Motivating Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says "I Don't Care"

by James Lehman, MSW
Motivating Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says I Don't Care

Are you facing the new school year with dread because you have an unmotivated or underachieving teen or pre-teen? Is your child’s answer to everything, “I don’t care” or “It doesn’t matter?” In Part I of this two-part series, James Lehman, MSW explains why your child does have motivation—and how you can coach them to better behavior.

The first thing to understand about teens and pre-teens who seem to have no motivation is this simple truth: It's impossible to have no motivation. Everybody is motivated—it just depends on what they’re motivated to do. I think it's helpful to see that rather than being unmotivated, these kids are actually motivated to not perform and to resist their parents. In other words, they’re motivated to do nothing.

Once you realize that your adolescent is motivated to do nothing, it will become obvious to you right away that he actually puts a lot of energy into doing that “nothing.”

Parents often think that if they can find a new way to encourage their child, he or she will magically start achieving more. I don't think it's like that at all. In fact, I think the problem is that these kids are motivated to resist, withdraw and under-perform. In effect, instead of acting out, they’re acting in.

Think of lack of motivation as an action problem—and the action is to resist. These kids are making excuses; they’re pushing their parents away. At school, they’re motivated to resist studying and homework. They're also motivated to resist their teachers. Look at it this way: these kids are motivated to say “I don’t care,” either with their words or with their actions. They’re saying those words; they’re telling you what they’re doing—they’re not caring.

Related: How to parent your unmotivated child or teen more effectively.

How Can Parents Motivate Their Teen or Pre-teen?
Once you realize that your adolescent is motivated to do nothing, it will become obvious to you right away that he actually puts a lot of energy into doing that “nothing.” He puts a lot of energy into resisting you, to withdrawing from you, to making complaints. When you talk to an adolescent who's an underachiever, what you hear are a lot of errors in thinking. “I can't; it’s too hard; it doesn't matter; I don’t care.” In fact, “I don’t care” is their magic wand and their shield—it takes off pressure and makes them feel in control all at the same time. The words “I don’t care” empower them. When they start feeling anxious about their place in life, it soothes them to say it doesn’t matter; they use it like a soporific or a drug. “I don’t care” also helps them deal with their anxiety. Fear of failure? “I don’t care.” It's hard to do? “I don’t care.” It dismisses everything.

Frankly, you can't make your child care. Let’s be honest, the old saying, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink” is true. But understand that while we can’t make our kids drink, we can certainly try to make them thirsty.

9 Ways to Get through to Your Underachieving Child or Teen

Look at What Your Child Likes: Look for things that can be used as rewards for your child. Make a point of observing what your child likes and enjoys now. And don't take his word for it; he'll tell you he doesn't care about anything; that “nothing matters.” But look at his actions—if he watches a lot of TV, plays on the computer, if he likes video games or texting, you know what he likes. Ask yourself: does he like going to the movies? Does he like going fishing? Does he like taking walks? Take an inventory of the things he enjoys and write it all down on a piece of paper. (While I usually recommend that parents sit down with their kids and draw up this list together, in the case of kids who tend to withhold, I don’t think it’s a good idea. Don't ask a child who uses passive aggressive behavior; because he won’t tell you—remember, withholding is his way of maintaining control.) Later, you can use these things as incentives.

Take the Goodies out of His Room: I think underachieving kids should not have a lot of goodies in their rooms. Look at it this way: their room is just a place for them to withdraw. If you have a child who holes up in his bedroom, the computer should be in the living area—and if he's going to use it, he should be out there with other people. He also shouldn’t have a TV or video games in his room, and if he’s not performing, don’t let him have his cell phone, either.

I also want to be clear and state that it’s important to realize that there's a difference between being motivated to do nothing and being completely withdrawn. A child who won’t attend to his work or do his chores is different from someone who's depressed. If your child won't come out of his room, doesn’t seem to care no matter what you take away, and is often isolated and withdrawn, you have to take that seriously and seek professional help.

Related: How to give consequences that really work.

Make Sure everything is Earned Each Day: I think that you have to hold unmotivated kids accountable. Make sure everything is earned. Life for these guys should be one day at a time. They should have to earn video games every day. And how do they earn them? By doing their homework and chores. They earn their cell phone today and then start over tomorrow. Let me be clear: for these kids, Mom should hold the phone.

