My son is studying so should I relax the rules?

My son is 18 and in Leaving Certificate year. I vacillate between letting him self-manage his time and losing the plot. His room is a permanent mess: clothes stored on the floor for months until I succumb and tidy (he is meant to keep his room in order). It’s the same mess on the table he uses to study.

He is doing an art portfolio for submission later this month and his homework and study for other subjects is suffering from lack of time. Input on how to manage the chaotic situation would be greatly appreciated, or do I just grin and bear it until June? My son is an only child and headstrong like myself. I am not a typical Irish mammy as I have always worked full-time and encourage my son to be independent – I’m wondering if this is backfiring a bit?

Your dilemma is a common one for parents of Junior and Leaving Cert students. It is difficult to know whether to let them off from normal household chores, so they can have more time to study. Some parents argue that you should not make any allowances and that it is important to keep the routine as normal as possible.

Indeed, there are potential benefits for teenagers continuing to do chores as this can represent a helpful break from an intense study routine. In addition, for many teenagers taking responsibility to keep their desk or study space tidy can really assist their study plans and keep them focused and effective.

However, many parents argue the opposite, believing that it is important to make allowances and to reduce household chores in order to keep their teenager focused on studying.

They feel that if he or she was distracted by cleaning up or doing chores, they would study less or that it would become a conflict that would interrupt the study schedule.

A lot depends on your teenager and what motivates and works best for them. Of course, if you do want to support him by making allowances and reducing chores, be careful of going too far and finding yourself putting up with unreasonable demands and behaviour. I have worked with some families who are “tip-toeing” around a grumpy unco-operative teenager whose constant excuse is that they are studying.

Teenagers are at a stage of life when they are challenging boundaries, so it is normal for them at times to push it with you or to try to get away with things. You have to be ready for this and to hold your ground on important matters.

In deciding how to respond, the first step is to think about what your teenager needs and also to be self-aware about what matters for you. Many parents are happy to pick up after their teenager and see this as a way of supporting them, particularly during the exam years. However, for other parents, this would lead to a great deal of resentment and anger.

Sometimes, it is a matter of degree. For example, as a parent you might be happy to relax the rule about his room being tidy, but find it important to keep the dining room table clear as this is a shared space.

Whatever you decide, the second step is finding a positive way of communicating with your son and then negotiating a routine that works for you both – and for the rest of the family.

Pick a good time to talk things through with him. You can start by saying how you want to support him in his studying, but that as a family you also need to find a way to get all the chores done and to keep the place tidy.

Ask him what his feelings are on the matter and how he thinks it can be resolved. You might be able to achieve some “win-win” solutions such as finding a different way of organising his study space or you might try to negotiate some compromises. For example, you might agree to not notice his untidy room if he works harder at keeping the table he uses for study clear.

You might be able to strike a deal with him that motivates him. For example, you might say that you are prepared to tidy his room/let him off other chores as you want to support his study, but in return he needs to show you that he is working hard or doing his best.

Finally, as a parent it can really help to take a interest in his study plans and routines. While you may not know the exact content of all the subjects he is learning, it does help if you take a interest in how he is approaching the study, what he is learning, what he is finding challenging, and so on. Providing a listening ear can be a real help to keeping a teenager motivated.

In addition, many teenagers do need help with study skills, particularly in terms of how to plan and get started, how to structure the work as well as how to make sure to have plenty of breaks and to balance study with rest and leisure. Being involved and supportive in this way can not only be helpful, but also allow you to feel close to him as you help him through this important milestone in his life.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, January 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.