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Ask the Experts

My 17-Year-Old Doesn't Want to Go to School

By Joe Connolly, Consulting Educator

Question:

My son who is 17 does not want to go to school. He comes up with all kinds of excuses. He won't do the assignments given by teachers. He distracts others. He is breaking his mother's heart and stressing us to the max. What should I do?

Answer:

I have a lot of empathy for your situation. Without having more specific information about your son's history, it can be difficult to figure out the actual problem. My suspicion is that the behaviors you are seeing from your son are symptoms of something else that is going on in his life. There are many things that could be affecting his behavior.

It could be something as simple as normal teen development. At 17, your son is very close to being developmentally independent. This could be an attempt by him to demonstrate that independence. Simply stated, you want him to do A, therefore he's going to do B.

His behavior might stem from some control issues that have existed for many years. If a child has been under very tight controls his entire life, it's not unusual for that same child to act out by refusing to do anything his parents wish once he advances into his teen years. Likewise, if a child has been allowed to do anything he pleases, without any boundaries, he also could exhibit the behavior you describe.

Another possibility is that your son could be using alcohol or other drugs, thus causing a behavior that is new to you and destructive to him.

I would start by trying to talk with your son about your concerns. But you need to do it in a way that he feels completely safe. He needs to know that you love him and that you're concerned with his health and safety, not with punishing him. If the two of you can get to this point, he might tell you what's really going on. At least then you'll have a way to start helping him.

If that doesn't work, you might ask the school counselor to get involved. Most school counselors see this type of behavior all the time and are very qualified to help. You could also check in with his teachers to see what they think. If he has another adult in his life that he is close to, you could ask that person what they think is going on.

If those suggestions do not help, you might consider professional counseling. There are many qualified counselors who can help you get to the root of the problem. You should see the counselor first, so you can explain the situation. Keep in mind that finding a good counselor is often like finding a good pair of shoes. Sometimes you have to try on a few pairs before you find one that fits.

If you have any reason to suspect alcohol or other drug use, even if it's a small chance, I would urge you to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Parenting teens is one of the most difficult tasks imaginable. Sometimes we feel like we are the only one who has a particular problem. Understanding what is at the root of the problem, and then getting the necessary help, can make parenting easier.


Joe Connolly is the author and creator of 3 STEPS to parenting teens and the One Minute Rule. One of the founders of Good Parents, Inc., Joe is a sought after speaker of family topics and is widely known for his expertise and powerful speaking on parenting. Joe has been a featured speaker at Stanford University's "Stressed Out Students" conference, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, California State Senator Jackie Speier"s "Girls Day" and at corporations including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Genentech. Joe is the dean of students (K-5) at the Harker School in San Jose, CA. You can learn more about Joe and the services he provides at joeconnolly.org. Joe can be reached at joe@joeconnolly.org.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