Have Conversations about What Your Child Wants: When times are good, I think you should talk to your child about what he would like to have some day. Try to sneak in different ideas to get your child to think about how he will achieve what he wants in life. Sit down with your child and say “So what kind of car would you like to have? Do you like Jeeps?” Try to get him to talk about what he'd like. Because later on you can say, “Look, I care about you and I want you to get that Jeep—and you're not going to get it by not doing your homework."

As a parent, I'd be talking this way to your child from pre-adolescence. You can say things like, “Just think, some day you're going to have your own place. What kind of place would you like?” That's the type of thing you use to motivate adolescents because that's what is real to them: they want to get an apartment, they want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend, they want to get a car. So have conversations about what it takes to attain those things. And don’t forget, it’s a mistake to give your teen or pre-teen lectures when you want them to do something—instead, make them see that completing their responsibilities is in their best interests, because it leads to the life they’d like to have in the future.

Don’t Shout, Argue, Beg or Plead: Personally, I think if you’re shouting, you're just showing your frustration—and letting your child know that he’s in control. Here’s the truth: when people start shouting, it means they've run out of solutions. With kids who are underperforming, I think you have to be very cool. Arguing, pleading, and trying to get your teen to talk about how they feel is not very effective when they’re using withholding as a relationship strategy.

Related: How to stay calm with your child or teen—even when they're pushing your buttons.

In my opinion, you can try almost anything within reason for five minutes. So you can negotiate, you can reason, you can ask your child about their feelings. It’s fine to say, “Is something wrong?” Just be aware that a chronic withholder will be motivated not to answer you.

“It Matters to Me.” I think parents have to be very clear and tell their children that what they do matters to them. Personalize it by saying, “It matters to me. I care about you. I want you to do well. I can't make you do it and I won't force you. But it matters to me and I love you.”

By the way, when I tell parents to personalize it by saying “It matters to me,” that doesn’t mean you should take it personally. Taking something personally means believing that your child’s inappropriate behavior is directed at you. It’s not—in reality, it’s their overall strategy to deal with the stresses of life. The concept of “It Matters to Me” helps because relationships can be motivating, but your child is his own person. It's no reflection on you if he doesn't want to perform. You just have to set up the scenario and enhance the probability that he's going to do what he needs to do. But don't take it personally, as if somehow you have to make him do it. The truth is, you can't.

Stop Doing Your Child’s Tasks for Him: “Learned helplessness” is when people learn that if they don’t do something, someone will step in and do it for them—and it’s a very destructive pattern. When kids and teens use this shortcut, they don't learn independence. In fact, in families where this occurs, many times you'll find that the kids weren’t allowed to be independent very much. Perhaps they had to do things a certain way and all the choices were made for them. Eventually, they gave up; they surrendered.

Regardless of why your child might have an attitude of learned helplessness, as a parent, it’s important to stop doing things that he needs to do for himself. Don’t do his homework—let him do it. You can be available for help if necessary, but don’t take on his tasks. I believe one of the most important things an adolescent has to learn is independence, and if you take on his responsibilities, you’re robbing him of this chance to develop.

Related: How to stop doing too much for your child.

Learn How to Be a Coach: Let’s face it: it's often sports coaches who get the most out of our kids. It’s their job to help kids want to improve their skills. So the coach learns a little bit about each of his players. A good coach is not constantly saying, “You’re great, you’re the best, you’re a superstar!” Rather, they always keep their athletes looking forward by complimenting them on the specifics of their progress: “Nice layup, Josh. You positioned your hands better that time. Keep it up.” I think parents need to learn more about the Coaching parenting style. Always keep your child looking forward. Comment on his or her progress instead of telling them how great they are when they haven’t put forth much of an effort. Kids see through flattery and false praise just like adults do—and it usually backfires.

Set Deadlines and Use Structure: Tell your child clearly when to do chores and schoolwork—and when you want them done by. I think it's important to schedule these kids, to give them structure. “Do your chores from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., and then you'll have free time until dinner. And during free time, you can do whatever you want to do.” There are other ways to motivate your child by saying, “If you can accomplish this in X amount of time, we'll go to your cousin’s house on Saturday” or “I’ll take you to the boat show this weekend.” Remember, not everything that your child likes to do costs money, so add those activities into the equation.

