“I just took her phone and walked out after being informed she handed in assignments with the answer NO to every question! She has been crying for the last hour. Her teacher said I can reserve a spot in summer school for her. I told them my daughter is lazy and she’s the only one responsible for her failures. Putting NO on ALL responses is pure laziness. I never had to hand-hold my older two; one who graduated with honors and another is a straight A student in college classes.”

My heart felt so heavy I cried.

Last week I reached my limit reading posts like the one above (edited for anonymity). I respond to as many as I can, but I feel like I’m yelling into a vacuum and parents aren’t willing to hear or understand the real issue. If your teen is struggling with online school, maybe even failing, please read every word (or at least pass this to a parent who’s in this situation).

This isn’t a motivation issue.

It never has been. Continuing to try and motivate your teen or punish/consequence them to care because they’re ‘just not trying hard enough’ isn’t the answer. That’s only making it worse. Much worse.

I’ll say it one more time for the people in the back – it’s scientifically proven you CAN NOT motivate your teen through a consequence or shaming punishment. Your teen is drowning in their own expectations and constantly telling them they’re failing yours is sinking them.

Have you ever been a teenager in a pandemic?

Were you ever grounded for a year, have most of your social connection removed and your learning style ignored? If your teen didn’t already choose home or online schooling and was attending school in-person, what makes you think this pandemic education situation is going to work for them?

Comparing your teen to siblings who didn’t go through this age/stage in a pandemic is critical and contemptuous, both of which are toxic.

Your teen cares, trust me.

Your teen went in thinking they could manage. The wheels fell off after ‘trying their best’ no longer worked and they were too afraid to ask for help. They have their own set of internal expectations they’ve blown through and don’t have the coping skills to deal with being such a failure by their own measure, let alone yours.

Add to this a reduction in healthy and necessary social contact and you have a recipe for situational depression, anxiety, and apathy. Wait, what? Apathy is a choice not to care, not a serious mental health challenge.

Apathy is a coping strategy.

Do you know how devasting it feels to try your best and fail, even though every other time it worked just fine? Your teen’s self-esteem has hit rock bottom and they play the only card they have left.

Trying and failing is painful. Too painful. Putting on a front of not caring (apathy) and failing buffers the sting. Apathy disguises their pain and shields them from more.

Think of it as a life jacket.

Your teen is adrift, alone and cold, in a huge ocean of despair. That apathy life jacket is wrapped around their waterlogged body with just enough buoyancy to keep their head from going under. It won’t save them, but it won’t let them sink. Not yet.

“Your effort is a reflection of your belief in yourself.” – Aly Pain

The only way for your teen to reconcile their current results (which they hate and feel shame about) is to also believe they ARE a failure. When their internal dialogue matches their external results, things make sense. It’s messed up, and it’s the only way to cope.

What your teen needs most is encouragement, compassion and love.

They need to know you don’t blame them for pandemic schooling (because that would be silly, right?) Your teen needs you to listen to them and advocate for whatever change or support they need; summer school, creating a modified schedule, creating a lighter course load, pausing school, getting a job, setting small daily goals, etc.

Most of all, your teen needs you to let go of ALL of your pre-pandemic academic expectations of them. Remember, your teen’s value isn’t determined by a number or a letter, and some of the most successful people in the world today failed a course, a grade, or even dropped out.

I was that teen.

I’ll never give up on your teen because I know what it was like to be them. Ok, not in a pandemic, but… I went from straight A’s to failing out of school and felt so alone that apathy became my only protection. This is the response I wrote to the post I shared at the beginning.

“She’s not lazy, she’s given up because she has no coping skills to manage being this far past her OWN expectations. I was her. Went from straight A’s to failing out because as high school got harder, I couldn’t cope. I’d never had to really try before and had zero study or learning habits to navigate harder classes. I also didn’t know how to be less than a straight A student. I didn’t like that person so I decided I WAS A FAILURE. Then I set out to prove myself right. Not trying was a strategy to avoid judgement. You see trying and failing was something I couldn’t handle (I grew up in a very critical home) so if I didn’t try and failed, there was less anyone could cut me apart about. Let me be VERY clear, I never stopped caring about my grades, but I was drowning and had no skills or support to get myself out of that hole. My parents kept saying how lazy I was and telling how I was failing their expectations, which only fed my internal story of being a failure more. I needed a reset, for everything to stop and I needed support. I never got that so I limped through to the end of the school year, failing a few classes and a suicide attempt, and took the summer to regroup myself, deciding I NEVER wanted to feel that way again. The next year I got straight A’s again but setting myself up with habits that worked without any outside support or encouragement. There’s more going on for your daughter than you think. Please reconsider your approach 

I shared my story in detail with Maureen Towns on her Broken Open podcast. I hope it helps you understand your teen’s perspective and experience to create a better connection with them.

If this resonates with you, join me and other caring parents in my FREE Facebook community where I’m LIVE every Wednesday at 6:30pmPT answering questions and providing tips and resources.

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Aly Pain

Growing up, I was the smart, fun girl on the outside and a frantic, anxious mess on the inside. I spent years healing the pain of dysfunctional family relationships, including eating disorders and a suicide attempt, to break the cycle raising my own teen boys.

Today, I’ve been happily married to my husband for over 23 years, and we have 2 incredible teen boys. My passion is empowering parents to build healthy, respectful relationships with their teens without giving up or giving up, even if they've tried everything and are at their wits end.

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4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your story. I have really been struggling with my teen. Smart kid but doesn’t apply himself. Again I would use the awful word “lazy” because I couldn’t understand why he would be ok with failing when he was so smart. I never thought of it the way you explained it. Thank you. I am so glad I found your page

  2. Thank you this is helpful. My son displays apathy not in school life, but at home. He is the youngest of 4 boys and I have been struggling with his apathy towards himself, hygiene & connection with everyone. Other members of the family are supercritical of him and his efforts & I know he feels as though he can’t get anything right. How do I change other people’s perspectives on his attitude & effort? That’s he not just doing things (or not doing ing things) to annoy, disappoint snd be disrespectful???

    1. Hi Dale, thanks for your comment. It sounds like focusing building his self esteem is critical, and letting other people know that being super critical isn’t helping. He’s being annoying and disrespectful because he’s hurt and angry. You’d be shocked how people change when they’re treated with compassion and kindness. Here’s a blog I wrote, and a video that might help https://www.alypain.com/10-ways-to-boost-your-teens-confidence/, https://www.instagram.com/p/CRjjenyACeL/

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