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Taking The Power Struggle Out Of Homework Struggles

By Mir Kamin

Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.


Our daughter is 15 (turning 16 in three months) and finishing her freshman year of high school. She has inattentive type ADHD and PDD-NOS. She does not take medication anymore, she doesn’t like it, and I can’t force her to.

I feel like her father and I have provided a stable and loving home. She is involved in sports and gets decent grades in school, but it is a struggle for her. When she started in middle school she wound up getting into the habit of sitting at the table doing homework for 2-3 hours every night that would take the average person 30 minutes. This is usually work that others have done in class, but she didn’t finish. She is extremely easily distracted. This habit has continued into high school, but now we are battling with “needing to listen to music” and texting while doing homework. We have tried taking these things away, but it is a constant battle every single day!!! If she can’t listen to music on her iTouch (which she is constantly getting grounded from), then she wants to listen to it on my iPad. She won’t just listen to Pandora either, she has to get on youtube and play her favorite songs, over and over. (BTW she has an iTouch and a texting phone.)

I would probably be considered one of those “no backbone” parents because I just don’t like conflict, but I am also somewhat of a control freak and like to be in charge and have everything run smoothly. But I get into with my daughter constantly, always threatening to take away her devices (which has happened on more than one occasion this year). We’ve told her before that her phone needs to be put away during homework, but then I have to argue with her for 30 minutes on why it needs to be put away, which usually ends in comments like “this is so stupid” and “no one else’s parents do this” and sometimes resorts to stomping off to her room and then homework is left on the table undone.

I know I probably have end-of-the-school-year burnout, but I am dreading the next three years that it’s going to be like this forever! Am I being overbearing? Should I stop worrying, let her figure it out for herself, let her grades slip?


Ohhhh, I feel you on this one. I do. Sounds very familiar to me (and probably a lot of other parents), and you are most definitely not alone. Nor do I think you’re overbearing (or if you are, fist bump! me too!), and while others might disagree, I think “figuring it out themselves” should remain a guided process in these fraught high school years.

So, I feel like there are two separate issues here. They’re intertwined, for sure, but just to be clear, I’d like to call them out separately.

The first issue I see here is that your daughter is not receiving adequate support for her diagnosed learning challenges. Now—take a deep breath, this is not a criticism or blaming—that’s very common with kids who are challenged but high-functioning, because they don’t want it. They can handle it! Why are you always on them? They’re fine! I am a big believer in letting kids advocate for themselves and start making their own choices as early as is reasonable, but I also believe it’s up to us parents to sometimes step in and say, “Hold up. This isn’t working. We have to try something else.” (Or, as I like to say to my own children: “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a benevolent dictatorship. I’m benevolent until you need a dictator.”)

So without knowing the specifics of how you arrived where you are, I’d like to make a few very general suggestions in this area, to utilize as you see fit.

1) Not all ADHD medications are created equal. It’s possible you’ve already been down this road with a qualified specialist and there’s nothing more to do on this path, but if not, consider finding a psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD, or better still, specializes in adolescent girls (because they really are wholly unique creatures biochemically). If you choose to pursue this, I suggest presenting it to your daughter along the lines of, “We feel like maybe your aversion to medication is because we haven’t found the right one. I would like to find a better doctor to help us with this and I would like you to commit to [some mutually agreed-upon time period] to play along. If we try some other things and you still decide you don’t want to take meds, I will respect your decision at that time.” You could go all dictator, but that will just create another huge power struggle. A set period of time to try again (with a clear “out” at the end) in the name of making sure no stone was left unturned is more likely to get her buy-in.

2) Not all kids with ADHD will want to take or benefit from medication, for various reasons. Nor is even the right medication a panacea. So at the same time as you investigate that path, it’s time to get the school involved. Does she have a 504 Plan? If she already does, great—it’s time to talk about modifying her homework load. If she doesn’t already have one, it’s time to find the guidance counselor or Special Ed coordinator who will take you seriously when you say, “My child is spending hours every night not finishing her homework and it’s destroying our family. We need help.” She is entitled to accommodations (whether they be reduced homework, an extra study hall at school, whatever; this is why you work with the school to find a solution) and you’ll need to connect with the right person at school to get them in place. Your timing is actually ideal, because you may be able to get some supports implemented before school resumes in the fall.

3) It is very—and I do mean very, very, very—common for mood disorders to manifest as avoidance or opposition. Both ADHD and PDD-NOS are conditions notorious for bringing anxiety and depression along for the ride, particularly in the high school years when expectations ramp up. I’m a big believer in therapy, and I know not everyone is, but even just knowing that some of what you’re seeing might be her desperately trying to keep it together is a different vantage point when you dive into the rest of it, you know?

The second issue you’ll need to address is the ever-present power struggle over electronics and house rules. Is she allowed to listen to music while she studies or not? Does she lose her iPod for a given infraction all the time or not? Stuff like that. Remember, I’m a big proponent of the benevolent dictatorship; at the end of the day, what you decide is what goes, whether she likes it or not. That said, you’re much more likely to get compliance if she feels like she’s been allowed reasonable input into the process.

