A ‘lazy’ teenager really isn’t

May 15, 2012

Q. My beautiful 13-year-old daughter is smart, quick-witted and fun, but she is bombing out of eighth grade and is quite immature for her age.

That hasn’t always been the case. She thought elementary school was wonderful. Her teachers were excellent, and she loved them as much as they loved her.

Her middle school teachers have also been caring, but they are less involved and they pay less attention to her. She struggled last year because she was completely disorganized, and she didn’t do as well as she should have. The problem doesn’t seem to be her friends. Those straight-A, super-organized students are mature and very thin, but they love my daughter even though she is full-figured.

If I ask our three children to set the table, my daughter splits hairs about everything. If her brother yells “A towel, please!” after his shower, she waits for someone else to get it. If I ask her to get drinks for my husband and me, she’ll bring out the glasses but won’t fill them with water and ice unless we ask. We even have to ask her to take a shower every night, and if I come home late, she is still sitting on her bed, unshowered and reading Harry Potter or some other fantasy book for the umpteenth time.

I think I could handle those situations if she were doing better in school, but she stinks at it, and I know that high school will be brutal. Although she is smart enough to handle the work, she doesn’t do it or even realize how good she would feel if she did it on time.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post )

Is my daughter profoundly lazy? Or is she just disregarding us and our expectations?

Her school counselor says that she gives her teachers the “stink eye” if they call her out on something, which she would never have done in elementary school. That scares me because my daughter is much like a young woman I know who lives alone, is very heavyset and reads and rereads the same books. How can I keep my child from falling into that pattern?

A. Let’s get a couple of possibilities out of the way. Your daughter is not a lazy child, because there is no such thing as a lazy child, nor is she disregarding your expectations. She is, in fact, so aware of them that she turns to fantasy, which is the escape of many young teens. In moderation, it’s a healthy one, but your daughter may be going beyond moderation, and you need to find out why.

She may be having trouble adjusting to her hormones, so be extra patient and understanding for the next year or two. In the meantime, you should also consider other possibilities.

Begin by having her get a complete physical to see if low thyroid activity or some other problem could be making her tired, testy, depressed or heavier than she should be.

Even if she’s okay, she should see a nutritionist, because a full-figured young girl is bound to worry about her weight if her friends are much thinner. A teenager is also much more likely to eat healthful foods if an outside expert, rather than a parent, explains the reasons for it. It will also help if the whole family eats the same meals that she eats and if you offer vegetables and hummus for snacks instead of cookies and chips.

The one-time consultation may seem like a waste of money, but it is critical. If your daughter’s weight isn’t normal in adolescence, she will always think of herself as fat or thin, not by what she weighs at 30 or 40 or 50 but by what she weighed as a teenager.

If the doctor and the nutritionist say that your daughter’s health and her weight are fine, you should look into attention deficit disorder since it causes so many organizational problems. Some sessions with a special tutor will teach her the strategies she needs so she can organize her material better. And if none of that works, the five of you may need a few sessions with a family therapist who is known for his good work with teenagers.

Any of these approaches will work better if you recognize your child’s strengths far more than her weaknesses and if you teach her some adult skills. Let her make the salad for dinner, for instance, and give her the honor of roasting a chicken for company. Her sibs can set the table.

And for her brother who expects his sister to fetch his towel? Let him streak past the family; he’ll remember to carry his own towel to the shower the next time (or the next).

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

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