I think it’s important for parents to realize that being an underachiever gives your child a sense of control and power, because then he doesn't have to worry about the anxiety of failure or meeting challenging responsibilities. He doesn't have to compete with other kids. He doesn't have to deal with people's expectations. In fact, a large part of underachieving has to do with managing other people's expectations. That’s because once you start to achieve, people expect more of you. Kids feel this quite powerfully and they don't have much defense against it. So you'll often see that when people start expecting more of these kids, they fall apart.

Related: The three roles every parent needs to play in order to be effective.

For me, it's not about who's to blame; it's about who's going to take responsibility. A kid who's an underachiever is motivated to do less—or to do nothing—because it gives him a sense of power and it gets him out of the stress of having to meet responsibilities. Your job as a parent is to help him by coaching him to meet those responsibilities in spite of his anxiety, fear or apathy.

In Part II of our series on Underachievers, James will talk specifically about ways you can motivate your child in school. Stay tuned to learn how you can get your underachieving child on track for the school year—no matter what his or her issue is.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Good Day. I AGREE with Dr James Lehman it is true what he said in the article. We must give our children structure, dead lines, and coach them to meet those responsibilities in spite of their anxiety, fear or apathy other wise they will never learn to cope or to make the right decision when they are grown up. I must say THANK YOU Dr Lehman for all the guidance it has helped me a lot so far. I have one 15 year old Daughter, one 11 year old daughter and one 5 year old son and it was war in my house and they just didn't care less about my husband or me. I must say I have been following Dr Lehman's advise as from the first parent letter he send me via e-mail (the empowering parents letter) and it is working in my house. Thank You Dr Lehman you have a gift from GOD and HE blesses you.

Comment By : Corrie

Thank you so my much for this advice,my grandson who my husband and are raising,is 15 and famous words,I DON"T CARE!!! We are going to follow this advice and I will let you know how things work out.Thank You Again. Mary

Comment By : MaryJ

In part two, I would be interested in any ideas James would have regarding keeping home schooled children on track and motivated with their school work.

Comment By : Dawna

"I don't care" is my son's slogan for the last 4 years. Thank you for the solid piece of advice! I am looking forward to Part II of this article.

Comment By : SYN (Ohio)

I like this article, but would love to hear advice in the second part about a child who SAYS he cares but then shows no real effort in school, hurries through work as fast as possible, cuts corners in studying, etc. "Gifted" but won't work ... so underachieves...that's our problem. He's going to HS this year and I think the shortcuts are REALLY going to catch up with him. We take the distractions away and he says he's done his homework, but it's mediocre at best. No teacher feels that he's working to his potential. Any advice, James?

Comment By : jayneb

WOW jayneb -- your son and mine sound like the same person! It is really tough when your gifted child will do only the minimal amount to squeak by. Our son is also ODD which makes life even more challenging and stressful. Only the fear of summer school convinced my son to crank it up at the end of the year and barely pass 9th grade. I'm bracing myself for 10th grade, and we too could use some advice and guidance. Looking forward to Part II.

Comment By : Supermom

I like what you are saying, but I am on the other end of the stick...I'm a school teacher. I am not in a position to take away the goodies. Any motivational suggestions from a teacher's view point? I deal with 135 teens/day...most of them are unmotivated. Thanks

Comment By : Sue B

Another common comment is "It's fine..." when it (homework, room etal) is half done if not at all....good points to incorporate into the mix...

Comment By : honeybell

The only thing wrong with this article is that I have to wait too long for Part 2! Thank you again for giving good, solid advice that I think will help me make a difference with my brilliant but underachieving 15-year-old daughter. I'm making my hubby read it too.

Comment By : Eeyorefan

I have completed the The Total Transformation course and I don't know where I would be emotionally if I didn't have the sound advice it gives us! However, my 13 year old son has been playing way too many hours each day on video games. My ex-husband first allowed it, then I found myself allowing him to play extreme amounts of time for different reasons. I cave in on rainy days especially but my son does not have a neighborhood full of boys to hang out with (in a constructive way)as most of the boys are bad news, my son doesn't like sports but I am making him join one mo matter what this upcoming school year. He seems to only have one good friend he likes to hang out with, and when he does, they swim, go to the beach, etc. but this is on a limited basis. My son does not seem depressed but he does have the "I don't care" disease. I am divorced and remarried but all parties are civil and my new husband truly is terrific with my children. Their biological father is a great provider and very consistent in their lives, but does not parent at all. He doesn't put limits on anything (allows R rated movies, no set bedtime, eats whatever they want, etc.). My 13 yr. old is the only one I'm experiencing issues with as my 10 year old daughter is on track for the most part and I'm thrilled with her behavior and mindset 95% of the time. My question is, can you give me some ideas on how to break my son free of the video games before school starts? Whenever I encourage him to shut them off he just shouts at me that there's nothing to do "in this boring house" and he has no one to hang out with. We have an inground pool, 2 dogs, 2 birds and 2 hamsters.. so much for being boring! I wish I grew up in this house! LOL He also resists anything I ask him to join to make new friends.. call me a loving, but frustrated Mom!

