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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.

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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?

Help!

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.

Published June 11, 2015. Last updated August 2, 2018.
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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