Q: My daughter is soon going to have her permit, but I am having a hard time not using it as a consequence for completing work with effort. Her grades are generally very good and she’s in honors classes but from time to time they slip due to missing assignments. She has the time to complete them; it’s pure lack of effort and laziness, if you will. My position is that I work with solid effort every single day and don’t feel like I should use my time, energy, and gas money for her to drive when she’s not putting in the effort and has missing assignments. Is this reasonable? Should I use driving or not driving as a consequence for not putting in effort at school?

A: It’s certainly difficult to know how to respond (versus react) to your adolescent daughter’s seeming lack of motivation. Evidently, something isn’t working for her, as she’s not applying the effort you’re looking for. Developmentally, her biggest task is separation/individuation: simply translated, she’s pushing you away to gain more autonomy. Her grades are her job, her problem, and deciding how she navigates through high school also belongs to her. Naturally, it isn’t easy to let go of the outcome, because you want her to be successful, to have a strong work ethic, and to apply her best effort daily, just as you do. You first need to consider more acceptable ways to connect with her, rather than managing how she applies herself in academics. That will only undermine her decision-making, for she will ultimately have the natural consequences of her decisions.

Be honest with your daughter about how you feel with her putting in less effort than you’d like to see, while she’s still wanting/expecting driving privileges. Blaming her won’t serve any purpose but to push her away. That usually comes from a need for revenge from a frustrated, bitter parent. When parents assume all the power, they can use it to threaten their kids to do things their way. It’s a different outcome when a parent can own the problem: “I’m upset when I see you doing less work than what I know you’re so capable of doing. Something is getting in the way of finishing your assignments. Help me understand what’s important to you with your schoolwork and grades.” Separate this first from the discussion of driving. When there’s something that bothers you (i.e., your daughter’s lack of motivation), take responsibility for your concerns (no blaming or judging), shifting the focus to what you can agree on together for making things work better. Maintaining clear boundaries and taking care of your own needs are also important.

If you believe you need to make her miserable (using driving as a consequence) in order to teach her a lesson, getting her to do what you want, that will backfire. It breeds anger, resentment, retaliation. She won’t feel heard or understood. Supporting adolescents to make good choices is important, gradually expanding the parameters. Trusting and being respectful will lead to positive behavior. This developmental stage requires our understanding, wisdom and patience. As your child struggles, weighing difficult decisions, you want her to consult with you. If you try to control the outcome, by managing how she does her schoolwork, you’re jeopardizing your connection, revealing you don’t trust her abilities. Help her work through potential natural consequences for her actions/choices. Listen to what she needs from you, problem solving how to address areas you both identify need improvement. The first step to problem solving is connection, being able to empathize and listen to her feelings no matter what this is about. Rather than punishment or giving consequences, problem solving is a win-win. Your daughter can then be part of the solution, rather than the problem. Together you can reach an agreement.

Finally, letting go is challenging. Revisiting your own adolescence, reflecting on what would have worked better for you and how that now affects parenting your daughter, moves you closer to an understanding and connection that will sustain you both through this turbulent stage.

If you treat people as if they are what they ought to be, you help them become what they are capable of being. — Johann Goethe

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