It sounds to me like it’s time for a family meeting. You, dad, her, and a notepad or computer, together at the kitchen table when there’s nothing else pressing going on. “We don’t like how much time we spent arguing over homework this year, and we want to brainstorm some ways to do better next year.” Let her tell you what she thinks she needs. Resist the urge to snort or snicker when she insists she must have music on to do her homework. Use it as a hook—okay, you can listen to music if… and then set the conditions under which she can earn her music. (Maybe she can listen to music if she agrees to put her phone away while working.) Also be very clear about the conditions under which the music will be removed. One thing I’ve learned with my teens is that they truly lack the ability to generalize (which is just fabulous when combined with their penchant for feeling unfairly persecuted…), so I have to spell out all conditions surrounding rules or they will sound the “unfair!” battle cry later on.

Talk it out. Consider family therapy, if such a conversation ends with stomping and screaming before it begins. Write it all down while you talk. Here’s what she needs to do, and here’s what she’ll earn when she does. Here are the infractions and the consequences. Bear in mind that positive reinforcement whenever possible is the way to go—so it’s not just losing the iPod for this misbehavior, but argument-free homework completion is good for staying up an extra 30 minutes or whatever she would find rewarding. Once you’ve mapped it all out, write up a contract and have everyone sign it. Hokey? Absolutely. But also symbolic and a good way to lend some gravitas to the process. (Psssst… if you want to pursue other medication options and she’s still resistant, find a way to make that contractual as well, with some sort of appropriate reward for her compliance with the process.) Once this is done, there’s no 30-minute argument about putting up her phone, there’s simply, “You know the rule and consequence if you choose not to follow it.”

The bottom line is that you love her and you want to help her succeed. No matter how you move forward from here, if you tell her that and ask for her input along the way, you’re already breaking the pattern of frustration/reaction everyone’s currently locked into. Good luck!!

Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • I’m a disgrace | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    June 12, 2015 at 8:26 am

    […] advice column has a second installment up over at Alpha Mom. This time I’m tackling homework wars, particularly when special needs are part of the mix. Not that I would know anything about that. My perfect children always complete their homework with […]

  • Jean

    June 12, 2015 at 8:49 am

    Mir, I know I always comment 🙂 My son has PDD-NOS and is starting middle school next year. I had NO IDEA that reduced homework is a possible 504 accommodation. I always thought it was about what they can do in school. I am storing this nugget to see how things go next year. THank you 🙂

    • Mir Kamin

      June 12, 2015 at 9:05 am

      You can’t just walk in and demand it or anything, but it’s a very common accommodation if homework takes a lot longer due to a disability. Generally you have to work out some sort of alternate standard, either a time amount or “demonstrating proficiency” (easy in a class like math, harder for a class like language arts), but it’s absolutely a reasonable compromise. No teacher worth their salt wants your kid spending their entire evening doing homework.

    • KIm too

      June 12, 2015 at 10:28 am

      My daughter is in elementary school, and “skills-based homework” is one of the few accommodations we have.

  • Billie

    June 12, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I took the music argument off the table with my ADHD son. I found that it takes him LESS time to get his homework done, with FEWER interruptions (3 hours to do 30 minutes of work because he constantly gets up, starts conversations about things completely unrelated, etc.). I think the music distraction limits the other distractions.

    He loves the YouTube option. I don’t so much because every 4-10 minutes he is looking down and changing the song, but this seems to work for him. It’s almost like a scheduled break to change his song, but then he’s back to working and NOT stopping to get up, talk about something unrelated, etc. The end result is that it is taking him less time and he may actually be retaining more information in certain cases (undecided at this point).

    • Mir Kamin

      June 12, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Exactly. Sometimes what we consider distractions are actually less distracting to them! When we got into the “changing the channel” thing with one of mine, we compromised with a playlist (or Pandora station)—you can have music, but you can’t muck with it until your work is done.

    • Becky

      June 13, 2015 at 5:24 am

      It can also be phrased in a 504 or IEP as 25% reduction or 50% reduction in homework. Totally an option and as a teacher I would be willing to listen to ANY parent who came in or emailed me nicely and told me that homework that I assigned was taking their child hours to do. The general homework rule of thumb (though district policies may differ) is that homework time should be 10 minutes per grade level (i.e. a 2nd grader should do 20 minutes but a 6th grader should do 60 minutes). 

  • Caroline

    June 12, 2015 at 10:27 am

    I read this, then read it again. You are the parent here. Your daughter clearly struggles with work that others accomplish in a far shorter time. She doesn’t want to take meds, fine, I appreciate that. But the alternative is that she… gets her sh1t together. 3 hours of homework is unreasonable on a daily basis. The arguing… well, clearly teenagers argue, and that is normal, but you are the parent. What you say, goes. The end. If she demonstrates the ability to do her homework in a reasonable time frame, meds free and without messing about, she gets her music after. After. Or if you find as others have suggested, that music helps her relax and focus, great, but the second it is a distraction, bye-bye music. She takes her meds or not, her choice, but you cannot dance small circles trying to get consensus. One boss, You. Explain simply and clearly your reasons once, then it’s the hard way. Either she’ll do the homework or she won’t, her consequences, not yours.