03/14/2012:
"This is a completely ridiculous article. Talk to him? Gee, thanks, never would have thought of that on my own. And how do you get your kid to go to counseling (and participate, which is the only way it would be helpful) if you can't get him to go to school? The school is no help at all. They may offer help, but if the kid doesn't want it they can't force it on him and there don't seem to be any actual consequences anymore. I'm searching for help on the internet because I'm obviously at the end of my rope. This article is just a joke. Joe Connolly has obviously never actually dealt with this problem so he really shouldn't try to give advice. "
03/5/2012:
"if you are 16 years old and want to drive a car, what do you need ? "
02/21/2012:
"Not helpful. Don't have money for professional help. People at the school are unable to help. Child hangs around the wrong people. Just want to know how to get her out of house legally. Unless she wants to help herself no one can help her. Witney Houston is a good example, self destructive. "
01/25/2012:
"if a 17 year old wants to drop out let him "
01/23/2012:
"ii want to drop out of highschool its so hard..am only iin the 10th grade pero..all thiis work and assiignmentsz are tough o doo.liike ii diitch kuzs there is no freedom at home to kiick iit wiith friiendsz and..ii got to school wantiing to bye stuff pero wiith nada iin my pocket..my father iis a siingle dad..and umm he has all 6 of usz n a new bornn..ii want to work and have money..pero have an education pero at the same tiime..goiin to school makes me agrivated ii cnt consentrate..theres to muchwork to catch up onn..the teachersz force homework thatsz y ii dnt do iit..and the class work iis to much..wendsdaysz and thurszdayzs classses are to long 2 hours each class is hard to jus sit there and hear teachersz talk n talk n talk..likke serio there aiint no tiime for dat..ii wana tell my jefe how ii feel about thisz but he will just tell me to shut up..hes already tryn to kiick me out wiith no place to goo..likee really..he did the same..dropd out made money..and hesz a gewd ! father ii look up to rather than my jefa..ii wana do the same make money..and all dat stuff and make my familly happy..pero noo he wont listen to nada wat ii got to say..he thinksz am just makein exscuse pero..its not likke dat..i cry pero he say iit aint guna get me no were..pero he wont let me tlk to himm..all thisz stuuf makesz me cry liike my brain is guna edxpload ii have so many problems ii cnt bare to catch up wiith them asz 15 year old teen..wiith stress that she doesnt desivere wicht she should live her life like an regular teenager.palabraa "
01/23/2012:
"Hi, my names shia and i'll be 16 in 4 days. January 26th. I live in california right now but in may me my mom and my 4 younger sisters are moving to texas. Im a sophomore in high school and i'll be starting my junior year in a whole new state. Im terrified. Ive been thinking about this very clearly for a while now and I would like to drop out of high school my junior year. I dont wantto be in school anymore and I feel like I am ready to begin my life. I do hace a plan. My plan is to start beauty school as soon as im of legal age. Until then I would try to find some sort of job or something and help my mom out with my younger sisters and around the house. I dont plan on leaving home until my mom doesnt need my help. My issue is, is that I do not know how to tell my mom and im scared she wont agree with my decision. No one is going to tell me its a good I dea but only I know whats good for me and only I can learn rom my mistakes if it were a mistake. I need someones help on h! ow to tell my mom my decision. I dont know what to do and I do mot want to break her heart. "
01/17/2012:
"My Daughter keeps going to the nurse and then the nurse calls me and my daughter gets on and starts to cry on the phone i dont feel good my head hearts WHAT SHOULD I DO???? "
01/9/2012:
"I would love to see Joe Connolly, the "consulting educator" to ACTUALLY deal with problem children and change their behaviors. Writing about your stupid theories is easy, trying to actually change a problem child isn't. My family tried everything written in your article, but it simply doesn't work. We tell him how much we love him, we sit down with him for a heart-to-heart, then he apologizes, puts his act together for 2 days and that's it. We can't punish him by not giving him allowance or not allowing him to go out to see his friends. Last time we tried to let him know he won't be getting allowance because he skipped school, he choked my mom and she almost fainted. He threw a key at his sister and she almost went blind. If we tell him he can't go out, he snickers and doesn't come home for 3 days. I'm done with him. I'm trying to convince my family to call the cops on him. He needs to be in jail. He's truly evil and have mental problems. "
08/18/2011:
"well i'm just 15 so my opinion does not matter much but at his age he can just get his ged and be done with school. "
03/21/2011:
"I am single mom working 6 days a week my son he just get 18 he dosent want to school any more he say he want to droop the school he wants to work, i try so hard to guidence him and tell him how hard is work with out eeducation but he dosent listen to me anymore please i am so desesperatly to help my son i suggest the jobcorp but he dosent want to go please give me some advice,i am and a such a deprresion because of this and i feel guilty because i have to work so much to give him a better life and good education please help me."
02/9/2010:
"Let him quit. Its what he wants to do. At this point there is nothing that your going to do to get him to change. Even if it breaks your heart maybe he will realize what hes doing and he might change. But i strongly doubt it."
05/13/2009:
"my son he do not like to do no work he eat up aw my food and he is fat and he get mad when some body at his school call him fat he trys 2 fight and think im going to let him in my house no i make him sit outside but he go and paly whit his friend i know what to do i just do not want to do it i love my son he is nice to me i do not try to b my son friend i do not paly that he is 15 "
11/12/2008:
"My son is 16 years old and ever since he was in grammar school he wasn't doing that well but had issues. During this period of time his grandmother passes away, and I had to transfer him from his 1st grammar school in his 7th grade because he was having trouble with the kids...harassing him and making his life miserable. I put him into another grammar school where he wasn't getting along very well with these kids either and was experiencing the same things. Harrassment, name calling not wanting to go to school and so forth. It got to the point I had to take him out of school even before graduation. He also didn't want to go to his own graduation. His grades weren't the greatest either and no Catholic school in our area would take him and I didn't want to send him to any of the publo schools in our neighborhood I had to resort to sending him to a small town suburban school. Friends of mine said that it was a decent place to go to school. Thinking it was a clean fresh sta! rt and no one new my son I thought this would work out, but each year its getting worst. First year not too bad, second year failing in English and math, however I sent him to summer school to make up some credits. His biggest thing is he said he doesn't have friend and that the kids hate him and the teachers don't like him. But I told him time and time again if you want a car I would buy it for him if he would give me passing grades. That didn't even help. So I have not gotten him a car and now in his 3rd year he only has 13 credits, failing 6 classes and has a A in Alegebra and a D+ in Biology. He always blames me and says its my fault and I don't want to do anything for him because I put him there. This year he has missed over 12 days of school, constantly late for his first period classes (he doesn't like) and cuts out from other periods and wonders in like nothing. He did see a psychiatrist, in his freshman year and I even had him tested at Sylvan's which he cu! rsed me upside down for doing, have his counselors in school t! alking to him as well as the dean of students, friends and family members have tried to talk to him to no avail. THe sad part is he doesn't hear anything that is being said. He is a good kid, but what happend along the way is puzzling. I don't know what else to do. Any suggestions? Help!!!"
09/24/2008:
"My son (19 yrs) was an excellent student. In class 12, he was diagnosed with psychosis. Since he wasn't willing to go to the hospital, we had to take him by force and admit him; he missed three weeks of school. So he didn't get into any of his top universities and has been sitting at home since then. What should we do?"
09/24/2008:
"Teen daughter 15 that refuses to go to school sometimes and is failing in almost all her classes the mother can not handle her what can she do. Oh yea the 15 year old has a child at home 3 months old They live in Texas"
09/16/2008:
"What are the laws in CA if your teen does not go to school? Aren't the parents responsible for them? Isn't there a consequence to parents in a legal way? Isn't it mandatory for all kids to attend school? Just curious about this information. Thanks."
07/7/2008:
"I have been raising my 17-year-old grandson since he was 12. His father is a drug addict/alcoholic and he and his mother do not get along. He is very angry and difficul to deal with. He has no respect and his emotions are very uncontrolled. What can I do to help him?"
06/12/2008:
"My step son is 16, he lashes out doesn't want to go to school or work just sits in his room, he fights with his Mom, he has a criminal record, plays only his games on X360, and eats last weekend he hits my wife, I called the police they can't do anything,we want him to move, his family doesn't want him, his dAD doesn't want him, I am running out of ideas whaT TO DO? hELP"
03/10/2008:
"my son is the same way. he has caused nothing but aggravation and heartache for me and my husband.what is the sense of going to the school counselor if he is never there? Can i legally make him go to school or get rid of him?he is also 17 years old and we are getting tired of this battle every morning before school."
03/5/2008:
"My 15 year old son is having the same issues but this has been going on since the begining. It was not so bad at first when I could pick him up and put him in the car but now he is bigger than me. And now I do not know what to do with him. I am at my whits end. I have seen a counselor for him at one time but I guess she was not doing a good job it was not helping and the price to see a counselor a hurting our family a lot. They wanted to see him 2 to 3 times a week. But I think I may try another counselor and see what happens."
10/17/2007:
"I was wondering if someone can tell me the what I can do about my son. I am a single mother of 2 and my son will be 17 in one month. He gets good grades does the homework but has missed so much school that last year he was put on truent probation by the county of Orange and this year he has been in school for not even a month and has been tardy 8 times or just ditches school. He doesn't have any problems with people or the teachers he is just lazy and doesn't want to go to school. I have been told that I can get in a lot of trouble because of this and I just don't know what else I can do about it anymore. I have to be to work in the morning and I feel that my son 17 and my daughter 15 should be responsible enough to make sure they are in school and on time. I have to take so much time off of work and it makes it so hard for me. How can I legaly take care of this problem? I don't want anything to happen to me or to my son. "
