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Teenager won't do homework

Photo of Dr. Patrick J. McGrath
Dr. Pat

By Patrick J. McGrath, OC, PhD, FRSC


My 13-year-old son seems to have no interest in school. He won't do his homework.

Dr. Pat responds:

Motivating our children to take an interest in school is challenging. Clearly the most effective and desirable motivation is internal motivation. It is best if children love school and are determined to do their best. However, sometimes external motivation can be helpful.

There are several general strategies that you can use. You may want to consider all of them.

  • Create an environment that promotes doing homework. The family may be able to set up a time for homework when all of the TVs are off and no computer games or MSN are allowed. Everyone is expected to do quiet things like read or do homework.
  • Make clear expectations that your son is to keep up on his homework. Make some things dependent on his getting a good report card. You may want to make participation in some favourite activities dependent on his maintaining grades.
  • Talk to him and his teachers about what could be done to motivate him to want to do schoolwork. His teachers may have some ideas. Think of it as a collaborative effort. You are all on the same team, striving for the same goals.
  • Set up a routine where you ask him about what is going on in his life every day. Try to engage him in a conversation by listening to him. Try and figure out his point of view. This will give you a better understanding of where he is coming from and how to help.
  • If you are his mother, try to get his father involved if possible. Maybe this can be a special project for him and his dad.
  • Check out whether he is capable of the work he is expected to do. Does he have specific difficulty in writing? Is he particularly anxious about presenting in class? Does he have a fear or difficulty in math? Specific tutoring or assessment may be necessary. The school may be able to help you in these areas. Maybe you will have to figure out a way to organize this.

Sometimes we get into a pattern with our children when we take responsibility for their success. We do things to prevent them from experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviour.

This makes sense when we prevent our toddler from running out on the street or stop a teenager from driving while intoxicated. But our children have to learn to take the consequences of their behaviour. You should consider letting him experience the consequences of failing to do his homework. If he gets a few bad grades and suffers the consequences you have set up for bad grades, he may realize what he has to do.

These methods may help you avoid nagging. Most of us nag at times. Nagging consists of a stream of negative reminders. This stream of reminders is followed by one of three outcomes:

  • Usually, the parent gives up the nagging session because the teenager is better at resisting the nagging than we are at nagging. We get distracted or worn down.
  • Another possibility is the teen does what we want to get us to be quiet. This is done with resentment.
  • Finally, the nagging session may end up in a small or large explosion by the teen or parent.

I have never heard of nagging resulting in a positive response.

Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.

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Dr. Pat will respond to as many letters as possible with evidence-based answers. We hope that the column will be interesting and helpful for readers; however, Dr. Pat cannot provide health care through the column. Please contact a physician or other registered health care professional to provide health care guidance or advice.