  • Kim

    June 12, 2015 at 10:46 am

    Another thing to keep in mind is that sometimes, the ADD brain will pick a fight purely to kickstart the chemicals it needs to start a task.  That’s a fun one! This isn’t a conscious manipulation, it is a coping mechanism. Recognizing that pattern, and the fact that arguing itself has rewards for our brains if not our relationships, for my daughter and myself was a game changer. We can’t always catch it early, but when we can , we stop and try to find another way.  
    I don’t know how active she is, but daily exercise is crucial, especially if she’s not on meds.  So maybe a workout of some sort before homework?  Maybe a run, a dance session in her room, something to get those chemicals firing away.

  • Jenn

    June 12, 2015 at 10:51 am

    Yes, at our house there can be music but no changing stations, skipping songs, or rating songs. We’ve also experimented a bit with music from video games. Video game music is designed to subtly keep a player involved in the game and there’s all sorts of types to choose from. A little googling can lead you to dedicated stations. Also ballet barre exercise music: my daughter’s dance studio uses some lovely piano music for barre warm-ups that I think would be great for homework focus. It’s repetitive but not boring.

    • Mir Kamin

      June 12, 2015 at 4:29 pm

      That is fascinating about video game music!! Thanks for sharing that.

    • Aska

      June 13, 2015 at 10:59 am

      I use video game music for grown-up work, so yes! That’s an excellent idea. Some of my favorites are the StarCraft II and WoW soundtracks. There’s an added positive that I get a jolt of good memories from playing the game, so it makes the whole experience pleasant. Also, it feels cool.

      (If you’re going for classical music, try Chopin’s Nocturnes.)

  • TC

    June 14, 2015 at 2:40 am

    During the school year, we have always had a rule for my PDD just-finished-8th-grader that there’s no computer or TV time until homework is done. Until 8th grade, that worked well. This year, he discovered…hmmm, how to put this nicely….the benefits of withholding information. Hiding homework or, more often, info on upcoming tests so that homework time would be over more quickly and computer privileges restored. We tried punishment for such untruths/lack of shared info, but after a while he was so deep in a hole I couldn’t see a way out. So I tried something drastic (at least in our house): No TV or computer, period, Monday through Thursday nights. Not as a punishment, I stressed. Just as a basic rule. Therefore, there was no reason to hide stuff from us, since it wasn’t like that would mean he’d get to his computer more quickly. That was better, but he really was sad about it; screen time is really the only way he’s able to destress quickly and easily; like it or not, that’s how it is with him. Plus, he still tried not to have to do much studying or working on long-term projects, because…well, who wants to do that stuff?

    So then I had a major brainstorm: The rule remains the same, with one caveat: If he has a test coming up, and he studies for that test with real focus, he earns a little screen time at the end of the night. If he has an upcoming major project and does some real work on it in advance of the deadline, he earns a little screen time. No test, no projects, no screen time. It’s counterintuitive–the less work he has, the less screen time I give him during the school week. But it makes having a test coming up a GOOD THING because it means he can earn 15-30 minutes if he applies himself to studying! By the very end of the year, he was actually excited that finals were coming, because it meant that every night was a potential earn-screen-time night. Don’t know if that would help anyone, but thought I’d share, because I’m sort of proud of myself for this one. Positive reinforcement for the win!

    • Mir Kamin

      June 14, 2015 at 10:31 am

      You should be proud of yourself for that one! I may try it with my son.

  • suburbancorrespondent

    June 14, 2015 at 7:13 am

    U SUCK!

    Joking!  Just joking!  Good advice, especially about the music.  Kids do better with the music playing.  And exercise – that really helps them settle down to do the homework!

  • Alice

    June 14, 2015 at 8:21 am

    I hadn’t known about reduced homework as an option either – that’s great to have as a possibility!

    I really like a lot of the suggestions shared so far, and hope that they’ll get your daughter off to a good start next year. If she’s really resistant to the homework contract, though, and swears that she could figure it out if you’d just Leave Her Alone, I’ve got a higher stakes option to consider. Let her choose how she approaches one of her classes for the first quarter, then you’ll be open to renegotiating things if her approach works out. The contract will apply to every other subject (and she’ll be part of putting it together), but she gets free rein on that subject. 

    If she does well, then that’s awesome! She’ll have figured out a number of coping skills that she can then apply to other classes. But (since it’s far more likely that she’ll find herself in a pickle) being able to see the difference between that class and others may help her get more on board with the contract. She’ll have most of the year to bring up her grade, and even if it never fully recovers, a dip in one sophomore subject is a comparatively small thing.

    Caveats: it should be a subject that’s not hear easiest or her hardest. And if her school isn’t on a quarter system, you’ll need some way of comparing her progress in her different classes – you might be able to ask her teachers for quick progress reports, or a grade estimate, but you’ll want to have something concrete to compare. 

    Whatever you choose, good luck!

    • Mir Kamin

      June 14, 2015 at 10:29 am

      I love this idea of handing over one class to her own management. That’s brilliant!