Most moms and dads find it difficult to tolerate an adolescent who simply refuses to “try.” His refusal to do homework is often an indirect way of expressing anger and confusion. Under-achievement in teens can be caused by many things:
- Peer pressure, especially among adolescents: “If I do too well, my friends won't like me.”
- Overly high parental expectations. The father may be a doctor, but Michael may want to play in a rock band right now, and if the academic pressure is too strong, Michael may rebel.
- Mild learning disabilities or an unrecognized physical problem such as a vision or hearing difficulty.
- Emotional upset. The adolescent who has experienced a death in the family or whose parents are going through a divorce is very likely to go through a period of under-achievement.
Under-achievement allows teens to postpone the responsibility associated with independence and thereby postpone independence itself. Here are some of the traits of under-achievers:
- Academically, under-achievers commonly fail to prioritize effectively, often focusing on activities that have little long-term value while ignoring valuable experiences necessary to their futures. They also show little interest in core subjects.
- Much of the time they say they are bored.
- Their effort is inconsistent.
- They tend to feign indifference, and they act as if very little matters to them.
- Under-achievers (while frequently complaining that they want to be left alone) really want others to solve their conflicts and take their responsibility.
- Under-achievers are usually creative in their excuses, consistently avoiding personal responsibility for their failures, or even in some cases, for their successes. Their explanations serve to deny them control over their circumstances, thereby reducing their anxiety for their continued failures.
- Under-achievers often have difficulty choosing areas of study and may experience difficulty earning a diploma or degree.
- Under-achievers tend to pass their anxiety on to others as they passively wait for someone else to take charge of their circumstances.
- Usually, the under-achievers’ goals change frequently or disappear.
- When asked about their inconsistent levels of performance, under-achievers will blame others or events beyond their control.
Often times, moms and dads are more worried than their teenager about whether or not homework has been completed or enough time has been spent studying for an exam. Many parents have spent an evening or a weekend completing a project for their under-achieving teenager when, in fact, he may have had several weeks to work on it. Parents may "jump in," awakening and prodding their teenager in the morning to ensure he gets to school on time.
Often times, moms and dads report that their under-achiever is in a dazed state. Parents give instructions to him, but the instructions are usually not followed to completion. When questioned by parents or educators, the under-achiever often responds in a hostile manner. He may complain of being overworked and under-appreciated.
Under-achievers can be charming and active, but they have ambivalent attitudes toward authority. They are often resentful and angry toward individuals who attempt to control them; yet, at the same time, they want that control as a way of delaying personal responsibility. Superficially, they respond with indifference, generally withdrawing from adults.
Under-achievers often express anger through passive-aggressive behavior. They may not say anything, but they just will not do anything --- or they will do it half-heartedly. This allows them to view themselves as controlling responses over authority figures. This is a manipulative game.
Under-achievers may have at one time been good students. Then signs of growing indifference slowly surfaced (e.g., missing, lost, or unprepared assignments become increasingly frequent). This behavior usually begins to occur at about the time these teens are required to complete heavier workloads outside the school environment (a major step in personal responsibility). These responses are often subconscious choices made by the under-achiever to avoid future increased responsibility.
As under-achievers get older, parents can observe their growing irresponsibility and "forgetfulness." This forgetfulness may better be identified as "selective memory" (e.g., they have no difficulty remembering sporting events and scores, but are often forgetting test dates). The path of least resistance often becomes the norm.
Often times, under-achievers feel "picked on" and overwhelmed without understanding why they are encouraging so much attention to be focused on them. Remember, the under-achiever’s behavior is subconscious. He does not purposefully decide to avoid responsibility. Rather, he feels anxiety or frustration – and gives up. Feeling a number of fears, under-achievers unconsciously use denial of reality to avoid coping with these fears. This process keeps under-achievers immature.
How can you motivate your under-achiever?
1. Because under-achievers are highly fearful of the future (even though they usually won’t admit it), they need to explore and discuss their fears and anxieties about specific issues in a non-threatening, indirect manner. You can help by casually bringing up situations in your life, or the lives of others you know. Giving insights into various aspects of adult life is helpful. Especially bring up situations that are anxiety provoking and fearful. Discuss how you would handle these situations. Ask the teenager to give suggestions, and in a non-threatening manner, discuss the merits of these suggestions. Playing "what if" scenarios is helpful. Under-achievers need to learn how to build appropriate strategies.
2. Encourage your adolescent to do something he likes—whether it's painting or biking or tinkering under the hood of his car. Having him do something in which he excels will help bolster the confidence he needs to try school challenges.
3. If the mom or dad feels the need to help with a delayed school project, have the teenager write or discuss why he procrastinated or why he is having difficulty. This will allow him to use anxiety as a cue to action, not as a message to withdraw from responsibility. Providing assistance to under-achievers should happen only after they have made legitimate attempts at resolving their problems. Help should be in the form of guidance, not actually doing the work. This teaches under-achievers to accept responsibility, but assures them that others will be a helpful resource.
4. If you feel you're making no progress, consult a professional. Under-achievement often has deep psychological roots, and if you're not making headway with your adolescent, you'd be wise to contact someone who can help discover what's bothering him.
5. Offering emotional support (under-achievers generally have low self-esteem) helps immensely, but ultimately, the under-achiever has to decide to do it for himself. Show acceptance and affection for your youngster and make certain that he knows you love him no matter what his academic standing.
6. Progress may be exceedingly slow, but express pleasure in anything. An improvement from a C to a C+ is a good start. A few forays into grades of B- and above will prove to the under-achiever that he is capable of better work and nothing terrible will happen if he does it.
7. Realize that under-achievement is the responsibility of the under-achiever. Moms and dads and educators must place responsibility and consequences back on the under-achiever. Parents and concerned others need to learn to redirect their energy to aid under-achievers in becoming more responsible. Responsibility and consequences must be returned to under-achievers in such a way that reinforces in them that they are responsible for their choices.
8. Sometimes, one of the best ways to help an under-achiever is to not get directly involved in homework. Find out how much time he should be spending on homework every night and then require that amount of time to be invested. Make sure he touches base with you, your spouse, or an older sibling to show that he made an effort to do his work. Then check to see that the work makes it into the backpack. (Doing the work but not taking it to school is another form of self-sabotage for the under-achiever.)
9. Though it may be hard for moms and dads to accept, not all kids are academically inclined. But even if your adolescent isn't a scholar, he can be great at many other things. He may be a wonderful jazz pianist, or have excellent painting skills. Or maybe he's just a really nice kid. Your job as a parent is helping your adolescent find what he's good at, and what he really loves—whether it's helping the poor, working with tools, or starting a business. Many things are possible for people of all abilities, and if you believe in your adolescent—no matter what— you make his road that much easier.
10. Under-achievers are highly fearful of the future and the emotions that they feel about these fears. They need to learn and understand that their emotions are cues that can lead them to positive actions. Becoming self-aware, understanding motives and reactions, helps under-achievers more easily accept responsibility for themselves. They learn that by appropriately acting on their feelings, they can work though them, be successful, and not be overwhelmed. This process aids in raising their self-esteem and maturity level. In turn, under-achievers become more resilient and goal-oriented. They learn that feelings of inadequacy can be overcome and success can make them feel good. This helps them become more independent and progress toward maturity.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents