“My Child Refuses to Do Homework.” Here’s How to Stop the Struggle
By Janet Lehman, MSW
Do you get sucked into a fight over homework with your child every night? So many parents tell me that this is one of their top struggles with their kids. If you’re dealing with this now, you probably dread saying the words, “Okay, time to do your homework,” because you know what’s coming next — screaming, stomping, book-throwing and slammed doors. Or it might simply be hours of dealing with your complaining, whining or noncompliant child or teen who just hates to do the work. Even though you reason, lecture, nag and yell, nothing seems to change — and each night turns into a battle with no victors.
Trust me, I get it. I have to admit that dealing with my son’s homework was one of my least favorite experiences as a parent. It felt overwhelming to me; often, I just wasn’t equipped to offer the help he needed. Our son struggled with a learning disability, which made the work and the amount of time required feel unending at times — both to him and to us. My husband James was much better at helping him, so he took on this responsibility — but even with this division of labor, we had to make adjustments to our schedules, our lives and our expectations to make sure our son turned it in on time.
They Don’t Call It “Homework” for Nothing
Here’s something I learned along the way: homework is work, and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s a chore for both the child and parent. It’s important to understand that schoolwork is often the most difficult part of your child’s busy schedule. Helping your kids manage it despite all the other activities they would rather be doing can be challenging at best. Remember that it’s your child’s job to go to school and learn (including getting homework completed) and your job to provide for your kids, run the house and offer love and guidance to your children.
I know from experience how easy it is to get caught up in power struggles over homework. These struggles begin for several reasons, but the most common one is because your child would rather be relaxing, playing, texting with friends, or doing almost anything else. Know that if you deal with their frustration by losing it and getting mad out of your own frustration, it will be a losing battle. Some kids are even able to manipulate parents this way, because they know the battle over homework may result in your giving up on expectations to get it done.
Here’s the truth: letting your child off the hook for their work will ultimately create problems in their lives. Instead, focus on the fact that as a parent, you need to teach your child how to follow through on expectations and be accountable. All the more reason to take control and make homework just another part of your child’s daily responsibilities.
Here’s my advice for reducing homework hassles in your home:
- Try to stay calm: Try to avoid losing your cool and yelling and screaming, arguing about the right answer for the math problem or the right way to do the geography quiz, ignoring the homework altogether or being inconsistent with what you expect, being overly critical, or giving up and just doing the work for your child. The first step is to try to stay as calm as you can. If you get frustrated and start yelling and screaming at your child, this sets a negative tone and is likely not going to help them get the work done.
- Set clear expectation around homework time and responsibilities. Let your children know that you expect them to get the work done on time and to the best of their abilities; the most important thing is that they try their best. Set aside the same time each afternoon or evening for them to do their work. Understand that kids are all different in how they feel about and approach homework. Some may find English easy, but get really frustrated with math. Another may be a science whiz, but have no patience when it comes to writing. It’s important to know your child: their strengths and struggles, and how they learn. Some kids need small breaks throughout a session, while others may need the task to be broken down into smaller pieces and then varied. While there are some children and teens who are self-directed and able to complete homework without assistance, most require some type of guidance and/or monitoring, depending on their age. This makes it especially challenging for parents, because it means you need to perform different functions with each child you have, depending on their needs.
- Have a relationship with your child’s teacher. Try your best to build a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Start off at the beginning of the school year and stay in touch as the year progresses. Your relationship with your child’s teachers will pay off during the good times as well as the challenging times.
- Play the parental role most useful to your child. Some kids need a coach; others need a “monitor,” while others need more hands-on guidance to complete tasks. Try to match your help with what is most needed. Remember also that your child is doing the homework as a school assignment. The teacher will ultimately be the judge of how good or bad, correct or incorrect the work is. You’re not responsible for the work itself, your responsibility is to guide your child. You can always make suggestions, but ultimately it’s your child’s responsibility to do his or her assignments, and the teacher’s job to grade them.
- Keep activities similar with all your kids. If you have several kids, have them all do similar activities during homework time. Even if one child has less homework or finishes more quickly, they need to be respectful of their siblings by doing quiet, non-disruptive activities.
- Set up a structured time and place for homework. Choose a time and place and stick to a routine as much as possible. Consider adding in break times for kids with shorter attention spans. They might work on their spelling words for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break, for example. Offer snacks to keep kids “fueled” for the work. Keep the house generally quiet for everyone during homework time—turn off the TV (or at least keep the volume down). Make sure your kids have a “space” for doing their work. For some kids this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books, and for others it may mean a small quiet area in their room.
