Brainy Parenting

What do you do when you know your teenager is going to want to go to college, but they aren’t responsible enough yet to do the work to get there? Especially when you know they will need a scholarship to afford it. We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Do I Let My Teen Fail?  Today we’re hearing from Rachelle from Mt. Pleasant and Rachelle writes:

Dear Neil, 

You only get one shot at high school. College costs are too high for most. Scholarships are only for the top 15% and grades set kids up for college admission. So if you truly want your child to go to college and feel strongly they will or also want to go, where do you let your child fail? There doesn't seem to be a good place to allow failure. Is it safe to say failure is best with the loss of privileges? Should I allow my child to just fail school and ruin their future with a kind of "it's your life so screw it up if you want" attitude? How do I stop nagging them about schoolwork if that is the only way they will do it, even though they are capable?

Rachelle from Mt. Pleasant

Now to Rachelle’s question: 

And Rachelle, you don’t mention your teenager’s age or gender.  I’m guessing you’re talking about a boy, but if she’s a girl or a they, just translate.

Yes Rachelle, you see your son’s potential and want him to see his future and work to leverage his potential.  But alas, as much as you know he will want to go to college even if he isn’t focused on it now, he just isn’t owning his work, doing his best, going for the gold.  So what’s a parent to do?  Nag him to the finish line?  Let him fail?  What horrible choices right!! 

Rachelle, it sounds like you and your teen have gotten yourselves into a dead-end pattern where you’re in charge of him doing his schoolwork, and he’s in charge of avoiding his work. You push, he resists and then does the minimum necessary to get by.  Nooooo Rachelle, that’s not how we do adolescence.  Adolescence is that time of life between childhood and young adulthood when we work with our adolescent youth to grow their independence---and what is independence?  The ability to manage responsibilities on one’s own.  

Nagging isn’t a way to support independence.  It’s a great way to build and support a Control Battle .  Doing nothing doesn’t support independence either. So what is it? 

The goal should not be to get him into a good college. It should be to help him learn and grow.Click To Tweet   Teenagers mature at different rates.  You’ll see kids the same age together, some well into puberty and others look like children.  Some kids are ready to embrace school responsibility, but haven’t figured out how to engage socially.  The point is, you need to parent your teenager where they are developmentally and offer support where needed, but you can’t panic when they haven’t arrived developmentally where you want them to be.  For the socially shy kid, parents can encourage some social connections, but mostly support their youth’s strengths whether they manifest as art, music, academic areas, for instance.  

Instead Rachelle, you’re in a control battle here and although your intentions are good, and you only want what’s best for your teenager, getting frustrated that he isn’t able to plan, organize and self motivate isn’t helping.  

There are a few and only a few things to think about and do here.



  1. Know your kid, strengths, weaknesses, areas they may need help with. Know what motivates them.Click To Tweet
  2. Believe in them.  They’re in that transition between childhood and young adulthood so know it’s a transition, and have faith in them.  Rachelle, you know your teen is capable and will come into their own.  So know that and communicate that.  Think caterpillar to butterfly.  They’ll get there and the process is learning and growing. I know you think their only chance is a scholarship to college and it’s do or die right now; but it isn’t. There are many educational paths to successful adulthood.  Community college, grants and scholarships based on need, and lots more.  
  3. Rachelle, here’s what you need to do.  First read and reread these first few points so that your attitude is a lot more confident and flexible.  Next get clear about what you expect and what the privileges are that are earned by meeting those expectations.
  4. Have a discussion with your son using the structure of  “The Talk” .  It’s exemplified on several podcasts, the book Ending the Parent Teen Control Battle and the course by the same name.
    • Essentially, you’ll acknowledge his many strengths
    • Acknowledge the presence of the Control Battle with your nagging and your teen’s resisting and avoiding.
    • Acknowledge your son’s ability to manage his responsibilities and the privileges that need to be earned and may be revoked until they are.Click To Tweet  

Rachelle, you ask if “Is it safe to say failure is best with the loss of privileges?” Kind of.  In withdrawing privileges, you’re not trying to change his behavior; I know that sounds weird, but it’s an important concept because when you try to change his behavior, he will feel controlled and do his best to thwart your attempt. Take more of an umpire’s position.  When they call a strike, they aren’t trying to get the batter to swing at good pitches.  The umpire is just doing their job, pitches in the zone are strikes and those out of the zone are balls.  Same with you.  Your youth manages their responsibilities up to the best of their ability, they get certain privileges.  They don’t embrace their responsibilities; they don’t get those privileges.  

5. Discuss with your teen what the best structure for doing their work is.  I’m imagining that your teen is on the younger side, 14 or 15 and they will need some structure.  

