Help! My preteen is super lazy and unmotivated!

Reader writes:

How do you motivate a “lazy” tween? One who shortcuts and half assess everything, even if you hover and will lie his butt off to get out of whatever it is you want from him?

My son is 11/6th grade. His chore is to wash dishes every other day. They are still gross OR extremely soapy because they’re done in 5 mins then cries when he has to re-do them as if he doesn’t expect it by now. The other days it’s his room or folding laundry and I literally have to hover to be sure he takes each step towards completion. Won’t turn things right side in, won’t put clothes in the right drawers, won’t pick up the small garbage that can’t get vacuumed, etc. We have laid out the steps, written then down over the past 4 years but he still doesn’t try to aim at a job well done. He doesn’t aim to please as most kids do before they become teens. He is also not turning in homework because it takes too long to do it yet passes tests with average grades (he’s not bored. He just doesn’t want to put any effort in.) He turned down multiple opportunities to go out to activities this summer but refused, because he didn’t feel like leaving the house (though he’s not allowed 24hr tv/electronic access either just a handful of hours during summer based on earning through chores & behavior, & he’ll draw, read, or pout like a 2yo.) He will go outside on his own daily, and play with his siblings, but not for more than ten mins at a time because he doesn’t want to move anymore and would rather go sit somewhere. He’s completely healthy says his pediatrician and he’s not gaining weight or anything from lounging all the time and it’s not ADD/ADHD. He also plays the blame game. No accountability, everything is someone else’s fault.


Dear Awesome Type A Person Parenting Equally-As Awesome, But Just Different, Type C person,

Simple.  Your son has ADHD, and medication will make him start scrubbing those pots like Martha Stewart and playing enthusiastically with his siblings for hours-on-end.

And in other news, I have a unicorn for a pet and three boys who always wash their hands after they pee without ever lying to avoid my disapproving, “Are you kidding me?  I should not have to remind you to wash your hands every damn time.”

Okay, let’s get serious.  In reality, as you already know, your son’s motivation issue is likely not as cut and dry as an ADHD diagnosis.  In fact I’d buy one of two scenarios:

1) He does have a mild/moderate inattentive-type ADHD (careless, head in the clouds, bypasses details, not really “checked-in”), but the ADHD stuff really doesn’t curb his motivation/desire to please and ability to attend to details as much as his sensitivity to inadequacy does.

2) He doesn’t have any type of ADHD at all, but is definitely showing signs of depression (avoidance and passive-aggressive behaviors to manage sensitivity to inadequacy and associated anhedonia and avolition.) due to genetic and environmental factors.  Kids who feel inadequate play the blame game and lie to protect their fragile egos.  These behaviors are pretty consistent with depressed boys.

But. Before I get side-tracked, I want to take a minute to get on the same page with your ultimate goal for your son.  It’s to ensure his happiness and success in life, right? If you were in therapy, I would ask you the following multiple choice question:

Choose the response that most-accurately captures your intention IN-THE-MOMENT when you are correcting your son’s half-assed chore completion:

a)  To quell my fear that my son will never learn necessary life skills to function as an adult.  I am really coming from a place of worry and concern.

b)  To motivate him to clean the damn dishes because clean dishes are SO important.  I am really coming from a place of maintaining control and order.

c) To demonstrate anger that he could be so unhelpful and lazy when I do so much for him and the household.  I am really coming from a place of being hurt and angry.

Self-awareness is a bitch, but an important bitch.

Now, before I dissect these answers, I would like to shed some light on other-awareness, namely awareness of what it is like to be your son.

Whether or not he is currently depressed, your son was likely born with what the kids these days call a “chill” temperament. The list of things that he holds as near and dear values is probably short and very rational:  For example, Showering is only necessary if I smell, and I really don’t get the logic of making a bed or putting clothes in drawers.  While your list of “values” or “shoulds” is a little more rigid:  For example, Pants go in this drawer, and shirts go in this drawer, and he should want to play with his siblings for more than ten minutes, and he SHOULD want to please his mother by doing chores and homework like all teenagers obviously do (Heehee. Just had to add that little good-natured jab.  My husband says my language of love is playful teasing, so there you go.)

Having a chill temperament is not bad in and of itself.  People with chill temperaments tend to be less rigid, more easy-going, and generally more content given the right environment. They can also be quite successful, believe it or not. (Guess who ALSO didn’t give a shit about vacuuming the corners of the room, doing anything to her reasonable-but-perceived-as-nit-picky mother’s specifications, or putting any effort into homework and enjoyed staring at the wall and keeping to herself more than frolicking with siblings and friends? Yours truly. I’m forever grateful my mother embraced my love of reading psychology books in my pig-sty of a closet with a flashlight at a tender age.)

And here’s the important thing:  A chill temperament does not change.  The only two things that will motivate your son throughout his life are either a legitimate interest in that activity (intrinsic motivation) or a legitimate rational need to engage in the behavior (avoiding punishment or negative consequence, avoiding illness or harm, etc. Extrinsic motivation.).  He is simply not internally motivated by behaviors that he considers to be arbitrary or unfulfilling.  Which is not a problem in and of itself.

This can be a HUGE problem psychologically,  however, if that chill person is in an environment where the authority or accepted culture does not accept that as a valid/acceptable personality.  Feelings of inadequacy and depression set in for low-key boys with type-A moms with just as much frequency as it occurs with easy-going men and their type-A wives. (Male/femle brain differences at play?)