- Start early: Start early with your young children setting up “homework” time, even if it’s just some quiet reading time each night. This helps get them used to the expectation of doing some “homework” each night and will pay off as the actual work gets harder and more time-consuming.
- Offer “Hurdle Help”: Some kids need what we call “hurdle help.” Let’s say your child has big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems, for example, until he gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your teen to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You’re not doing the work for them, rather, you’re helping them get going so the task doesn’t seem so daunting. (This concept, along with many other effective parenting techniques, is explained in The Total Transformation Program.)
- Choose the best person for the job: If you are part of a couple, consider that one of you might be better at “teaching” and then let that person take on the homework monitoring responsibilities. It will likely help the routine become more consistent and effective for your child. If you are a single parent, you might have a friend or family member (an older cousin who’s good at math, or a neighbor who’s a writer, for example) who would consider helping your child from time to time.
- Offer empathy and support. If your child is really struggling, give them some support and guidance and show some empathy. Kids are expected to do some difficult work, and your child may sincerely be struggling with it. If you have a child who is really having a hard time, it’s important to have communication with the teacher to see if this is typical for all kids, or if it’s unique to your child. If your child also has these problems in class, know that there are different approaches to helping them learn that can be useful. The teacher may recommend some testing to see if there are learning problems. While this can be hard to hear as a parent – as if something is wrong with your child – it’s important to find out how your child learns best and what your teacher and you can do to support their learning style.
- Use positive reinforcement and incentives: It’s always important to reinforce positive behavior, and that may mean offering some kind of incentive for completing homework or getting good grades. Most kids get personal satisfaction out of getting good grades and completing their work, and that’s what we’re aiming for. But, it’s also helpful to offer some incentives to encourage them. Rather than money, I would recommend offering rewarding activities for your child’s academic successes. This could include going shopping for some “goodie” the child has really wanted, renting their favorite movie and having “movie night” at home, or other ways of spending special time with a parent. These things can become more meaningful than money for most kids and they get to experience their parent in a loving, supportive and reinforcing role.
Most kids will never really “enjoy” homework, and for some it will always be a struggle. Our children all have different strengths and abilities, and while some may never be excellent students, they might be great workers, talented artists, or thoughtful builders. While it would be easier if all children were self-motivated students who came home, sat down and dug into their homework, this just isn’t going to be the case with most kids. As James often said to parents, “We need to learn to parent the child we have – not the child we’d like them to be.” Our role is to guide our children, support them through the challenging tasks, and teach them about personal responsibility.
When kids are young, parents are used to swooping in and rescuing them whenever they need help. As your kids get older and their problems become more complex, you have to transition into more of a supporting role, and that can be difficult. This is especially true with teens who are struggling with depression. They need help to get better, but first they have to want that help.
Signs your child is depressed:
- Has she been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks?
- Has she lost interest in things that she used to really enjoy?
- Have her eating or sleeping habits changed?
- Does she have very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything?
- Is she feeling worthless, hopeless about her future, or guilty about things that aren’t her fault?
- Have her grades dropped, or is she finding it difficult to concentrate?
- Has she had thoughts of suicide? If so it’s crucial you have her evaluated by a mental health professional immediately. If the thoughts are really serious and there is imminent threat, you will need to take her to an ER.
Related: What Are the Symptoms of Depression in Teenagers?
If your teen shows more than a few of these signs she may have depression that warrants professional attention. While you can’t make her want to get better, there are some things that you as her parent can do. And it starts with simply being there for her.
One of the most important things you can do for your teen is to work on strengthening your relationship. Try to build empathy and understanding by putting yourself in his shoes. You might be frustrated that he seems down and irritable a lot of the time and doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything to help himself. But if there isn’t much in his life that is making him happy, or something intensely disappointing has happened to him, it’s understandable that he might avoid things he used to enjoy and retreat to his room. Depression makes even doing the smallest things more difficult.
Try to validate his emotions, not his unhealthy behavior. For example, you could say, “It seems as though you’ve been really down lately. Is that true?” Make it clear that you want to try to understand what’s troubling him without trying to problem solve.
Related: How to Help Kids Who Are Too Hard on Themselves
Be compassionately curious with him. Ask him questions about his mood gently, without being emotional. Even parents with the best intentions often don’t realize that their concern can come across as critical rather than loving. Do not be judgmental or try to solve his problems, even if you disagree with his point of view. Listening to him talk about his problems might seem as though you’re highlighting the negative, but in fact, you’re letting him know that you hear him, you see him, and you’re trying to understand — not fix him. People don’t like to be fixed. Listening without judgment will actually make him more likely to view you as an ally and someone he can turn to when he’s ready to talk.