Comment By : frustrated mom

Again, James Lehman has sent me just what I needed to hear at the right time. I've been practicing parental this coaching with my 24 year old 'kid' - the the results are amazing!

Comment By : Mom

Re; Comment by : jayneb - My 14 year old son is exactly like this - Please send me the advise you sent Jayneb. I like this article, but would love to hear advice in the second part about a child who SAYS he cares but then shows no real effort in school, hurries through work as fast as possible, cuts corners in studying, etc. "Gifted" but won't work ... so underachieves...that's our problem. He's going to HS this year and I think the shortcuts are REALLY going to catch up with him. We take the distractions away and he says he's done his homework, but it's mediocre at best. No teacher feels that he's working to his potential. Any advice, James? Kurt H

Comment By : Kurt H

I have a problem similar to that of "frustrated mom." My 15-year-old son has been diagnosed with ADHD and ODD and it is very difficult to get him past this "I don't care" syndrome. Then my problem gets worse. His mother and I have a terrible problem presenting a united front for thefollowing resons: 1. We are extremes apart. 2. It is my feeling she suffers from ADHD and ODD as well. (I will make no claims as to my normalcy). She and her siblings can work from 5 am to 1 am to the point of exhaustion and then blame others for the condition they're in. 3. Consequently, she has little respect for me or others and my son is exactly that way as well. 4. She cannot stop yelling or making demands like dictator Fidel Castro. Don't get me wrong, she's often right when she makes demands regarding TV or video games, but due to her extremism, there is no middle ground to negotiate with my son. 5. She is not a reasonable person, she is inflexible. She will often say "I don't care" as well. Oh, it sounds like we need counseling? She doesn't think she needs it. If she ever went, she would only use it to make us look like ogres. Do I need counseling? Been there, done that--bottom line--I'm advised to walk away and turn a deaf ear, by more than one therapist. Due to hyperactivity, her demands on others are endless, and she creates a situation where our energy is drained by her ODD. We cannot go backwards nor forwards. And she never accepts blame for anything. Our daughter, who is very normal, says no one would believe what we go through with her and her brother. It is hard enough to deal with one person to motivate them in a positive direction. Any ideas on how I can do it with two? Help, I'm drowning...

Comment By : charlie

* Dear Charlie: Parenting is a tough job. It’s not unusual for couples to have conflicts over each other’s parenting techniques. It can take real skills to work through your differences. There are also times when parents try to work out their own issues as a couple by disagreeing over parenting. If you find that a large part of your parenting difficulties involve you disagreeing as a couple, please take a moment to look at The US Factor, written by psychologist, Dr. Joseph Melnick. This comprehensive couples program has a DVD devoted to parenting challenges, entitled You, Me and the Kids. James Lehman, MSW will also soon be addressing this problem in Empowering Parents. And since we’ve heard from so many people on this topic, he will also be introducing a program for parents in the weeks ahead to help them get on the same page when it comes to their kids. So please stay tuned—I believe you will find some answers to your questions shortly in EP.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear Kurt H: I'm glad you asked this question -- many parents call into the Support Line this time of year with issues just like yours. When children are not achieving their potential in school, it is important to rule out any physical or neurological causes for underachievement, such as ADHD, eye or ear problems. It is great that you are helping your son find a study time free from distraction. It can help to foster an environment for learning in your home if everyone in the house is quiet and reading during study time -— rather than having the TV or radio going in different rooms. There are some articles on this website about setting up a homework structure with your son that might help you make the most of study time. Be mindful as well of the parenting style that James Lehman refers to as the "Perfectionist". The Perfectionist parent sets very high expectations that their child can never achieve. This causes the child to just give up because it feels like they’ll never win their parent’s approval. This sometimes happens with kids who have been labeled as "gifted". Instead, notice your child’s efforts more than the results of his studies. Make sure that you are using encouraging statements and not putting a lot of negative pressure on your child to perform up to an expectation. When you emphasize effort you are focusing on what the child is doing and not the just the paper he is going to turn in. That effort is the motivation that you’re trying to nurture. Look for and make encouraging remarks on efforts such as: getting organized, starting on time, and staying on task. Remember, you can always call the trained specialists on the Support Line for more individualized help. Good luck and keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Great article!! Cannot wait for part two. We are dealing with two under-achieving teens. Our son who is 16 and our daughter who is 14. Since implementing The Total Transformation we have gotten alot of resistance from our 14 year old. Which, by the way, really opened my eyes to how much she's been flying under the radar. We have been so focused on our son that our daughter's behavior was incedental and we never gave it or her much attention. Our son would curse us out at the smallest request, punch holes in the doors, get physically violent..etc. My daughter, I'm realizing now, basically ignored us and we felt well at least she's not telling us to go f ourselves and punching holes in the walls. But now we are working with her and she's resistant. She is gifted and does the minimal amount of schoolwork to get by. This is affecting her grades. She has to find a job after the holidays. She quit soccer because she said it was getting to competitive on the high school level. I believe she has a valid point but she refuses to join any club at school or any other activities. She just wants to "hang out" with her friend. She only has one friend and I find this friend to be very suffocating. Her group of friends from middle school have all magically disappeared. They were very nice girls. So I really am looking forward and am in need of part II.

