By: Dr Justin Coulson

Hi Dr Justin,

My daughter is doing her final year at school and unfortunately she is failing all subjects. I saw her teachers the other day to find out why, how and what we can do … and all the teachers told me the same thing: “She is on Facebook and Instagram.”

As soon as the school finishes, her routine is to go to her room and lock the door. We all know she is on Facebook or similar.

Today, I argued with her and told her that the teacher called yesterday advising me she hadn’t done any homework for the past 2 months. She just told me that was not right and walked away.

I don’t know what to do with her, as I believe I failed to be a good father. She thinks we all don’t love her but this is not the case, I care about her as much as her other siblings. My other daughter wanted an iPhone 5 today. I told her no as I am afraid to see her become like her sister.

If you can assist me or perhaps lead me to the right path, I do appreciate it.

Dr Justin responds:

By the time our teens are in their later school years, our power over them is typically greatly reduced. They are nearly adults. And they often resent our intrusions into their lives. Our attempts at control, or merely persuasion, are met with anger, and sometimes hysteria. Your concerns are reasonable. It’s just that your daughter doesn’t see it that way.

However, research suggests that this approach gets superior results to our typical approach of logic, argument, demands, and control. To a teen, logic is limited. It denies their experience. Argument is an opportunity for assertion and independence. It is counter-productive and only deepens their resolve. Demands are divisive. The more we demand, the more they see us as the enemy who fails to understand. Control creates contention. Forcing a 17 year-old to do something only leads to bitter statements like “You can’t make me!”.

Further, telling your daughter she hasn’t done homework in 2 months will be unhelpful even if she’s done the smallest amount. The argument is not about whether homework has been done. Instead, it’s about good decision-making around study.

A more helpful approach

I’m going to suggest an approach that is counter-intuitive. It is based on high-quality scientific research with adolescents, and it appears to work far better than our usual efforts at controlling our children.

Step One: Acknowledge and Validate Experience

At this point it seems that you’re not certain what is really going on. More importantly, your focus is on getting your daughter to understand you. While you have great motives for her (after all, we all want the best for our kids), she is only hearing you tell her she is not good enough. So step back and look at the world through her eyes. Why is she behaving like this? Why are her grades dropping? Why is social media so compelling? What gap is it filling in her life?

If you can, ask for her permission to chat. Tell her you get that things are really tough right now. Acknowledge that you don’t really ‘get’ what’s going on. Then, rather than lecturing, listen. And if all you get is silence, wait patiently. (Note, these conversations are best held out of ‘the moment’, perhaps on a walk, ride, or drive. Or maybe in a café over a tasty treat.)

Step Two: Understand Needs and Goals

As an extension of the previous step, ask your daughter what she needs. It may be that she feels too challenged by her school work. Relationships may be difficult. Or perhaps she is chafing because she feels controlled. If she has a low distress tolerance or poor emotional regulation, social media and other time online offer easy, temporary relief. By learning whether her needs are (or are not) being met, you can start to work on solutions together.

Additionally, it can be helpful to know what her goals are. As a 17 year-old girl, she may shrug her shoulders and reply “Dunno. Don’t have any.” We can’t set goals for our kids. They won’t buy in to that. But if she has no goals or vision, or perhaps if her goals and vision do not require great high school outcomes, then it is no surprise she isn’t working hard. I suspect, however, that the real issue is like a combination of a lack of goal/vision, and some challenges in her need-fulfilment.

Step Three: Be an Ally

Your daughter currently sees you as her enemy. Your job is to shift that perception so that she sees you as an ally. You do this by understanding, not reprimanding. As she feels safe in her relationship with you, she will begin to develop deeper trust. Ideally, increased trust will lead to influence. But she has to believe that you’re on her side… and right now, she thinks you’re not.

Step Four: Rely on Reasoned Deference

Once your daughter feels safe speaking with you and you have really listened, ask permission to share some ideas. Let her know she is free to follow or to dismiss what you have to say. Then gently explain your concern. Tell her, “My preference is that you consider… (fill in the blanks here)”. Then let her know that you trust her judgment and you’ll leave it up to her.

Research tells us that young children need us to cocoon them. As they get older we offer ‘reasoned cocooning’ which involves explaining “why” we are protecting/cotton-wooling them. As they get older we ‘pre-arm’ them against what they can expect as they get older. Then in their teens we move to ‘reasoned deference’, meaning we explain what we want and “why”, and then defer to them. In other words, we provide them with a clear rationale for what we are asking, and make our preferences and expectations clear. Finally, as young adults we ‘defer’ to them. This means we share our thoughts and simply let it go. Your thoughts might include the need for a routine (that she devises) that will help her achieve some sort of goal.

Step Five: Set Your Daughter Up For Success

If you are fortunate enough to have your daughter make some commitment to routines, goals, or changes in behaviour, do what you can to be helpful. While being careful not to overstep your welcome (and appear controlling), ask her how you can help her achieve what she commits to. The more you can set her up for success with your full support, the greater the chances are that she will experience the success she seeks.

Step Six: Let it Go

Regardless of your daughter’s willingness to go along with you, ultimately this is something that you’ll have to let go of. She should be aware of your expectations (for example, “earning or learning… but not bludging”). But it’s up to her to make things happen. The more you push, the further from you she gets. Remember, too, that your daughter is far more than her ATAR. She can contribute and grow in many directions without having to go to university. Should she decide that she wants to go, there are dozens of alternative pathways to pursue goals and dreams.

The reality is that our children have a seemingly unending amount of energy and capacity to make whatever they want into a power struggle. There are no easy answers, no silver bullets, and there is no Holy Grail. But relationships, perspective, and a willingness to stand up for what you believe in while compassionately listening to your child – and then setting limits together, seem to lead to the best outcomes for most families most of the time.

How do you keep your child focused on study and away from social media?

Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.

About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.