Try also to give him opportunities to do things without being critical of him. Instead of saying, “Honey, you should really get up and do something. How about calling an old friend?” you might say, “I’m going to the mall to do an errand. Let me know if you want to come with me, and maybe we can get lunch together.”
For some parents, this can feel passive, as though you’re not doing enough. But being there for him and communicating your acceptance of him is exactly what he needs from you right now. It’s actually a very active way to strengthen your relationship.
Accentuate the positive
Make sure you’re noticing the positive things your teen does, too. Going to school, holding down a part-time job, doing the dishes or picking up her brother from soccer practice: These are all good things she’s doing, and it’s important to recognize them rather than thinking, “This is what she should be doing.” We all like to be appreciated and recognized for doing a good job even when it’s expected of us.
Ask yourself how many positive things have you said to her today? How many negative things have you said? How many times have you highlighted her problems or tried to fix them? The positive should outweigh the negative. Let her know that you’re proud of her, that she’s doing a good job if you see her taking care of herself, doing homework, interacting with the family, or doing other things that take effort. She’ll likely appreciate that you noticed.
Likewise, you don’t need to mention that you’re disappointed she isn’t hanging out with friends as much or taking the interest she used to in guitar, for example. She probably feels disappointed, too, and doesn’t need to be reminded of what’s not going well in her life. She doesn’t want to feel this way. If she could snap her fingers and feel better, she would.
Helping kids with depression get treatment
Some teens will want to go to therapy when you ask them and some won’t. For those who are resistant, know that they aren’t going to suddenly open up to the idea of therapy (or to you) quickly, but you can help guide them towards treatment by opening the door and then waiting patiently for them to walk through it.
Try saying, “I know you’re having a hard time, and I have some ideas of things that could help. If you’d like to talk with me about them, let me know. I’m here for you.” It’s also a good idea to ask her if she has any suggestions on how you might be able to help her. You might be surprised with what she has to say.
Be aware that your teen might tell you to back off. That’s fine; it’s her way — albeit a slightly irritable one — of telling you that she needs space. It’s normal for teenagers to want independence, and it’s important for you to respect that. You can respond by saying, “I’ll give you more space, but know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk or hear my suggestions.”
If she does come to you wanting help, be prepared. Do your research. Find two or three therapists she can interview and tell her that she can choose the one that she feels most comfortable with, and thinks will help the most. Finding a therapist who is a good fit is extremely important, and making the choice hers will help her feel ownership over her own treatment, which is extremely important to teens and sets the stage for effective therapy.
It’s also important to know that there are several different kinds of therapy that might be helpful for your teen, including some well-studied behavioral therapies. Interpersonal therapy (IPT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and behavioral activation have all been shown to be helpful for teenagers with depression. Make sure that your child has had a thorough evaluation that includes treatment recommendations to help guide you.
Related: What Behavioral Therapies Work on Childhood and Adolescent Depression?
Many teens with depression benefit from medication, such as an anti-depressant. While therapy alone may be effective with mild to moderate depression, the best results are usually gained with a combination of medication and therapy. If depression medication is a consideration, it is strongly recommended that you make an appointment with a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist (rather than a general physician) for a consultation.
Why depression treatment might not be working
If your child already is in treatment but it isn’t helping, ask him why he thinks that is. What isn’t helpful or what doesn’t he like about therapy? Are there things about therapy he does like? Maybe you can work together to find a therapist who does more of the things that he likes. If you do consider changing therapists, it’s important to discuss this with his current therapist before the decision to change is made. Many times, the therapy and/or the therapeutic relationship can be improved.
Keep in mind that therapy usually isn’t effective if the person in treatment isn’t committed to it, or is doing it to please someone else. Your child should want to get better for himself. Unfortunately, sometimes people have to get worse before they want help. But the good news is that if you lay the groundwork by strengthening your connection with him now, he’ll be more likely to turn to you for support when he’s finally ready.
Taking care of yourself
Lastly, it’s important to make sure that you’re taking care of yourself. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting to be a parent of someone who is struggling with depression. Know that you are not alone, and get support for yourself. Make sure that you make time to do things you enjoy and go out with friends. The phrase: happy mommy (or daddy) = happy baby (read: teenager) still applies!
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