blog The Unmotivated Teen on PsychologyToday.com. Your teen deals with this stress by avoidance. Anxious parents add to the stress by worrying, which your teen sees as a lack of faith in his abilities, and rescuing, which denies him the chance to experience consequences.
To improve communication, zip it and listen, Price says. Psychologists use the acronym EAR: encourage elaboration, affirm, reflect.
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To encourage, ask open-ended questions. Instead of saying, “Don’t you want better grades?” try “How do you feel about your current GPA?” If your son replies, “Fine,” ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” or if appropriate, “What is it that you hate about your history teacher?”
“Fight your urge to comment or advise. Get the kid to talk,” Price says.
To affirm, try something like “It’s great you said that,” or “I know it’s not easy for you to talk about this,” or “I didn’t realize you had such deep feelings.” You can show you understand without agreeing.
To reflect, make a statement that shows you get it. If he says he’s failing history because the teacher is a jerk, don’t respond, “You still have to do well.” Instead, try “What don’t you like about him?” and “What makes you think that?”
This gives you a fighting chance at getting to a solution: “How do you do better in a class where you hate the teacher?”
Avoid conversation-killers such as criticizing, advising, ordering, threatening, minimizing his feelings, using yourself as an example or even attempting to persuade with logic. Remember, you want productive conversation and eventual self-reliance. Lecturing won’t get you there.
If conversation still hits a dead end, Price uses a method created by psychologists Sylvie Naar-King and Mariann Suarez called Stop, Drop and Roll:
Stop and evaluate: Is your son escalating, blaming, stonewalling? Then drop your current approach, and roll with the resistance: Make a statement that shows you get it, quit for now and try another approach later.
Don’t take your son’s expression of teenage defiance personally. “Realize you’re the target of his frustration, not the cause,” Price says. “If you can do that, your response will be very different and much more productive.” For example, a teen might say, “You’re always on my case. I hate you!” If the parent retorts, “Don’t you talk to me like that. You have no idea how much I do for you, how much I sacrifice for you, what it takes to keep a roof over our heads …” you’re off to the races that no one can win. Instead, start with “You do need to talk respectfully to me,” which sets a limit but doesn’t spiral into argument.
Teen boys want to do well but appear apathetic because they are afraid of never measuring up and so don’t try. “Boys, especially, think if something doesn’t come easily, they’re not good enough, not smart enough,” Price says. “They feel they have to be perfect.”
What looks like laziness may be fear of failure, but your teen might also be a bit entitled, and you can do something about this by doing less for him. High school today may be a pressure cooker, but teens still have time to help around the house. “They tell you they don’t. But having responsibility is important. We treat them like their job is to get into this great school, but doing chores is being part of the household, part of a team. It’s an opportunity to not do too much for them,” Price says.
Make a list of everything you do for your teen, and decide which you can transfer to him. Parents don’t need to schedule sports or youth-group appointments, pack bags for sports or vacations, or fill out forms.
Over-parenting not only tells teens, “I think you can’t,” but also gives them opportunities to say, “I think I won’t,” Price says.
Where possible, grant your teen autonomy: freedom to choose and then experience consequences. If your teen chooses to stay up late, he can’t wake up in the morning. “But if the parent calls the teen in sick, there’s no accountability.” If the teen doesn’t put his laundry in the bin, don’t pick it up. “Instead, let him run out of underwear. Or tell him, ‘You have to do the laundry now. I’ll show you how; you do it.’
“Becoming a no-rescue parent means letting the world teach the lesson rather than you.”