Comment By : annemarie716

Hello to all of you, I think this is a good article, and its always good to read other people going through the same thing in one way or another. Our son has ADD and he is 16 years old in Jr HS. We tried two medications did not work for him so he did not want to take anything else. We completly understand. Anyway, the pills are not a magical pill for motivation, but to help focus. i wish we have a magical motivation pill. Our son has no motivation for school, he does well in math or chemistry but refuses to do any work in other areas. What ever he does not like, he wont do and if he does, it will be very minimal. We know he can do well, if he just try. Believe me, we lower our expectation several years ago, we just do not want to see Ds or Fs on his grade that is all we ask (is that too much to ask?). We started to see a psychologist and only in the first two sessions, he advises us just us to meet with him directly, because he will give us guidance how he can help us as parent deal with him and to make sure my husband and I are the same page. he asked our son if he wanted to see him, but he said no, so if he does not want to see a psychologist we cannot make him. i think one of the first thing the Dr recommends to us is to back up and let him experience his own consequences. That does not mean to give up on him, but let him be and let him fail if he choose not to do what he suppose to. tough love but he needs to learn the hard way and it is hard especially for me as a mother, but i think that make sense and i will do that. our son wants to pursue Culinary, but we are not sure that he can be ready in a year to go to a Culinary School if he is not showing us now that he can do it. Culinary is expensive and he knows that if he really wants to study Culinary, he will need to work and most likely get a loan. Our son does not want a loan on his shoulder, but if he really wants to pursue that he might not have other choice. My husband will not put any money until he knows he prove that he can do it in HS first. He only have a little over a year to show us any difference. our son is a good boy overall, though lack of motivation for school. he likes to play xbox, hang out with his two buddies at their homes or ours, watch tv and that is it. he does not play sports, he is not in any clubs at school, neither work. we keep asking him to find a pt job in restaurant that way it will help to get some experience in the field he wants to pursue, but he does not want to or he shy to go and ask for a job. he has done caddie in the past, but he does not like to wake up early for the draw...and when he has caddie in the past he has gamble his money in Poker at the caddie shop while wait for his turn to caddie...though he is good playing poker by the way. he made some easy money that way. we feel our son does not connect the dots why is important to do well in school, he is not mature at all, sometimes he acts like 11 or 12 years old. its kind of scary since in a little over a year he will be 18. we defenetively, do not want our son to sit in our couch eating doritos, and watching tv next June 2011. he will need to have a plan what he is going to do, because my husband does not want him here unless he is going fulltime in school and pt job. our son knows that but i do not think he can see that far away...he barely can see what is going on next day, so a year i think is an eternety. well this is long letter. we hope we get some feed back from anyone out there and thank you for your advise. ps. i would say something good though, our son has gone couple of times to Catholic Mission Trips that he has enjoy too. he will go another one in June of this year. He is looking forward. Trust me i will sign him for anything like that...though these Mission trips can be expensive for our family too..ouch!

