Wednesday 21 February 2018

Family Life: Our lacklustre son has little motivation to start studying

David Coleman

David Coleman

Q My 17-year-old recently started back into fifth year after doing transition year. I don't have a very serious problem with him in the overall scheme of things, but I'd guess this is a common concern for parents.

Basically, I can't get him motivated to get his head back into the study. He is just starting the Leaving Cert programme in school but you would never know it. And transition year, whilst being a great year, has not helped his academics -- just his social life! His behaviour in class is, apparently, that of a child in first year -- always up for a laugh. He lacks any focus or drive and has no idea what he would like to do after school but presumes it will involve university. However, he is showing no sign of studying to make that happen. At 17, it is difficult to force a boy into studying and we have encouraged and cajoled him all the way but do not know what to do to switch him on. Have you any ideas as to how we can get him to take responsibility for his studies himself and find some level of focus and motivation so that he can achieve at least some of his potential?

A I think you are right -- your issue with your son is probably very common and shared by many parents. Part of your worry is that you can see down the line and realise that the choices he makes now will potentially have an impact on him later but he doesn't yet have the same insight.

Your son sounds like he has not yet learned to take responsibility for any of his actions. When you say that you "have encouraged and cajoled him all the way" it suggests to me that he is used to other people making decisions for him.

Critically, at this stage of his life, he needs to be able to mind himself and to make good decisions for himself. It is not too late to learn this. However, if he is accustomed to being responsive to what he gets told (or cajoled) to do then it will come as a bit of shock to him to have to become more proactive and self-determined.

By this stage, your words, common sense and wisdom are probably discounted or discredited. Your encouragement and cajoling may have lost their effectiveness through overexposure!


As a short-term strategy, I wonder if someone else were to tell your son the same things would he listen more?

I am a big fan of finding mentors for teenagers. Mentors can be any responsible adult or even a copped-on older teenager who can connect with your son and still command enough of his attention and respect.

Usually, mentors are inspirational in their own right, or have some achievements under their belt that are valued or admired by your son.

It might be worth your while putting some effort into searching around in your family, extended family or local community for someone who might fit the bill with your son.

However, even finding a good mentor for him still misses the point that he needs to develop internal motivation to succeed or achieve at school in the longer term. To really support him you need to help him believe that he can be successful and that there are benefits for him in achieving at school.

This is also a task that you may need help from other people to achieve. Ideally you want him to find his own goals that will motivate him to work to achieve them. But it seems like he doesn't yet have any goals.

Perhaps you, his mentor or someone else could get him to think about what he wants (not what he wants to do; just what he wants) in the future. This might give him a long-term goal that you can then help him to break down into smaller goals that will build towards this overall aim.

Encourage him to look at his strengths and build on them. Recognise that he is enjoying himself and having a good time but challenge him to determine if this kind of a 'good time' can be sustained independently when he is older.

See if you, or anyone else, can help him to see the practical, personal relevance of studying and start rewarding him for the small efforts he makes to study or focus more on his schoolwork.

Ultimately, you need to stop taking responsibility for how he is doing in school. Even though it is hard, try to pull back from over-investing in his future. If you want something more than he does you will always end up frustrated that he doesn't meet your expectations.

Perhaps he needs the consequences of some terrible results at his Christmas tests and the rebuke of his teachers in order to see the light.

Irish Independent

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