My 8th grade son doesn’t seem to care and lacks motivation. I know this is typical, but I think he might be an extreme case. Please help.

He asked to go on two class trips. Each was expensive and I had to work additional hours to pay for him to go, and his father and I agreed to send him. 

This year he never dressed for gym, even though I put clean clothes in his backpack, and he failed the class. So he was kicked off the 8th grade trip. He knew that an F meant dismissal from trip and still decided not to participate. I asked him why he never dressed for gym, since he is athletic. He replied he didn’t want to. 

Last year, he stole a vape pen from a gas station and smoked in school and got suspended. He was kicked off the 7th grade trip too. He blamed peer pressure for that. 

The house rule is maintaining a C average to keep a cell phone. He hasn’t done that. His test scores are great, so it is not a lack of intelligence. He doesn’t do work in class. 

His orthodontist says he needs braces, but the dentist said to wait because he doesn’t take care of teeth. I have to watch him or he won’t brush his teeth. He says he wants braces, so I don’t understand why he won’t brush his teeth. The dentist has spoken with him. 

We are in contact with his school. The principal says we are doing the right things. 

We take him to therapy. His therapist says he’s well adjusted, but lacks motivation. 

How can we help him find motivation? I’m worried that he’s not developing good habits and this is going to hurt him later.

We’ve had him tested for ADD and ADHD, that’s what I thought he had. But therapist and doc said no.

What a time you’re having! Eighth graders tend to be around 13 or 14, so I’ll assume that’s your son’s age, unless he was advanced a grade, which would put him around a year younger than that.

I want to congratulate you for all the wonderful things you’re doing. Obviously you love your son and want to provide him with everything he needs, the normal things he might want, and you’ve sacrificed to do so. You have wisely chosen to engage a therapist, and you’re staying in touch with the school. You’ve thought about what the issues might be and been really proactive. And still, you haven’t seen the change you’ve hoped for. This sounds very difficult for you. We all know that there are a limited number of days in childhood, and when as parents we watch them tick by, and our child isn’t engaged, we fret that they’re not going through the stages they need to grow into a strong, capable, well-adjusted adult. That is a lot of pressure on you.

I will be honest, it sounds as though the situation is complex and nuanced. One clue is that you mention that your son’s test scores are great and you say you know that he doesn’t lack intelligence. I find myself wondering if he might be gifted. You say you’ve had him evaluated for ADD and ADHD, but has he had a full psychoeducational evaluation?

Giftedness is one of the most neglected and ignored forms of exceptionality. The word “exceptionality” is often used when a child has a disability, but it can just as rightly be used to refer to a child in the gifted range of cognitive functioning. All children who fall outside the middle 95% range of intellectual functioning—that’s an IQ of less than 70, or 130 and up—they have additional cognitive and socio-emotional needs that are unique to them. Now for gifted children, sometimes those needs are easily met within the families where the child lives. Often giftedness runs in families, and if the parents are gifted they may quite naturally support their gifted child. But sometimes the unique needs of the gifted child aren’t naturally and easily met for any number of reasons. And it sounds to me as though that’s what’s going on here: your son has some cognitive and emotional needs that aren’t being met.

I’m betting you would like some practical suggestions. Fair enough.

Let’s start here: how does your son feel about his therapist? Does he enjoy going to sessions? If he’s been working with the therapist for 3 or more months, have you seen any improvement at all? If the answers to the second and third questions are “not much,” I would consider looking for a new therapist. You have reasonable goals for your son’s functioning. Good therapy should enable progress. 

Now if you haven’t seen much progress but your son has a good bond with his therapist, I wouldn’t suggest changing. What I would suggest, however, is that you go looking for a second therapist who understands family systems, and have a couple of appointments just for you. Make sure you sign releases so the two therapists can talk.