6. Don’t worry if they do or don’t step up.  Simply withdraw privileges while staying positive; don’t nag, don’t respond to objections or emotional outbursts.  

What you’re doing here Rachelle, is changing your relationship; changing the pattern of the relationship and changing patterns will always meet with resistance. But if you are clear about where you’re going, and put the elements in place to get there, you’ll be supporting your teen towards young adulthood instead of fighting them to get there.  It’s summer now and your teen is most likely not in school.  Use this time to make the changes we discussed with non-school responsibilities so that when school starts up, you’re already moving in the right direction.

A Therapeutic Perspective

So let’s look at what we therapists will do for a teenager like this when Mom sends them for therapy.  Commonly, we will talk to Mom, most likely on the phone to get intake information, background information etc. and then meet with the youth, who really doesn’t want to be there.  After talking a bit and trying to get some kind of therapeutic alliance, where the therapist empathizes with the youth, the therapist will develop a tentative diagnosis.  Perhaps, anxiety disorder, depressive disorder or ADHD or ODD or oppositional defiant disorder.  Notice all the disorders here?  That’s a must if insurance is going to pay or reimburse for anything, but it shapes therapist thinking as well.  Now what to do?  Well, since the teenager is the patient, meaning the problem is within the teenager, set up appointments for the teenager to meet with the therapist and what does the teenager do?  Complaining about Mom being on his back, always making him do stuff and threatening to take things away.  He’ll complain about teachers not posting work he’s done and Mom accusing him of not doing it.  The youth will report that the teacher told him not to worry about all the missed assignments so why is Mom on his back to do them all.  Why should she care if he plays games with his friends for a few hours after school?  There isn’t that much homework anyway.  So the therapist empathizes, talks about some of the games so the teenager feels related to, gets an agreement, (that the kid doesn’t keep), that he’ll stay on top of all new assignments, and the therapist tells Mom to back off because it’s stressing him out.  If the therapist suspects ADHD , they may refer to a psychiatrist for medication evaluation, and although medication can help ADHD kids focus, it only works if they’re trying to focus so medication for a youth in a control battle where they’re trying to see what they can get away with not doing, isn’t going to help much.  

Now that Mom’s tried therapy for her youth, and things have gone along pretty much as they were except Mom is pushing less but youth isn’t doing more, she thinks, well he’s in therapy and it may just take a while.  Then after about 8 months of counseling, the kid starts to grow up and things get a bit better, or absolutely nothing changes and with all the lost time, the youth has gotten way behind educationally as well as emotionally, socially, and behaviorally and Mom has become completely disempowered since the therapist is now acting more like the parent and Mom’s parenting obviously wasn’t working.  This sounds quite horrible doesn’t it!  Yet it is what happens all too often.

What if instead we help Mother and her teenager get on a path together where Mom and teen are empathized with and Mom is supported to be clear, positive and patient and teen is resourced and supported to embrace responsibilities?  What if we empower Mom to set her limits and standards in a positive manner and make it clear that she believes in her teenager and wants him to enjoy his privileges?   What if Mom and teen are brought together to embrace the task of working together so that teenager can feel successful and supported and Mom can feel empowered to successfully raise her son; ups, downs and all? 

What if once the agenda for Ending The Control Battle and working together is set , and the therapist meets with the youth and sees that they are struggling with focus, the therapist offers some techniques that will improve focus and support neurodevelopment?  

Then we would actually be helping this mother who came to us with concerns about her teenager’s lack of responsibility and her questions about how to deal with it.  We even created the opportunity to help a teenager who became motivated to improve his ability to focus.

So parents and folks who help parents and kids, we need to be vigilant that our helping doesn’t undermine parents and enable kids.  Unfortunately, it happens all too often.

Let’s listen carefully for what they are struggling with and realize that child and adolescent development takes place in families.Click To Tweet  Once we see the pattern in the family that supports the problem, we can engage their strengths and good intentions to resolve it.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners, and special thanks to you Rachelle for sharing your question with us. Wow, for the most part, life is returning to some sense of normal.  But there is some unlearning to do.  During quarantine, life took place online for most of us including our teenagers.  We became lenient with kids and devices since that was the only source of social connection many of them had. Now, they’re still on their devices day and night and parents are reluctant to put new structures in place.  I’m advising parents to go ahead, in spite of fierce youth objection and parental fear that they will be hurting their teen socially.  Talk about it first and see if you can find a time that’s natural for the change. Go on a camping trip where there isn’t cell reception for instance with the understanding that things will be different when you return.

None of this is easy so take care of yourself.  You need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it! Bye for now.

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This post first appeared on Neil D. Brown.