What can I do about my teen messing up at school?

confused snoopy sitting at a school desk

By Catherine Newman

Q I am raising my 15-year-old grandson. This is his first year in high school, and he is struggling in two of his honors classes. He often forgets or refuses to turn in assignments, especially detailed assignments. He is also reluctant to complete chores like clean his room etc. He has a history from middle school of not completing assignments and not doing chores. I find that he is constantly on his phone instead of being responsible for both school and chores. I recently set limits on his phone usage by shutting down his phone at certain times. Now he will make a big effort to clean his room or complete an assignment when he wants to go out with his friends or have them come over. He recently told me that I annoyed him and to leave him alone because my method of checking on assignments or checking to see if he has done a chore is not helping him. He also stated he does not want to live with us anymore (he has no where else to live). My husband agrees with him and also feels that I should leave him alone. What are you thoughts?

A Let me say first: your grandson is so lucky to have you. What a thing you’re doing! I don’t know how he ended up in your care, but I have to imagine it’s because the alternative didn’t work. You probably hadn’t pictured that you’d be raising a teenager at this point in your life, but here you are, grappling with thorny, sticky issues, like cellphones, that probably weren’t around when you were raising his mother or father—and other issues, like chores and homework, that doubtless already pricked and stuck you when you were parenting teenagers before.

But whatever the situation is that brought your grandson into your home to live? That is likely a source of pain for this boy: parents who can’t or don’t want to care for him. However good he has it with you, and however long he’s been there, he is surely challenged, too—loss pressing on him like a kind of smothering absence. If there’s a guidance counselor at school he’d be willing to meet with, that might be a valuable first step to help him process his feelings. To help him strategize about how to be the kind of person he hopes to be in the world.

All of this is, of course, layered over the usual, impossible developmental stuff that teenagers go through: testing limits; pushing against boundaries; saying no to every single thing you care about; putting friends recklessly ahead of all else like addicts do with drugs. This is where I brought in 18 and 14, because it’s their area of expertise: the push and pull of raising a teenager generally. And their advice, in sum, is this: get yourselves on the same side. Because you really are on the same side: what you both care about is him. But somehow that basic fact is getting lost in the details of pine needles in your shoe and mosquitoes, when what you want to experience is the forest of caring about each other.

“The only way to get someone to do something is to get them to decide they want to do it.” That’s 18’s advice (as always). “And the way to have more influence is to make yourself someone that he loves and trusts. You might have to give up some of your rules to make your opinion one he respects. Be someone he can talk to, who he doesn’t just associate with punishment. Make your top priority having a better relationship with your grandson and hope the rest falls into place.”

Eighteen was at pains to distinguish this—the strengthening of respect and communication—from what he refers to as “the artificial consequences, which never work” of taking away privileges. “Be more transparent about the negative effects of what he’s doing—especially the negative effects on you, if he can’t really deal with understanding his whole future right now. When you don’t do your chores, I feel like I have all this extra work to do. When you don’t do your homework, then I worry about what will happen to you, or that I’m going to have to go in and meet with the school again.” (Spoiler alert: guilt trip potential! But maybe that’s okay, in the service of realness.)

Fourteen’s feeling is that, if you take a step back, then your grandson will have room to take a step forward, rather than feeling smashed back up against the wall of conflict and expectation. “If he wants to be left alone,” she thought out loud, “then can you say to him, ‘Do you feel like you can figure this out? Should we check in again in three months about how it’s going?’” Being a practical kind of person, she was quick to point out that he’s only a first-year high-school student, and has a little time to fuck up, if you will, gradeswise. But she’s worried about the honors classes. “Would it maybe be better to have him do as well as he can in his regular classes? Without the added pressure?” Eighteen agrees. “The more you close in on someone, the less you encourage them to have a vision of the big picture, of everything at stake,” he counseled. “It’s not just about homework, phone use, arguing. Can you open it back up to the broader vision of what matters? How he wants to be, or who or what?”

Final thoughts: It it were me? I would brainstorm solutions with him, with absolute transparency. “What would you do if you were me, raising you? What would work better than this?” And from 14: “Don’t make him clean his room. Let it be the one space that he controls. Pick your battles.”

Do you have a question for Catherine Newman about the inside-out or upside-down of life with your teen? Submit it here

Catherine Newman is a contributing writer for Motherwell and the mother of Eighteen and Fourteen. She is the author of the memoirs Waiting for Birdy and Catastrophic Happiness, and also the new children’s book One Mixed-Up Night.

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