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When Parents Call Their Adolescent "Lazy"

No good comes from parents calling their adolescent "lazy"

Don’t do it. Don’t ever call your adolescent “lazy.” This label is more psychologically and socially loaded than most parents seem to understand. To make matters worse, the term is usually applied when they are feeling frustrated, impatient, or critical with the teenager, which only makes insulting injury from this name-calling harder to bear.

“Lazy” can have a good meaning when it is seen as the exception and not the rule, when it is seen as earned and not undeserved. “Having a “lazy day,” for example, can mean rewarding oneself and laying back and relaxing with no agenda except doing very little and enjoying that freedom from usual effort and work very much. When “lazy” is treated as the rule, however, calling someone a “lazy person,” then the working worth of that individual has been called into question. And “lazy” always attacks “work.”

At least in much of the U.S. culture, work and worth are very closely associated. It is easy for those who believe they work hard, like parents supporting a family, to sometimes resent those who depend on that support and work less or resist household work like their adolescents “who don’t know the meaning of hard work,” as the adult complaint goes. In some parents, the term "lazy" can activate the age-old prejudice against inactivity, idleness, and the sin of Sloth. And if these adults have a religious-like work ethic, they can be horrified to see their teenager showing signs of falling away.

The problem here is that it’s not just the aggrieved parent who is making this comparison. The older adolescent is making it too, and making it more often than the parent knows. The young person feels hurt by an accusation that she partly believes is true. Here she is in the latter part of adolescence still having to depend on parents for all kinds of assistance, grateful she can and yet wishing she wasn’t, but not knowing what else to do.

So is she lazy? Well, if the term fits …. If you’re lazy, you don’t make your way and don’t pay your way. If you don’t make your way and pay your way, you’re lazy. At times she feels she qualifies for “lazy” on both counts. Being labeled or believing one is lazy lowers self-esteem. The word really stings.

She knows what the opposite of lazy is: being independent and industrious, being able to make it on her own initiative and effort and without parental help that gets more demeaning to ask for and accept the older she grows.

Of course she’s learned all the bad things said about “lazy people,” the social stereotype that encourages social shame. How those who have jobs and believe they are hard working are often inclined to view the non-working, even though equality of opportunity for employment is not the same for all. The lazy” stereoytpe can be loaded with prejudice against those who the accuser considers idle or wastrel, not making an effort, not wanting to work, not doing their share, not pulling their weight, not earning their keep, expecting something for nothing, living off the labors of others. The adolescent doesn’t want to be one of those!

Actually, “lazy” is shorthand for the longer and more damaging name that is implied which the teenager knows very well is “lazy good-for-nothing.” How low is that? She wants to be “good for something,” which is one reason for her teenage employment after school. The job shows she’s at least earning part of her way, that she has labor to offer that someone believes is worth paying for.

Then there’s an even more important issue at stake. Suppose parents consider signs of laziness to include: a lack of motivation to work, acting tired any time they make a request or demand, wanting just to lay around and sleep a lot, an expectation to have things done for them, a disinclination to get things started and see them through, a tendency to escape into electronic entertainment, expending little effort to participate in family activities. “The only thing he wants to do at home and at school is avoid work!” complain the parents. “He’s lazy on all fronts!” But is he?

Consider a few other possibilities.

Suppose he’s so distractible he can’t focus long enough to get much done?

Or suppose he’s so disorganized he can’t put together a unified effort?

Or suppose he’s so internally resistant he opposes whatever he is told to do?

Or suppose he’s so bored he can’t create or find anything of interest?

Or suppose he’s so captive to his peer group he only does their bidding?

Or suppose he’s so anxious that doing much of anything is frightening?

Or suppose he’s so discouraged by failure that he sees no point in trying?

Or suppose he’s so depressed over a loss he has lacks the capacity to care?

Or suppose he’s so overwhelmed by stress that more demand is too much?

Or suppose he’s so confused he can’t make up his mind what to do?

Or suppose he’s so addicted that more substance use is all he can think of?

Or suppose he’s so habituated to procrastination he can’t act in timely ways?

Dismiss lack of motivation to make an effort, to keep trying, to accomplish work as simply being “lazy” and parents may overlook a more serious concern that needs to be addressed. What appears to be a “lazy” lack of motivation can mask significant other issues.

As a psychologist, I don’t find much good use for the term “lazy” when applied to an adolescent, or to anyone else. Mostly what I see is one person judgmentally labeling another to harmful effect. So if you are about to apply this term, I suggest you hold your fire long enough to operationalize your complaint.

Ask yourself, “What is it that the young person is doing or not doing that I label ‘lazy’?” Perhaps it’s sleeping in until after noon on weekends or continually putting off doing chores. If so, then speak to these specific behaviors of concern and stay away from name-calling your teenager “lazy,” a personal and social criticism that will only cause him to feel worse, not act better.

And be mindful that what appears to you as laziness can be a sign of significant issues going on that may warrant more serious concern.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2013.) Information at:

Next week’s entry: Parent, Adolescent, and Who Knows Best?

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