Comment By : sad/frust mom

hi jayneb i also have same problem, my elder son is gifted, but lazy, a little bit of hard work and i know he can achieve anything, but how to motivate? is the big Q

Comment By : takeshi

My son has recently showing bad results but his friends are having good marks ,teachers say he is not involved ingirls also ,he down want to put labour wants to kill time so that the day passes I done know why he shirks his repsonsibility, when try to talk to him he will remain mum what to do

Comment By : neha

Sitting here looking at all the comments from so many people who have been the same road as ourselves, its comforting in a way but also sad, We bought the total transformation program a few years ago to try to help our son who is adhd and odd, I dont know what happened, we were not consistent with it with him etc. Anyway to shorten it, we ended up sending him to Teen Challenge as he along with his other problems he started doing drugs, drinking, smoking etc, he just turned 15 there at the ranch and we are extremely sad.I have come to believe the drugs we gave him for his adhd being narcotics themselves are what helped lead him to this behavior, our second oldest daughter, also same diagnosis, did pretty much the same thing, we have two children who are not adhd add and this was very hard on them growing up here, shouting matches, the two mentioned cussing all the time at us, the son punching holes in walls and a couple of times pushing me and trying to choke me though he denies it now. He will be home for a visit this summer and we are very worried about how to handle him, he is doing better, and very sorry for the way he treated us, but we are listening to the total transformation again, and thinking at least of how we can implement it. I should mention my husband found out he was adhd shortly after my son, that was hard but it did point out why we have not been on the same page parentally, he is was usually focused on his problems what was going on in his life with work and adding in problems with the kids was too much for him, he personalized it, saying things like, why is he doing this to me etc. I explained to him that it or this is not about him it is about solving the problem etc but he did not seem to get that. So knowledge is good it does help in coping. I thank you to Dr Lehman, and his wife and staff, as i know he is not with us now for your program, maybe you should have a program in transforming the parents first lol

Comment By : Tina

My son will soon be 17 and is been having trouble in school by skipping classes to the the point that the school has given him the final warning: he will be expelled if he misses one more class. He once told me that he couldn't get himself to the classes as he couldn't see any immedidate results of attending classes. It sounds like to me that he is lack of any motivation to doing anything. I have tried differet consequences, giving awards or taking away privileges, but nothing works. The saddest thing is he is more than capable of being an 'A' student but he decided to throw away his future. I've been thinking the problem is from his friends, who are behaving exactly like him. However, I know I can't critize his friends nor physically stop him from going out with them. I have lowered my expectation from him to almost nothing but just to graduate highschool with a diaploma. I'm at my witts end and not sure what else I can do.

Comment By : Maggie

* To Maggie: It sounds like you are really uncomfortable with the choices your son is making, especially considering how much potential he has. It would be helpful to sit down and ask him, “What is your reason for skipping your classes?” Whatever his reason, calmly challenge it. For example, “Just because you see no immediate benefits does not mean it’s okay to cut class. You are still responsible for going to your classes whether you think they are helpful or not.” Talk to your son about what he can do differently to follow the school rules about attendance. For example, when he feels the urge to skip class, he could talk to the guidance counselor for 10 minutes instead about what’s going on for him. We also recommend that you utilize one of your son’s privileges to motivate him to follow through. What this means is his use of that privilege depends on whether he went to all his classes today. For example, he loses the computer if he skips any classes, but if he goes to all his classes he can use the computer for the evening. Take it day by day with the consequence. If you focus on teaching him what to do differently and you hold him accountable at home, that is the best you can do. There may be natural consequences and you may not be able to stop those from happening. Just remember it is your responsibility to guide your son in the right direction, but he is responsible for making good choices and taking your direction. Just know that you are doing your job as a parent and his behavior is not a reflection on you or the job you are doing. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I don't care gives "Children" the control on things, if they show they care about something alot (going places, watching movies, etc...) then that gives the parent or guardian the ability to take those away if they merely mess up with things such as grades, or attitude. Sometimes its not the child, its you.

Comment By : Chuck Jones

Our son puts in a lot of effort to study, but when it comes to writing in the answer sheet, he almost always submits an almost blank sheet back. He is says he is too lazy to complete the answer sheet and sits idle during the exam time. His long answers and essays are never written, though he knows it all. His grades are dropping terribly and he is so not interested in studies. Please help. He is 14 years old and has real potential to do well with good memory and scores above average on intelligence tests.

