“Work” can be an abrasive issue between parents and adolescent – adults wanting more of it from the teenager who would rather resist and get by with doing less. So when parents think about an adolescent who “can’t work hard enough,” they usually focus on the young person’s apparent unwillingness to accomplish tasks that need to be done.
However, as in much about parenting adolescents, the issue can be more complicated than it first appears. For example, consider three variations of when an adolescent “can’t work hard enough” -- The Early Adolescent Achievement Drop; Escape and Lack of Follow-through; and Late Adolescent Achievement Stress.
THE EARLY ADOLESCENT ACHIEVEMENT DROP
Start with a 5th grader who loved to do well who has now, because of more important social priorities, become a 7th grader who only wants to be with friends and is content to just get by. At this juncture, a primary expression of not wanting to work hard enough is neglecting homework, a loss of effort that quickly becomes associated with falling grades – being marked down for incompletion, not practicing basic skills, and being less prepared for tests. Homework assignments are “forgotten” or can’t be found, are lied about (“No homework tonight!”), are hurriedly completed, or finished assignments are not turned in. Now a common reason given for not doing homework is that it is "boring."
To let an immature adolescence suffer the consequences of not working hard enough and fail can result in the young person simply adjusting to failure, developing a failing work ethic in the process. So, what might parents do?
The answer is to provide supervisory support to make sure the young person works hard enough to demonstrate her or his true operating capacity. This means making sure assignments are brought home, are adequately accomplished, and are actually turned in. If she or he objects to this nagging attention, parents can sympathize and make a simple offer: "If you don’t want me keeping after you, then just take care of doing the school work yourself. Not doing homework is not an option. As for homework being boring, learning to do boring work is something everyone must do. As grown ups, we do it all the time. Simply because work is boring is no excuse not to get it done. Learning to accomplish work that you don’t like and working hard enough to demonstrate your true capacity is what I expect you to do.”
ESCAPE AND THE LACK OF FOLLOW-THROUGH
Whether through rebellion, constant socializing, electronic entertainment, or substance use, it’s tempting for adolescents to escape rather than engage with the healthy demands of growing up. Why choose to escape? Because growing up entails engaging with a host of challenges that take hard work -- learning necessary knowledge, skills, responsibilities, and self-discipline on which developing more maturity depends.
Let escape rule and last stage adolescents (age 18 - 23) pay the price reflected in such statements as, “I’m getting nowhere fast!” “I’m spinning my wheels!” “I can’t get traction!” These are some of the phrases used by young people who get stuck in one or more of four ways that make it very difficult to follow-through and make headway in life.
The first is the inability to achieve Completion. They can start lots of well-intentioned initiatives, but they usually can’t finish what they begin. The second is the inability to meet Commitments. They can make all kinds of promises to themselves and others, but they usually can’t keep their word. The third is the inability to maintain Continuity of important effort. They can prescribe healthy life regimens for themselves, but they usually cannot sustain them. The fourth is the inability to work through a difficulty and attain Closure. They can recognize a problem, but they usually give up rather than persist in finding a good solution.
When a young person can’t follow through in all four ways, it can cost them dearly. For example, in a case of adolescent substance abuse that began in early middle school and didn’t end until high school graduation age, a young person has escaped so many normal challenges of growing up instead of engaging with them, there can be a lot of catching up and growing up to do. At age 18 they may have the life management skills of a 13-year-old.
Here, parents usually need to extend their parenting to support the young person’s recovery by encouraging and coaching the young person to work hard enough to practice the habit of following through – to achieve completion, to keep commitments, to maintain healthy continuity, and to problem solve until a best solution is reached.
LATE ADOLESCENT ACHIEVEMENT STRESS
Finally, consider a group of young people who happen to have a host of talents, this multiplicity creating a self-management hand that is very challenging to play. There are so many interests and aspects of themselves desirable to grow, and only one high school lifetime to do them all. For example, you might have a high school student who is determined to grow politically (as student officer), artistically (as leader of a band), academically (as on first honor role), athletically (as varsity starter), and socially (as a popular friend.) All of these aspects of themselves are worth developing, but how much dedicated effort at each is working hard enough, and can there be doing too much?
For parents, all this achievement seems complicated but generally to the good until their teenager, instead of expressing enjoyment at fulfillment, starts complaining how pressured they are, how they are feel driven into stress by unending and often overwhelming demand. Pressure from over-commitment is crushing the “joy” out of enjoyment. This is when parents remark, “Well, you don't have to do all you're doing, you know." But the parents don’t understand. For the young person to forsake any one of these activities feels like sacrificing some prized part of who they are and how they want to be. She or he can’t bear all they are doing, but can’t bear giving anything up either.
Consider the high striving adolescent’s self-management challenge. There are the issues of Ambition (how high to strive) and setting Goals; the issues of Excellence (how well to do everything) and setting Standards; and the issues of Busyness (how much to take on at one time) and setting Limits. It is only by taking responsibility for setting tolerable goals, standards, and limits that the very capable young person can control how much self-demand they choose to live with – what will be working hard enough. Parents can help the young person consider this complicated choice. “When you say ‘I hate what I do!’, and ‘I’m constantly worried!’, and ‘I’m starting not to care!’, and ‘I just need to collapse!’ we hear your stress. Maybe we can help you find a satisfying but less demanding way.”
Self-management in life is complicated at any age. During adolescence is when parents need to help their daughter or son learn some basic skills for working hard enough. These include learning to work hard enough to develop a serviceable work ethic, to work hard enough to strengthen follow-through skills, and to moderate what is working hard enough to avoid constant stress from overwork.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week’s entry: The Changing Challenge of Adolescent Identity