Teenager depressed and failing to do school work

I am a mother of a 16 year old girl who is a junior at a public high school. She has been struggling since last March with online learning. She manages to attend her classes but is extremely bored and does only about 30 minutes of homework a night. I feel like I have tried every possible angle, from consequences to rewards, to try and motivate her. If we try the heavy handed route it back fires and she gets even angrier and more rebellious. So I've decided to stop fighting with her. It is causing too much stress in our household. Trying to work with her is the only way we have found to get anywhere with her. She does not want to see a counselor for her depression. I have been making some arrangements so she can socially distance outside with her friends and volunteer taking care of horses which she loves. But none of it is inspiring her to do her homework. For the most part she spends hours in her room on her phone and watching Netflix. I have reached out to the school and her teachers, but she refuses to join the study pods they have set up at the school. I feel like I am done with pressuring her. It is hurting our relationship. I feel like it is more important to be a loving and supportive parent during these incredibly hard times. She hasn't had an easy life with her father being extremely ill for most of her life and being an only child who is adopted. Any suggestions or words of support would be greatly appreciated.

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Hi, really sorry about what you are going through. I also have a 16 year old daughter who is really struggling with distance learning. She regularly tells me she hates school. In the fall she seemed to find ways to keep her grades up but this semester it's different, she's turning in assignments late or not at all and seems to have lost all motivation. Mine also spends a ton of time in her room on her phone and netflix. It's really hard to know how to help her. I think you are right that just being supportive and listening is key, and trying to find things that make them happy while school is so awful. There's no easy answers to this - not all kids are open to therapy, mine isn't either. It seems to be about trying to get through each day.  

I am so sorry you’re both going through this, I know how hard it is, we have similar issues with my daughter. The one thing I wanted to say is to encourage you’re feeling the connection is more important right now than homework. That’s what we are focusing on, and I let go of all my expectations around school. This is an unprecedented event and our kids are so young and dealing with it as best they can. Once I realized schoolwork is not what is important right now, it helped her relationship and I’ve been able to help her feel better. For me right now, that is all that matters.

In my opinion, even the very best online learning programs are absolutely failing some kids. The suggestion of yet more zoom calls (study pods) to address gaps exemplified the problem.  The kid is in distress from too much virtual, not enough IRL, and so we tell them to do more virtual to fix the problem. Being away from in-person school this long has been a trauma that has exacerbated the broader trauma of the pandemic for many kids. They have no escape from the often pandemic-heightened stresses of their households. They have all the pressure and stress of school but none of the human connection to motivate and buoy them through it.  I know teachers are working so hard to make it as good as it can be, but for many kids, it’s the distance learning model itself that is the problem. My kid is maintaining her grades, but I see her spirit slowly fading. She was okay for a while but it’s like the loneliness with no clear end is finally taking a real toll. For adults a year is just one year, but for kids, it’s the only kindergarten or fifth grade or junior year they will ever have, and they are doing it all alone in their bedrooms with no access to the in-person connections that normally motivate them through the hard and stressful parts. They feel like their lives are stuck in amber and they are getting older without the opportunities to grow in ways they need to.  I know of vulnerable kids who once absolutely depended on the haven of school from troubled families who are now suicidal without it. This isolation is just too long. Too much is being asked of these kids, and not enough recognition is being made of their trauma and their sacrifice.  It’s no longer just a little malaise or restlessness for many kids. I guess this is not useful advice so much as empathy for your daughter, and a hope she can be given the grace she needs to get through this however she can. I do think if you can find any in-person activities for her or afford to move her to an in-person private school, that might help but she’ll still need time.  In the meantime, can you find a a camp or something for summer that can get her off the computer and back with some other kids?  

I'm sorry your daughter is struggling; these are really hard times.  I think you are on the right track to stop pressuring her about school if it is damaging your relationship.  Sure it's possible that her college options will be more limited if her junior grades aren't that great, but so what?  She can figure that out later.  One thing that helped me and my teens this past year was to ask ourselves the question "But what CAN we do?"  It has helped to take away some of the feelings of powerlessness and reframed our choices.  Of course this not what your daughter thought high school would look like, but encourage her to figure out what new options are open to her with distance learning.  Does she love the outdoors?  Can you go somewhere else for a while where there are cool things to do when she's finished with classes?  It sounds like you are already doing this a little bit with the horses and friends, but can you go big?  Can you turn this crappy situation into an amazing opportunity?  It may not be possible, but even just brainstorming with her might help her feel like she has some say in what her life looks like.  I think the hardest part about this for many teens has been that they are just waiting for their lives to re-start.  Maybe you all can find the positives (there really are some) and figure what options are open to her now that the world has turned upside down.  It may not make any difference in her school work, but it may help with how she feels about herself and her life.

