A common presenting issue for parents bringing their children to therapy is a concern regarding their level of motivation, energy or general engagement in activities of daily living. “They just want to sleep all day or play video games.” “We barely see him/her, she/ he stays in his/her room all the time and doesn’t go out with friends or spend time with the family”. “We just don’t get it [they] used to get great grades, lately it seems like [they] are not putting any effort in schoolwork and/ or are avoiding extracurricular activities.” “We tried everything and nothing seems to be working”.
These statements are usually accompanied by intake sessions with frustrated parents and shut-down children who answer questions with monosyllabic responses, shrugs, and “I don’t know”. Parents will exclaim their dismay at the child’s general level of disengagement in life activities and “lazy attitude”. Although this can sometimes be the case, most often these behaviors are an external manifestation of an internal difficulty the child is dealing with. This can be low mood, high degrees of self-doubt, poor self-concept, perfectionism, states of overwhelm, social difficulties, fear of disappointing others or a general fear of failure.
In therapy, we try to gather history regarding changes in the child’s functioning, duration of current issues, the relationship between family and friends and the child, general level of functioning, recent internal and external stressors, and what internal and external resources are available to the family and the child and what it’s their ability to effectively utilize these resources.
With this information, the therapist is better able to understand what may be presented as “laziness” and assist the child and parent and redefining the issue and developing a plan to resolve this presenting issue. As previously stated, the underlying issues are unique to each child and family and the solution is to be customized to address the specific needs.
As a Parent how do I help my “lazy” child? Here are 3 steps…
Parents and children will complain about feeling misunderstood by others. “I ask them what’s wrong or why they do [problem behavior] and they tell me I don’t know.” It could truly be that just as confused as you feel as a parent regarding this behavior, your child is also feeling confused and powerless to change. Their “I don’t know” may actually be honest responses. How can you work collaboratively to understand what is underlying these behaviors and work on accurately identifying the root causes.
If it doesn’t work the first time, try, try again
Parents frequently complain that they try to offer solutions and support to their children to help increase their energy, grades, level of engagement are not well received by their child and they don’t seem to “want to change”. Again, this may be an accurate assessment, but could it also be that the child isn’t receptive to these solutions because they don’t feel that the parent understands the root cause of the issue. If that is the case, go back to step 1.
- Other times parents address the concern identified by the child “We go a tutor”, or “We pulled [her] off the basketball team” but don’t see an improvement in the presenting issues. When solutions don’t work, it could be that there’s an issue with the implementation of the solution or it could be that the problem is incorrectly defined. Is the problem truly the problem and if yes, is the solution developed accurately addressing the problem?
Call in reinforcement
As a parent, we always want to be able to help our children. And there are times when consulting with teachers, coaches, friends, and family members may be greatly beneficial in gaining another perspective or getting clarity on what could be the underlying issue for “laziness”. It may help provide context, insight, and clarity to help the child and the parent rethink the issue and improve the solutions.
There are other times when additional skills are needed whether these are provided by a tutor to help improve study skills, an ADHD coach to develop effective replacement behaviors, a psychiatrist and/ or a psychotherapist.
Behaviors are communication, often time we label behaviors as lazy, unmotivated or oppositional because we define the behaviors as issues of discipline or respect our solutions may be ineffectual and at times weaken the parent-child relationship. As a parent, how do you remain open, curious, and engaged and respond to these behaviors as communication from your child. Consider the possibility that your child may be going through some life difficulty and be at a loss as to how to address this. By framing externalized behaviors as a form of communication from your child, a possible communication of core difficulties, it allows the parent to engage the child in open dialogue, increasing the likelihood that the child will see the parent as a resource and a form of support in helping them resolve the behavior while strengthening the parent-child bond.
Sandra Berger, LMFT