And then do you know what these boys often do to manage their feelings of inadequacy and depression?  They start out with passive-aggressive maneuvers and subtle anger, and then slowly move into complete shut-down/avoidance, acting-out, substance abuse, etc., and eventually fail in relationships due to their unhealthy coping strategies and unavoidable attraction to high-achieving/critical women who perpetuate the cycle of inadequacy.  (Does #Justsayin” apply here?) YOUR legitimate feelings about your son, reflected in your verbals and non-verbals as you offer guidance/consequences/instructions, matter A LOT.  YOU have a LOT of power over his emotional, relationship, and general well-being. PLEASE READ THIS.

To be EXTREMELY CLEAR:  Your son’s carelessness concerns me this much (positions thumb and forefinger about a centimeter apart), but your son’s sense of inadequacy surrounding the mismatch in his temperament versus yours concerns me this much (extends arms as wide as they can possibly reach).    Sure, I could  write out all kinds of ways to extrinsically motivate your kid to clean and behave according to your expectations, but that would only be programming a robot, not preparing him emotionally and skill-wise for life.

Rather, I would suggest that you practice the following behaviors and mindsets depending on how you answered the above multiple-choice question:

If you answered “a”:  Remind yourself that healthy self esteem is correlated with better relationships, increased willingness to try, and overall happiness (even if it doesn’t predict academic success).  Conscienscousness (your most-valued trait) predicts better job and academic performance, but let me repeat:  SELF ESTEEM PREDICTS HAPPINESS AND LOVING RELATIONSHIPS.  I have had dozens of “your-son”s in therapy over the years. The ones who feel confident find a passion and become entrepreneurs and professional martial arts instructors, and plug along professionally at their own paces; Then they marry someone who loves and accepts them for them.  The ones who feel inadequate develop depression, fail out of school, and marry overbearing and emasculating women.

If you answered “b”: Practice mindfully observing your need for order/perfection, practice self-soothing and reigning in catastrophic thinking, and ask yourself if the garbage on the floor is worth making your son feel like an idiot.  This clear-headed, calm approach will inform the delivery of any reminders and/or punishments as well as eliminate the subtle non-verbals that make your son know loud and clear that mom does think he’s an idiot.  Of course there are some behaviors that you will need to correct, redirect, teach, and matter-of-factly punish, but I am simply suggesting that you carefully decide if the issue is actually important.  It’s the age-old parental admonition to “pick your battles.”

If you answered “c”:  Explore your historical experiences with not being considered (any abuse? neglect?  abandonment? being overlooked?) in therapy, and try to separate those experiences from your triggered emotion when your son drops the ball.  Accept that demons from the past  have nothing to do with the situation with your son.  Then accept your son for his unique mindset and values and that he CANNOT and SHOULD NOT be responsible for meeting your needs for consideration.  (This will go over big with him when it comes time for him to chose a wife.)  You may need to work on your own relationship in couples therapy in order for your partnet to meet that need more sufficiently to alleviate the burden on your son.  Also, kids who know they are relied-on to meet their parents’ emotional needs sometimes have a tiny bit of subconscious resentment, which makes them LESS likely to comply.

And no matter what your answer, please try to radically accept the way your son is wired, practice positive reframing and gratitude for what you appreciate about your son when you begin to mindfully notice your frustration with him, and slightly alter your expectations to become more “chill”/rationally-motivated rather than motivated by order and “shoulds.”

Mom wants clothes put away; Boy doesn't see the point. Non-wrinkled clothes are a decent goal, but learning mutual respect and constructive compromise with a woman is a fucking rockstar goal.

Mom wants clothes put away; Boy doesn’t see the point. Non-wrinkled clothes are a decent goal, but learning mutual respect and constructive compromise with a woman is a fucking rockstar goal.

Wanna know what a pretty decent life skill is?  Knowing how to wash all the soap off the dishes.

Wanna know what a FUCKING ROCKSTAR life skill is?  Knowing how to forge a relationship that is founded on mutual respect, comfortable communication, acceptance of the other’s unique mindset, practiced empathy, humility, and direct requests in lieu of criticism. And all of this is the goal EVEN within an authority-child relationship where sometimes consequences are used as extrinsic motivation.

So, type A mom Parenting Type C Kid, certainly read this book and apply limits and consequences to ensure that your son completes necessary chores/beneficial behaviors effectively.  BUT, as you go about choosing your battles, just remember, in this whole blog post, I did not include even one single behavioral intervention strategy, but did include 1800 words and an all-caps book link on the fragility of your son’s emotional-well-being and YOUR power to influence it.  Because not one job interviewer will ask to see a photo of your son’s room when he ws eleven, but every relationship he will ever have, even the one with himself, will thrive only if he knows Mom thinks he’s fucking great. Even during the times that she wants the lasagna pan to be cleaner.

P.S. Family counseling for you and your son would be great. (Did you think I wouldn’t say that? )  That therapist could get a feel for your son and decide whether or not individual therapy to address possible depression is indicated.   Good family therapy  could make the difference between him being in a relationship that communicates like this some day and him being in a relationship that communicates like this someday.


As usual, find more good stuff on kids, relationships, and psychology at OTYC on Facebook.



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