Your underachieving teen isn't unmotivated. Like me, they may just have a hard time doing things they don't want to do

'He just doesn't try in school. His teachers have always said he's bright enough. We've tried everything - punishment, rewards, everything. Nothing seems to work. I see his future falling away from him. I just don't know how to get him motivated."

It's a question I often get from parents: How do I motivate my teen?

Yet for the great majority of teenagers who don't put much effort into their school work, the main challenge isn't motivation. In my experience, teens who appear to be slacking - "Yeah, what's wrong with working at Billions of Burgers?" - usually do want to do well in school.

So what's the problem? I have some personal insight.

My older sister did very well in high school. I have always pictured that when she had two hours of homework to do, she would say, "Damn, I have two hours of homework" - and then she would sit down and do it.

Me, I wanted to do well in school, probably just as much as my older sister. But if I had two hours of homework, I would immediately pick up an issue of Sports Illustrated that I had already read twice and start looking through it.

It was as if my sister and I were from two different planets.

To those from my sister's planet - the realm of doers - my behaviour is incomprehensible: Why doesn't he just do it? Why doesn't he get it done and be free to do fun stuff with nothing hanging over his head? Why not?

To us from that other planet, it is a way of life. As soon as those of my race are faced with something we do not feel like doing, a force of insurmountable power arises in our breasts: "Nooooo. I don't feel like doing it. I really don't feel like doing it. Noooooo!" It is a problem.

My point is that with most teens who appear unmotivated, the problem lies elsewhere. Some have what may be subtle learning difficulties that make school work harder for them than for other students. It saps their confidence - doing school work becomes a constant reminder that it's harder for them than for most others.

Some feel hopeless about their future. It could be the result of true clinical depression, or a perhaps-not-inaccurate perception that the paths to a bright future are not as open to them as to others.

But often they have trouble simply staying with a task that they don't feel like doing. Their bodies resist their brains' instructions to just get the work done. They do not have the same patience as others.

Why are some people like this and some not? There are many factors. A huge diet of fast-twitch video games probably doesn't help. But much of it is inherited temperament. What I am describing sounds a lot like the symptoms of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), but much of it seems to have more to do with simply being a guy. For whatever reason, in my experience teenage guys are far less able than girls to make themselves do homework. Girls get this affliction too, but not to the same extent.

So what can you do to help?

Above all, you want to provide a structure that is conducive to getting work done.

Some basic suggestions:

Have a set time when homework is to be done. During that time, they are not allowed to do anything else. It is far easier to enforce what they cannot do than to make them work.

The time should not be too long.

When the time is up, they are free to do what they want. If they have not completed the work, the mandatory homework time is over nonetheless. If the homework time goes on indefinitely, the whole plan will fail. This is important because if the work seems endless, they will give up. Have them spend this study time in a public space within the house, or with you regularly checking on them.

You do need to be involved. If you rely on them to do it all themselves - to learn from their failures - the only thing that will happen is they will fail.

As time goes on, if you stick with the plan, they will get better at doing their school work.

But don't think their efficiency will ever rival those from that other planet.

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

[source: Toronto Globe and Mail]