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Maria asks:

I am having a lot of trouble with my teenage daughter (14). She is miles behind at school, lazy in all ways and a drama queen. She is also having counseling for her destructive tendencies. She will not read and has very little vocabulary or interest in anything.

I am hoping you can give me some advice or help as to how to get her out of this very deep hole she has dug at school and get her interested in something other than her friends’ dramas. Any type of interest would do — my husband are out of ideas and patience.


Our response:

Without knowing you personally there are obviously limitations to the help we can provide, but here are a few things we have suggested to parents in your same position:

Baby steps

In your email you say that any type of interest would do. From what you have described I completely agree. I think your daughter needs to start off by making small changes, one step at a time. Changing her habits and what she values is not going to change overnight. I’m sure you know this already, I just want to emphasize that slow change really is fine, and because she’s only 14, she definitely has time to get into gear before it’s ‘too late’.

Incentives to help motivation

It sounds like your daughter’s problem at the moment is a total lack of motivation, rather than a lack of ability. If this is correct, then she may benefit from the use of incentives to help her get some study done — even a small amount — even if it is just completing a bit of homework initially. A lot of teens need incentives to help motivate them before they get to the stage where they are motivated by the prospect of doing well on their own.

Any amount of input on her part is obviously going to benefit her at this stage, so if you think the offering of an incentive of some kind would motivate her to achieve say, half an hour of study each day after school, then I think that would be a great step in the right direction. If she was able to start off by doing just half an hour of work every day after school, this would be a fantastic start, and a great foundation she can build upon.

As far as what the incentive should be, I will leave this up to you, as only you can know what’s going to work for your family.

Engaging with her subjects

A common reason why teens your daughter’s age aren’t yet interested in school is because they don’t understand why their subjects are important or why they’re actually really interesting. Unfortunately, unless students get a great teacher, it often goes unexplained in class why the subject is interesting/important — in other words — what the big picture relevance of the subject is.

We have found through tutoring that when you explain to students WHY something is interesting — when you give the topic a real-world application — it can become 1000% more interesting to them. If you think your daughter might be in this position, maybe you could have a chat about her subjects and try to ignite some interest by talking about the subject more broadly. Forgetting about school for a second can be a really good thing, particularly if your daughter has negative associations with school and/or her teachers.

Thankfully the internet is full of amazing resources, particularly videos, aimed at teenagers that present information in a really engaging and interesting way, so you could have a browse and try and find some learning resources for your daughter that are less traditional or ‘boring’.

What to avoid

Without knowing how you and your husband have gone about handling the situation (and without wanting to dish out misguided parenting advice!), I would try and avoid telling your daughter things like, “if you don’t study you’ll fail” etc, because teens who are struggling are much more likely to find their motivation when they’re helped in a positive way, rather than when ‘scare tactics’ are used.

Of course the position you are in must be incredibly frustrating, but you are more likely to have an uphill battle on your hands if your daughter just thinks you are nagging her all the time. Her motivation needs to come from somewhere else, and somewhere positive.

Confused and overwhelmed

Of course we can’t say without knowing your daughter — but it may be that she is unmotivated because she feels like she doesn’t understand what’s going on at school, or perhaps she feels that she is ‘dumb’ and so there is no point in trying. This is a common feeling in teens who are struggling and/or unmotivated.

If you think this might be what your daughter is thinking, the good news is that this could be a major cause for her lack of motivation, and something you can help her overcome. If this is the case it will be important for you and she to identify this fact, talk about it together, and then you can start to help her realize that she IS capable of doing well and that she will benefit hugely from trying harder at school.

Not knowing how to study

A lot of teens suffer from being unmotivated because they don’t know HOW to go about studying or completing homework effectively (or at all…). In this situation, to a teen it all feels way too hard, and a vicious circle ensues: They don’t understand how to study — they try to study but get frustrated — they don’t get any reward for studying (in the form of personal satisfaction at trying or good grades) — they don’t try as hard because what’s the point.

In order to start studying effectively, it’s crucial that your daughter understands two things:

  1. Firstly, what what she needs to know in terms of CONTENT. In other words, what topics is she learning about at school and what is she going to be tested on.
  2. And secondly, what she needs to do when she sits down to do homework or study. In other words, what study techniques she is going to utilize (we call this knowing your Study Formula). Writing study notes? Reading? Making flow charts? Watching educational videos? A combination of all of these things?

If she doesn’t understand one or both of these things, then I would go through her school curriculum with her to figure out what she needs to know in terms of content, and then introduce her to some simple but effective study techniques. Your daughter needs to come to realize that she has the brains, but perhaps just hasn’t had the proper tools to put her brain to good use. Studying is a learnt skill after all.

To avoid bombarding you with too much information we will leave it there for now, but please don’t hesitate to contact us any time again if you would like anything clarified or if you would like any further suggestions.

We wish you and your daughter all the best and will look forward to hearing about her progress.

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