Parent Question: I have two kids, one in middle school and the other in high school. My oldest doesn’t seem to understand the importance of doing well in school and being responsible, and I’m worried that he won’t make it to a good college. Both my husband and I keep telling him he needs to work harder, and we supervise his homework time. We have been grounding him a lot this school year, because he just doesn’t seem to do what he needs to without us constantly monitoring him. We’re not sure what he’s doing when he’s out with his friends, but he never seems motivated or takes school seriously enough. My husband is really frustrated with him and yells at him a lot. I’m not sure if he’s getting depressed or is just lazy. Our middle school kid is responsible with school and with home stuff. She gets her homework done without us nagging her and also does her chores pretty well. Any advice or suggestions on how we can get my son to do better with being responsible and motivated so he can go to a good college would be helpful.

A: Children find mirrors to define who they are, through the eyes and attitudes of their parents, their teachers and other important adults in their lives (coaches, extended family, etc.), those who are raising and educating them. A strong belief in their respective capabilities and competence is an important step for them to be successful adults. It is far more likely for children and adolescents to have positive experiences in self-discovery when they’re surrounded by and spend time with people who consider them and treat them as capable.

Your role changed when your son entered adolescence. Establishing a collaborative approach with problem-solving will help reduce your chronic power struggles, as it sounds like you’re hoping to redirect his sometimes unmotivated, confusing behavior. You mentioned grounding him, which is one way to enforce control, thus managing where he is, what he’s doing. This approach usually elicits resentment, eroding your connection. It won’t help you understand the emotional root of what’s driving his behavior. His homework and his grades, the decision of where he attends college, are all his responsibility.

Adolescence signals separation, with your son now actively distancing himself, hoping to assume more freedom. It’s possible to have both important needs met: more freedom and autonomy, balanced with your support and strong connection. When you manage his homework and remind him of what he isn’t doing well, rather than negotiating and problem-solving together, you’re identifying him as the problem, rather than including him in being part of the solution. This approach polarizes parents and teens, with little or contentious communication, which will ultimately require time for healing to build connection with him.

If you want him to listen, to feel respected and understood, grounding doesn’t fit. It becomes the “time-out,” with a much longer sentence, imposing isolation from friends and social activities. This breeds resentment and disconnection during a developmental stage when connective communication, encouragement and problem-solving are critical. Chronically grounded kids are chronically discouraged kids, lacking confidence and motivation. Let him know you understand grounding isn’t working well for him, while being clear that his behavior isn’t working well for you. Let him know your worrying about his schoolwork and future success is your problem, and you’d like to come up with a better way to support him. He may initially resist your attempts to communicate, perhaps because he’s angry and doesn’t feel understood. He needs to trust that you’re sincere in your efforts to listen to his needs and what’s important to him, even when you don’t agree with him.

Remaining calm, not taking what he says or does personally, is important. Understand that what he wants is just as important to him as what you want is important to you. It doesn’t mean you necessarily agree, simply that you’re keeping an open mind. It also doesn’t mean you’re giving up your parental authority. What it does mean is you can change your position if he presents a point of view you can accept. Problem-solving together is modeling the skills he’ll need in life. It’s important he believes his parents and other important adults in his life believe he is capable.

He has a right to be angry, upset, frustrated, while you have the parental right to set the limit. Also, he needs to feel heard and understood, even if the outcome isn’t what he wants. Let him know you understand how much he wants to do or not do whatever it is, empathizing with his perspective and his right to be upset or disappointed. When we equip our children with the tools they need for self-discipline, motivation, and mastering responsible behavior, with the confidence they need to navigate the adolescent turbulence, we are giving them the gift of independence. We want them to be critical thinkers, to maintain a sense of adventure, and to possess the ability to problem-solve. We also hopefully strive to inspire them to be leaders, educators, community builders, entrepreneurs, and stewards of the earth. These qualities won’t germinate from controlling parents who supervise their children’s every move and decision. We can allow them to have some inner turmoil, let them wrestle with their choices. When it doesn’t work, they will figure out another way, eventually addressing what’s needed. This is best realized through their experiential learning.

Do we truly want our adult sons and daughters to contact us with every decision, every nuance, sharing the detailed drama of their lives? We must begin setting them free in adolescence to be who they most want to be and the best they can be. Their mistakes will be their opportunity to learn, to grow. Meanwhile, when they reach late adolescence, they need to be ready to leave us. Hopefully we’ve equipped them with what they need to venture into the world with integrity, motivation, and tenacity. We can then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing we’ve done our best.

Letting children make their own mistakes, from which they can learn and develop, can be quite painful for parents. However, that’s a parent’s job. Including them in the solution, rather than making them the problem, will help ensure children can successfully and confidently separate from their parents. Then it’s time for parents to trust we have done the job they needed and expected us to do.

Please send me your questions.