Comment By : Anon

* Hi Anon: It sounds really frustrating to watch your son put in the time to study, and then not submit any answers on his exams. What we recommend you do is to talk with him when he gets his next test back, and ask “What did you learn from this? What are you going to do differently next time?” Once you have determined where the issue is, you can help him to solve the problem. You can also hold him accountable for his school performance by offering an incentive for him to do well on his tests. James Lehman talks about giving his son some money when he earned A’s and B’s on his tests; you may want to consider a similar reward system. I am attaching the next article in the series for you to review: Motivating Underachievers II: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts. Good luck to you and your son as you work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

My son is at a great school with very gifted kids. He is there on merit but seems scared to take the bull by the horns. He rushes homework and tends to do the minimum. He has no real motivation and wants PS3 all of the time (which he doesn't get). We can't seem to make him realise that he has got to work hard to achieve. How do I get through to him?

Comment By : Richard

* Hi Richard. It’s so challenging when you see your child not working or living up to his full potential. It sounds like your son is getting his work done but you would like to see him spend a little more time on his studies each day—that we can help you with. You also want him to see the value of hard work, which is something that will come over time through role-modeling, accountability, and maturity. At this point you can’t make your son want to work hard in school but you can hold him accountable for putting a bit more effort in. What you might do is establish a daily study time. What this entails is requiring him to spend a certain amount of time on his academics each day, whether he has homework or not. For example, he would have to spend one hour at the table working. He could do homework, re-read the material, make flash cards, work on a paper, or study for a test. He has to fill that hour with school-related activity and after that hour is complete he can have some free time, such as time to play his PS3 or watch a favorite TV show. If he doesn’t put in the full hour, he doesn’t get those privileges until he completes his time. This is a great way to motivate your son to put a little more effort in and he can “get paid” in some play time for his hard work. We wish you both luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

My grandaughter is 12 and hasn't done well in school for about 3 yrs. now. My daughter is at her wits end due to her daughters lack of interest and motivation. If she does do homework, she doesn't turn it in. Does poorly on test because she doesn't do her homework or in class work. We've tried talking to her but she clams up and just won't open up. My daughter has taking things out of her room, grounded her, taken away computer, etc...but it doesn't seem to make a difference. My grandaughter isn't what I would call a social butterfly so she only has a few friends. So we know its not bad friend choice. Her and her mom butt heads constantly. I know she's very jealous but protective, of her younger sister so I have a feeling thats part of the problem but I would just like her to open up and let us help her. She doesn't seem to be depressed or anything she just really doesn't like school. We've talked about bullying with her and she did say no that no ones bothering her. I don't know I guess I read this article in hopes to find a way to get her to open up. It is a very informative article and have sent it to my daughter hoping she can find some answers.

Comment By : breezy

My son is starting high school and I'm really hoping for a smooth year but he's already saying "I don't care" and it really frustrates me. He's very capable of doing very well in school but he only does exactly what he has to to get by.....deep breath! I want him to work to his full potential and I'm just not looking forward to the nightly battles of homework and studying! I want him to be responsible and me failure is not an option.

Comment By : momofateen

Thanks so much for this article. My husband and I are pulling our hair out with our 15 yr old who has stayed in her room almost all summer except to go to summer school. She is withdrawing and hiding from the world. She is a top athlete on one of the school teams and does not want to do it this year. This article is full of great advice and just what we need to handle this situation. Thanks so much.

Comment By : threedogmom

I am a school teacher - I love your article. I have a parent teacher interview and I am going to suggest that the parent read your articles. I think that every teacher that has disengaged students should read this article and share with parents.

Comment By : Happy teacher

I know this might sound strange, and I hope I get a notification email of author replies- but I stumbled onto this website, I don't have any children, but still finding it really helpful. Why? Because even though I disagree with many things here, you can find some gems, or what works for you, in regards to adult teenagers in your life. Reading this is really helpful dealing with a BPD male I live with. He uses withholding conversation as a method of control, and has teenage like argument tactics, so this is really opening my eyes and helping me. I let him do that so easily. I can see where I have lost my control and let him play me with those withholding techniques. I’m learning a lot here thank you. He also says "I don't care" as way to shut down conversation, or simply swear at me or talk over me, so that he always has the last say on any matter. I really need to keep learning, as my reaction is just feeding this childishness, as I get sad, yell back or ignore back. I just am so clueless with how to reason with someone like that.

Comment By : Mrs Peter Pan

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