I also want to say that it sounds like you are already on the right track with giving her the support she needs and recognizing that pressuring her wasn't productive.  Good luck.

No great advice, but lots of commiseration! I made the same decision to prioritize my relationship and connection with my teen over getting him to comply. When I crack down, we both suffer and I don’t get the results I want. This way, I don’t get results, but at least we like each other! It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially when I see other kids cooperating and doing their work. And the message from my extended family is that he’s spoiled and I should be tougher. But I believe this is the right path for us! Good luck!

Many kids are going through this period in a similar way.  One of our teens is very similar to your daughter.  He was always a very involved and eager student, and with on-line learning he's completely checked out.  He cannot absorb the material in a video/verbal format and he feels inept at the homework, uninvested, and avoids much of it. It sounds like you've done everything we've thought of, and it's great that your daughter is willing to see friends in real life and really enjoys taking care of horses -- having those things she enjoys in real life is HUGE and it's a good sign she is still able to take pleasure in something.  This year is a complete loss of traditional education for many kids.  I agree that keeping your relationship strong is more important that becoming at odds with her all the time over homework. 

If you are worried about her grades for college, does your daughter have a college counselor at school?  I'm wondering if you could get their opinion on this, how much it will "matter" if her grades suffer over the pandemic -- I imagine that colleges will take into account that the educational experiences these kids are getting vary extremely (but mostly suck), and many great students are doing very poor work under these conditions, and they can speak to that in their applications.   

I am thinking of this period as really different from normal life.  Online school is offered but not really working for so many students. So thinking outside the box is key, with as many activities that play to her interests as you/she can muster, either in real life or online.  Perhaps she would be willing to use some of her video time to watch things that are somewhat educational -- about horses/animals, science, cooking, documentaries, historical fiction, something...?  Does she talk with friends online or play games with them?  I myself support any kind of social interaction as long as the game isn't too destructive or addictive.

Hang in there!  You and she are far from alone.  This year is super hard on education, mood, self-esteem, social growth, social support, etc, and it will impact this whole generation.


I really feel for you and have a lot of empathy for you all. I agree that pressuring her with rewards and consequences often doesn't work with dpression and I am so glad you are focusing on your relationship, and the horses sound great! I have a 17 year old who has struggled with depression and anxiety and school refusal. It's so hard! Hang in there!

I am sorry that your teen is having such a difficult time. Pre-pandemic, my son was in a similar situation, struggling with school and depressed. Like you, we tried everything to try and support him and motivate him, but nothing worked. The daily battles were harming our relationship and we were all miserable. I considered what I would say to an adult friend if they came to me with a similar situation, that they were being asked to do something that was not a good fit for them, and that they hated. If they were social with friends and volunteering with something they were passionate about, it would be likely that I would advise them to quit the thing that they did not like and find a better fit for their needs and interests. I realized how awful it must be for my son to have to do something that made him so unhappy, and that he was failing at over and over. So we decided to stop. His junior year we had him take the CHSPE - https://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/sp/. Upon passing, we unenrolled him from school and he began working full time in a job he enjoyed. He was making and saving money, developing new skills, and learning. Almost 4 years later, he is thriving and we have a wonderful relationship and a happy, healthy son with a bright future. I look back on his school years with such sadness and only wish I had unenrolled him earlier.

30 minutes of homework a night doesn't sound too bad! I am also a mother of a 16yo junior, who since Zoom school started has figured out how to skate by and do the minimum, managing so far to get pretty decent grades while spending most of her time playing videogames online with her friends and to some extent pursuing her own interests and hobbies, playing music and doing arts and crafts. I also find that if I push it backfires, and it works better if she relies on her own motivation. These are strange and hard times and every kid is different. I know her current path is not likely to lead to an Ivy League college or maybe any college, right away, and I am learning to be OK with that. I feel like this is an age where we do have to stop trying to manage them and start trying to figure out how to support them. So I guess these are words of support for what you are trying to do! (:

This sounds so familiar to me (although my child is older).  I agree with you that it is more important to be a loving supportive parent.  Try to take things day by day and try to help where you can if she wants it.  Just try to keep communication open. One thing I do daily that seems to have benefits is get in the car with them and take a long leisurely drive along the east shore highway and around Emeryville and back.  We either talk or listen to the radio, whatever they prefer.  We do this around the same time every evening and even though it's repetitive, it's somehow is soothing.