Self-Defeating Behaviors: Does Your Child Refuse to Do Homework?

Posted November 4, 2011 by

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Self defeating behaviors. Negative thinking. Procrastination. Self-destructive behaviors. Self-fulfilling prophecies. If you have a child (or children!) with ADHD, anxiety or depression, you have seen these behaviors close up and personal. These children get frustrated and believe they can’t do something — then they won’t do it and voila! “See Mom, I told you I couldn’t do it!” They’ll look at an assignment and see how long it is, or look at a book and flip immediately to the back to see how many pages it is, and without reading it at all, decide they just cannot do it. The sad part is, these children are masters at self-sabotaging.

I do believe in natural consequences. If you forget your lunch, you’ll be hungry. If you don’t take a coat, you’ll be cold. If you do not turn in an assignment you get a zero. Sounds simple, right? WRONG! It sometimes seems that these children don’t believe they’re worth their own efforts.  Raising children with these negative thought patterns is maddening. You would think that if a child doesn’t turn in an assignment and then gets an “F,” they would work harder next time. But not these children! If they don’t do an assignment, their thinking is that they would have failed it anyway, so why bother?!

So, this brings me to the BIG DILEMMA. When you’re sitting with a child who has an assignment due and is making no effort at all, how much do you push? I am on my third go-around with this. Now, let me set the record straight — I never did the work for any of my kids, but I didn’t allow them to give up, either. It was torture for all involved. We spent many tearful, long nights doing assignments. It was almost like forcing them to feel successful, so that when they turned in the assignment and got a grade — any grade other than the “F” or zero — they would feel some sense of accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we did it once and they were so excited that they jumped right into the next assignment with both feet! Oh, no. It was years of pushing — but at some point, it did click. I don’t know if it’s maturity or what, but eventually our kids started tackling assignments without those negative thoughts of failure.

It seems like I was the one who had to believe in them enough for the both of us before they’d believe in themselves. One son balled up papers in his backpack every day. You’d think each night I was asking him to cut off his arms by the way he reacted to being “forced” to sit with me, smooth out the papers and clip them in the appropriate sections. The next day I would ask if certain papers were turned in and point out how much easier it was to open the notebook, and know exactly where the paper was. Still, it took years before the child was able to do this this on his own, with no prompting. But again, one day it just clicked. I never was sure if I was helping or hurting by this torturous method, but after seeing 2 children succeed eventually with no prompting, I knew it was worth it.

Now my step-son is taking his turn, but this is different for some reason, because he doesn’t get to that hump that my boys crossed over each time. So far, he’s consistently resisted any of my efforts to “assist” him. Although he gets upset when he fails, he doesn’t seem to make the connection that he could make changes to help himself succeed and he gets very angry when we try to give suggestions. It’s as if he’s out to prove to us how stupid he is. He won’t ask for help — and if we offer it, he gets angry. He will go into his room “to do school work” and we find him playing.

We spoke with his therapist and asked if we should be backing off and letting him fail, and he actually gave us the same answer I had for my own children. We need to force this child to feel success. The therapist said if he needs to read his assignments aloud, with his dad’s supervision, then that’s what he will have to do. The therapist gave him strategies to help, which he refuses to utilize. He suggested he read all of his directions twice.   He told him to set aside an hour and a half each day for homework. If he doesn’t have enough homework to fill that block of time, he is to reread class notes, or just plain read. He gets home at 3:00 and would have until 4:30 to do this and then have the rest of the evening free.

I am the one at home at this time, and I’d often peek in and find him playing. If I said anything at all, it was met with attitude. He’d say he was finished with his work, yet his school progress reports consistently show missed homework assignments. In order to remove me from the equation as much as possible, due to his resentment of me taking on a mother role he’d prefer his own mother have, he now has to wait until his dad gets home at 6:00 to begin his school work.

We are always willing to try new things and hopefully this new strategy will get him past the negative thinking. The sad part it, it seems he has decided he is worthless and there’s nothing he can do to change it. We are hoping he will eventually feel success and move beyond these feelings of failure. He is a smart kid and there is a nice little boy buried beneath this shell he’s created around himself.


I am a mom of two boys, ages 16 and 22, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. I have remarried and my husband has 2 boys, ages 13 and 16. The 13 year old lives with us, and has some behavioral problems and attachment issues. There is always something happening at our house!

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