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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  1. JessieRoberts Report

    I just wanted to let you know that over time I have read many many articles searching for answers on how to help my daughter. THIS is the one and only article that really showed me the light. Thank you so much for this and I really do wish you the best!!

  2. jane r. Report

    I have a 14yr old son who, most of the time refuses to do his homework and will lie about it repeatidly even when the truth is glaringly obvious. This has been onginng for many years and has sometimes resulted in aggressive outbursts. There was a time when he was being aggresive towards other children in the school. He is otherwise a very sensitive and loving child who adores animals and kindness. He also lies about things such as brushing his teeth or applying cream for his skin condition. He often does’nt seem to care for consequences or his own self worth. I have spoken to him on many occasions about these issues and behaviours, sometimes feeling that he genuinely believes himself in the reassurances he gives me – only to discover more homework not done or other – often small issues hidden or lied about. I am becoming more and more concerned as this just seems to be neverending, causing pain to both of us. Last week he made a fist and was ready to punch me as I was going to confiscate his phone for the evening. He stopped himself and we hugged, but did’nt speak properly about the situation as I should have done. If I try and broach the subject in depth, he will become angry so nothing is being sorted out as it should. As I am writing this I am realising the severity of the behaviour of my child which has been ongoing for years and something I cannot help him with alone.

  3. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    Hi Jacqui: It sounds like you are having a difficult time with your daughter. You have tried to hold her accountable by having her experience natural consequences from the school, only to find little help from the school or the police. We recommend talking with the school about a plan to hold her accountable at the school for being late. In the meantime, what you can do is problem solve with her (as in lessons 3 and 6) about how she can get up and ready for school on time, and hold her accountable for her choice to not get up and go to school in the morning. For example, you may choose to have her earn a privilege by getting up and going to school on time each day. If she is up and at school on time, then she can earn use of a cell phone, or electronics after school that day. If she is not, then she doesn’t earn that privilege that day. Also, if she is not going to school, she should not have access to privileges during school hours. That might mean taking the modem, computer keyboard and cable box with you to work. I am attaching some articles you might find helpful as you continue to work through this: “I Don’t Want to Go to School!” And What You Can Do about It & “My Kid Won’t Get Out of Bed” Stop the Morning Madness Now. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

  4. elder care concord Report

    I really hope that you will find a way to help him! It’s hard not to feel discouraged when we try many different ways without seeing any positive change!
    I am sure you will figure out how to improve this situation, they usually change their attitude when they get older…

  5. Jacqui Report

    I have been listening to the Total Transformation for a month now. I have listened to the CD’s Multiple times.
    My daughter Gabriella is 13 with ADHD.
    She refuses to get up in the morning and now refuses to go to school unless I take her late!!!
    Well I won’t, I have to work. And there aren’t any consequences from school. She was late everyday in the month of October and in November last week was the first week she was on time. I started to think this is working until this week. we took her off Seroquel and she thinks she needs it to sleep. So now for the last 2 days she has not gotten to school on time. Yesterday she got there at 11:30am. And today I am at work. When I call home she hangs up on me. I have called the police to see if a Truant Officer can go to my house. No. I called the school to see if the school police officer could go to the house NO!! My husband will not go either and I refuse cause it is not teaching her anything. When I take her to school when she is late. I am loosing my mind and do not know what to do!!!! HELP

  6. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    To gwen: It is easy to see why you might feel frustrated and upset with your son’s behavior. Taking away all of your son’s privileges for an undetermined amount of time is not likely to be effective. Instead, what we recommend when it comes to motivating your son to do his work is to set up a homework time for him, similar to what is mentioned in this post, where during a set time period, he needs to work on his homework, review notes, read or work on a project. We recommend that this is done in a public place in the house, such as the kitchen table. Once he has done his study time for the day, he can earn his Xbox, or his iPod for the day. If he doesn’t do his homework, then he doesn’t earn that privilege that day. If he retaliates against you, we recommend walking away in the moment, then holding him accountable when things are calmer; for example, having him repair scratches he made in the paint. I am attaching some articles I think you might find helpful: End the Nightly Homework Struggle 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids & How to Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

  7. gwen Report

    My son is 12. It’s the worse year we’ve ever had. He doesn’t want to do any work (which we have helped with every year) and he seems to not care if he fails or whatever. All he seems to want to do is hurry up and get on his Xbox or ipod. I took his ipod charger out of the drawer, and he spent over two hours verbally abusing me. At first I gave it back to him, but he said I promised to leave it in the drawer. This morning it was terrible. Same thing, lying about brushing his teeth, not wanting to hear anything and acting out. He will repay us for anything he thinks is against him (like scratching paint off the wall, making marks on freshly painted walls) I just don’t get it. He has adhd, but he has never been this bad. If anybody can offer some help or has had this happening, please let me know. I’m getting stomach problems and I wonder if he is just crazy. He doesn’t seem to understand that he is the kid and we are the parents. He thinks he is our equal. I just don’t know what the best thing is. Do we take his stuff away for a period of time, or just take it away from him, period. Please help.!!

  8. Inner Peace Report

    I am the mother of 2. My son is 9, he wrestles with negative self talk, hypersensitivity and extremely ODD. My daughter is 7, she was born with a sense of inner confidence. My two could not be any more different.

    My daughters confidences is thorn in my son’s side. He is ultra sensitive, his desires are drivin by his sense of what he believes to be “fair”. His focus is myopic, he does not naturally see that his perception of what he believes to be “fair” is so self-serving that is has become self-discructive.

    My daughter is an over achiever she pushes herself. My son lives life on the defense.

    Homework at my home is also a struggle. When I focus my efforts on helping my son achieve confidence I am faced with battles “fairness”.

    In the past I have allowed “natural consequence” when faced with the battle of homework. For my son this is counterproductive to his sense of self worth. For my daughter natural consequences work the first time, lesson learned. My son he has used these consequences as a crutch not to to put forth his best effort. It appears natural confidences fuel his fear of failure.

    He is now in 4th grade, I decided to take a different approach. I spend extra time encouraging him and following up. I mostly ask questions and listen and provide encouragement on the smallest achievements. His confidences has grown. I wish I could say that he has crossed over into the world of the glass half full, however I can say that he is taking baby steps in the right direction. Sometimes he is 2 steps forward, 1 step back, sometimes 2 or 3 steps back.

    My advice to you is to meet him where he is, get down to his level. Ask questions, listen to what his fears are, why, ask questions, learn what his triggers are. Push responsibly through short term consequences. Keep it simple. I laid down the consequences for grounded status and privilege status.

    I dont argue about the rules or the consequences anymore. I keep my conversations with him on how to help him to remain or achieve “Privilege status” This does not work everyday however we start every day on a clean slate. This keeps him from feeling defeated.

    If you havent already listen to the Total Transformation, do. Listen to it over and over and over again. Every time I listen to it I learn something new. With kiddo’s like this you cant give up, give in or fight every battle your invited to. You cant be reactive to their fits or mistakes. I remind myself daily. “He is doing the best he can for what he knows how to do.”

    Most of all you have to remind yourself that you too are doing the best you can do, there is no room for guilt.



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