08/24/2007:
"What do you do if your teen will not go to counseling, school, or even come home! I have a 17 year old daughter who is out of control. Even the millitary academy she is attending is in an uproar about what to do about here! All of your suggestions sound great.... but havn't worked. now what?"
01/4/2007:
"Good advice! I'm dealing with the same problem. My granddaughter just lost her mother. She is depressed in addition to the teen independence and sense of confusion. She's doing better with professional held and the school psychologist. At least she knows that I care."
12/4/2006:
"I too, an havent problem with my son 15 years of age. He was just recently found at a young lady home (mother came home early). said that he came to find out why she wast to dropout of school at 10:00, time inwhich he shall be in school. I thinking about home school on the computer. He seem when he enter high school he lost his mind. He is a bright child and Im a single parent that is under alot of stress. Counselor we tried, school that is, next is professional. He have been a honor roll student throughout his middleschool years. He is intelligent and I beleve he isnt being challenge from his current schools. He is surrounded by schoolmates that dont care about their future. "
11/30/2006:
"What if after talking to a counselor this particular still does not want to go to school?"
11/30/2006:
"I also have a 17 yr old that has a hard time staying in school. We live right across the street from our high school which became to convenient for him. He hated the school and all the teachers, he felt it was just a baby sitting place that the State require our children to attend. His grade started to decline as he reached the driving age so I thought I could use driving as an aid to help keep his grades up. Nope, that didn’t work. By the end of this junior year, he was behind 80 credits to graduate. So he asked to do independent studies. My first response was No. Then we did it during the summer and told him this would be a trial run to see if he could keep himself motivated and focused enough to do it all year. Nope, that didn’t work either. Sad thing is he’s a very smart young man. He’s currently in a continuation type school where he works for his credits and not grade. We still have a struggle keeping him in school however; he’s closer to graduating then before. He knows he needs to graduate although this school doesn’t require as many credits, he does understand a diploma is very important to his future. Statistically, I have told him how much more money he’ll be able to make with a diploma, college degree, and high if he educates himself verse no diploma. The $$ signs are what gets him, living in CA where the cost of living is so high. In our situation, my son struggles with the normal pre adult behaviors compounded by the lack of being able to drive my car, obtaining a job, and being able to have money in his pocket. As we all know, our pockets are not overflowing with $$. So, he gets down on himself and his parents and frustrated with the school. Yes, my son also is involved with marijuana which I tell him everyday, No Smoking, No Drinking, and Stay out of trouble. I’m close enough to my son that I can butt heads with him, tell him to go take a walk, and tell him I love him all in the same breath. One thing he does understand is that I’m always there for him. I can’t make problems go away, I can give him all the knowledge & tools I have but it’s up to him to make wise choices. He understands his responsibilities I just have to remind him often and hopes he’s really listening. Hang in there, you don’t have much time left with him before he leaves the nest, then those days are gone and your little boy is a man."
11/29/2006:
"And what do you do when you have exhausted all the options you have mentioned? I am a teacher and my 16-year old son has had appropriate guidelines his whole life and he has still had problems at school since kindergarten. On the advice of his fourth grade teacher, he began seeing a counselor. He failed sixth grade despite testing in the advanced and proficient levels on his state tests, which qualified him for the Duke Talent Identification Program. In seventh grade we moved him to a private school specializing in working with ADHD students and his work improved. Now that his sister (22 months older but 4 years ahead in schoo) has started college, we can no longer afford the tuition. We have had six conferences so far this year, mostly for discipline issues relating to the ADHD. He has earned 25 detentions, knowing that he will be sent to the alternative school if he reaches 30 before the end of the semester. He did his best work in In-School Suspension, making the highes score in the whole grade on an essay. He prefers being in ISS in order t! o avoid getting more detentions. When he is working for pay, he excels. I would like for him to work full-time and pay his own tuition at his old private school, but he refuses to do that. He is too young to take the GED, which he could probably pass right now on the first try. We have told him that he will be sent away if he isn't passing at least half of his subjects by the winter break, but we can't find any out-of-home placements that we can afford and his counselors say that he should not be sent to the training school for juvenile offenders. So, you see that we have already tried each of the solutions you have offered. I repeat my question: What next? I hope that you can take the time to reply. We do not want our son to be a throwaway child, but we have been unsuccessful in getting him to make the right choices."
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