Now I’m not saying there is anything at all wrong with you and the way you’re parenting. You sound wonderfully and deeply caring of your son and his needs. But if your house’s foundation was starting to collapse, you wouldn’t necessarily take a chance with your family’s safety and try to repair it yourself, would you (if you or your spouse are a building expert, insert a different metaphor along the same lines)? A therapist with family systems knowledge can be like hiring a lawyer, financial advisor or CPA: an expert who can really help move things in the right direction, when needed.

A little bit about child development, because it’s very relevant for this age group. Between the ages of 12-15, the adolescent brain is experiencing growth second only to infancy, between birth and age 2. The neocortex—the part of the brain that handles reasoning and decision-making—is undergoing great and rapid change, perhaps even more so if your child is gifted. The limbic brain—the part of the brain that experiences and regulates emotion—is also undergoing tremendous growth. Do you remember the destabilizing changes the body goes through during pregnancy? Well, your son is experiencing something similar, but without the perspective an adult would have. Add to that the fact that the young, adolescent male has a massive amount of testosterone surging through his body, relative to older adolescents and adult men. This means your son is not only more of a stranger to you than either he or you had planned, but he feels like a stranger to himself as well.

I very much doubt that your son’s actions amount to any kind of organized plan his part. And while there is evidence that he is not motivated to do as his parents, school and dentist would have him do, it is possible that he is working to discover what does motivate him, or that he would like to, if he could feel the support you provide. And this is an important quest.

Development of a stable sense of self is the main task of early adolescence. That involves knowing what one does prefer, and what one does not, and being confident that it is okay to have these personal preferences and that no one outside of oneself is owed a reason. It’s perfectly normal for children not to find their schoolwork or classes interesting, particularly at this point in history, and most particularly gifted children. If you aren’t interested in “unschooling” (Google it) or sending him to a progressive school (Waldorf, Montessori), supporting him through this stage so that he develops the internal resources he needs is going to involve a few important things. Mainly validating whatever real feelings he has around things like schoolwork and hygiene activities, and lovingly supporting him in doing them well enough (not perfectly). 

Scolding, nagging and punishment is unlikely to be effective, and more likely to produce kind of a lethargy such as what you’re seeing. This shouldn’t be taken lightly. It could develop into depression and make him vulnerable to substance abuse and other risks in the future.

Behavior plans are also not very likely to be effective with gifted children, unless (1) the child participates fully in the development of the plan, and has complete buy-in, (2) the plan is relentlessly strengths-based, and (3) the plan includes an emotional support component.

And that brings me full circle, back to you as parent. Our children are here in order to make us aware of that which is out of alignment in ourselves. When a child is having a problem, the whole family is having a problem. It does no good to place blame at the feet of one member, particularly a child. I have never seen a family that succeeded in doing this that could be described as a happy family.

And it’s important to remember that the main goal for our children is not to arrive at adulthood having learned perfectly to do as they’re told. What kind of adult would that produce? We live in a growing, exciting, ever more complex world. We need more creative, smart humans, not ones that feel like round pegs smashed into square holes. And sometimes the most creative and the smartest experience the greatest challenges.

If your budget doesn’t stretch for a full cognitive assessment, it doesn’t hurt to proceed as though your son is gifted anyway, at least as regards supporting his individuality. It will do no harm and can only help.

Finally, it really is most helpful for parents to receive supportive, psychodynamic therapy or skilled coaching when they are having significant difficulty with a child. It’s best, if the family has two parents living together, for the parents to go to therapy together, to a different therapist from the child if he’s already established with one, as yours is. If that’s not possible, then one parent can go alone. That parent will have a bigger task, but by stepping up and looking at the situation as an adventure and chance to learn and grow, they will be able to be a positive force for change and know that they stayed in there when the going got tough. There can be great satisfaction in that. My admiration and love to you all.

Published by Anne Lindyberg

Anne Lindyberg has a master's degree in school psychology and advanced training in Satir Transformational Systems. She is a former school psychologist, mother of two adult children, and loves living in the cornfields of southeast Iowa with her beautiful Toller-Dog, Lila and Sassy the cat.

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