It’s something we’re hearing more and more often. Our adolescents, asserting their autonomy (which is great) only they’re doing it in such a way that, there’s conflict.

And not just any old conflict – this is conflict that has teens ready to resort to extremes such as: 

  • Running away.
  • Refusing to leave their rooms, or even their beds.
  • Isolation and disconnection from their peers.
  • Disengaging from school and formal learning.
  • Withdrawing from friends, sports and hobbies.
  • Threatening to end their lives.
  • Planning to end their lives.
  • Attempting to end their lives.
  • Taking their lives.

It’s almost tempting to give into their demands, ignore the call of your future self (the one that wants their children living happy and fulfilling lives) and let them stay home!

Yet, we know:

  • Kids who don’t attend school are at higher risk of suicide.
  • Achievement at school leads to a wider range of choices when school is complete.
  • Completing school gives a teenager a sense of accomplishment and a corresponding rise in self-esteem.
  • Spending all day in bed scrolling social media is only going to make a teen feel bad.
  • Our bodies are made to move. They also need sunlight, nourishment, and lots of water.
  • Letting our kids stay home is just empowering them with the habits of withdrawing and avoiding.
  • Becoming an adult who has the skills to fully contribute to society is going to involve doing things we don’t want to do some of the time.
  • Allowing their life to pass by is not doing them any favours – it decreases their pathways to employment, lowers their health and well-being, decreases their resilience, and prevents them from developing life skills. 

What’s Going on Here?

Tweens and teens who are leaning hard on their defiance buttons are doing so because they’ve realised they can. It’s heady. It’s intoxicating. The sense of power is like freedom for them. And they won’t want to give it up easily. 

They’re wrestling for control from us and they’ve realised that going to school is no longer something parents can control. 

Step one: investigate the possibility of anxiety and/or depression

Begin with a check-in – is this anxiety and/or depression? For some teens, a post covid world hasn’t been what they wanted. They liked the security of being at home. It was safe. It was easy. It was comforting. And it’s not something they’d like to give up easily. If this is your rakatahi, the next step is for you to take them to a medical professional and get help. It’s not normal to have a young person voluntarily isolating themselves from the world and parents denying this does them no favours. They may say they’re ok and don’t want to see a Dr or a counselor, however, it’s a parental prerogative to override these protests. If they were ok, they’d be out and about living life.

Ignoring anxiety and depression or hoping they’ll just “go away” does no one any favours. It’s like having a bucket with holes in the bottom. If you don’t take the time to seal the holes, all the good stuff you put into the bucket will simply dribble out. When anxiety or depression are sorted, the good stuff has a much better chance of staying in the bucket.

Step two: It’s time for some self-reflection

In what way are you contributing to the problem? This can take a number of different forms:

  • While taking the ‘easy option’ may make life bearable for a short time, how long are you really prepared to provide room and board to a young person who intends to spend their lives in bed or on the couch? 
  • Do you blame others for the problems your young person is experiencing? If your go to explanation of every problem is to make others wrong and your young person right this takes away any opportunity to support them to solve a problem and step forward with responsibility.
  • Which roadblocks to communication are you using to describe the situation? Judgements use words like lazy, irresponsible, good for nothing. When you constantly say these things about your young person that is what you’ll get. 
  • How firm are your boundaries? It takes a lot of energy to shield a young person from the world. Firm boundaries are about protecting your energy, so if they’re draining you it’s because you’re not saying “No” often enough. 
  • Is it all about control for you? If you have organised your teen with a bunch of ‘shoulds’ – as in “You should be going to soccer, you should be cleaning your room, you should be doing your homework …” you have inadvertently taken away any choice they may like to exercise about the way they organise themselves or run their lives. Frequent use of the word ‘should’ brings a flip side of guilt and a lack of control that activates your teenager’s inner three year old and has them simply responding with “NO.”

Step three: make a plan to move forward

It may be as simple as having a family meeting and setting up some ground rules for how things are going to operate around here. After all, the things you love are worth nourishing and investing in. 

Changing the way school is discussed and viewed in your house may be as simple as talking about assignments as “learning opportunities.” When you check in with your teens about their school work you could ask them, “What problem does this work ask you to solve?” Then follow it up with the question, “What things could you learn about so you can answer that?” When they’ve been working on it for a while, ask your teen “What have you learned that you think you could teach me?” Our teens love it when they know more than we do! Make sure you thank them for the learning too, and then comment about where you might find that new information “good to know,” or helpful. 

Parents can be caught in the trap of ‘I have to make you go to school because it’s the law’ so use this to build a bridge with your teen and put you on the same side of the problem. Brainstorm ways that you can both make school easier. This may include things like asking them how you can be helpful in the mornings, or after school, or with drawing up a timetable. It’s amazing what you think your teens ‘should’ know how to do that they actually can’t do … yet. 

Make sure you include a brainstorm of ‘ways to enjoy school’ and use it to have a bit of fun. The things we enjoy are the things we want to do more often, and since school is a non-negotiable it’s going to be a lot easier if your teens can find ways to enjoy it. Include in this brainstorm imagining how good they will feel when assignments, or parts of them, are completed. 

You may be thinking about changing the way in which you are approaching the problem. Now may be a good time to enlist the help and support of a professional. There are lots of options out there with a variety of levels of support. You can book a complimentary kōrero here and talk through your individual situation. There is never a one-size-fits-all answer but there is always a solution. 

Whatever you choose to do, take some action. This learning challenge is an opportunity for you and your young person to learn and grow together. 

Leaving it does nobody any favours.