Ask the expert: ‘I can’t get through to my teenage son’

Child’s ‘relaxed’ nature is leading to rows and he forged my signature on a report card

Question: I am the mum of four children ranging in age from nine to 18. I have taken the same approach to parenting all of them and feel that it is working for me most of the time. However, I am finding it impossible to get through to my 14-year-old son. He is a very quiet, bright, sporty child who will never fulfil his true potential because he is always looking for the easy solution. His apparent relaxed nature leads to many, many rows in the house as he sees no need to prioritise anything. He is different to all the other children who are doing well in school.

A month into the school year he was suspended for forging my signature on a report card because he did not want us to see his grades – he had told us he was working hard. He never, ever seems to look at the big picture and realise that for every action there is a consequence. I am completely at a loss as to what to do.

He is not an obvious trouble maker but lands himself in trouble all the time. I do not feel that we put undue pressure on him academically, but he is more than capable so we do urge him strongly to put time into his studies.

Does he need help? We are completely at a loss.


Answer: Frequently, parents have the experience that one of their children is harder to bring up than the others. One child can challenge a parent in way that the others don't and the parenting strategies that worked with all the other children just do not seem to work with one child. This of course leads to lots of conflict, upset and frustration. Generally, there are lots of different reasons that cause this to happen. Sometimes, there are particular childhood or family events that block the relationship between parent and child.

Sometimes, the child has particular special needs or sensitivities that are hard for the parent to deal with. Sometimes there are personality differences between parent and child that make it hard for them to understand one another and sometimes the personalities are too similar which can cause the parent to clash with, or be too hard on, the child because of their own self-criticisms.

Whatever the reasons, the good news is that there are always things you can do to improve the situation and the first step always is to face up the problem – as you are doing.

Try to understand and “tune into” your son

Take a step back and try to understand your son. What is going on is his mind? How does he see the situation? What do you think he wants from school? Are some of the problems caused by your expectations of him? How might he feel in comparison to his other siblings who are doing well? Can you see his “laid back” nature or personality as a strength and, if so, how can it be used to help him? The more you can have an empathic understanding of him, the easier it will be to help him.

Express a positive belief in him

As a parent it is easy to become frustrated when we see our children missing out or not reaching their full potential. This frustration is a sign of your wanting what is best for them, however the child can easily experience this frustration as a criticism and perceive it as a belief that there is something wrong with them. As a result it is important to take a step back and redirect your frustration into a positive belief in your son’s potential.

Try to identify what you admire and love about him and think how you can communicate this to him: “I get so frustrated with what happened, because I so want the best for you, I just want you to . . .”

Separate out the issues that need to be dealt with

With his recent suspension, there are a number of different issues to address with him but which require different responses:

1. The fact that he got a bad report in school requires an understanding approach as to why he is demotivated or struggling in school and a plan to help him succeed. In responding, you have to recognise that he ultimately has to be empowered to make his own decisions and that your focus should be on encouraging and supporting him – an issue I have dealt with in previous columns.

2. The fact that he did not tell you about his bad report card is a sign of mistrust in your relationship. What do you think made it hard for him to tell you? Think about how you can communicate to him that you want him to never feel he has to hide things from you and that you will try to understand and help him no matter what. Practically, you might agree with the school that they will send you reports in the future.

3. When he forged the signature, he did step over the line and get himself into trouble. This is something you need to help him reflect about so he can learn an alternative course of action in the future. It sounds like he has already experienced consequences for the forgery, though suspension if often a poor consequence for a child who is struggling in school, because they are getting what they want for the misbehaviour. Your role is to help him learn from what happened and to work with the school so he gets the supports he needs.

Build your relationship with him

Try to find a way of building your relationship with him. See him as boy who is struggling and needs the support of his parents and may need some extra time and attention for a period.

Though I’m sure you are very busy with four children, think of ways you and other members of the family can reach out to him and spend quality time with him. Are there times of day when he is open for a chat? Are there times during the week when you do something you both enjoy together? Simple informal times such as driving him to an activity or going for a walk or taking time to watch a favourite TV show together can help and build an understanding connection over time. Finally, do consider seeking further support if need be, perhaps attending parent or family counselling or a parenting teenagers course.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering talks on Positive Self-Esteem in Cork on November 4th and Dublin on November 30th. See for details