My teenager is unmotivated and has left school

I have a 16-year-old son who is driving us crazy with his carry-on. In September, he started in a new school, but in the first week he had a confrontation with the headmaster and the situation got to the stage where he no longer goes to school.

He is lazy and unmotivated and hangs around with some very dodgy lads without our permission. This situation is getting worse, and we recently had him arrested in connection with an incident. We are powerless and he just doesn’t care about now or the future. Any discussion ends in argument and nothing moves forward.

I took him into town the other day to hand out CVs, and after three shops he got agitated and decided that his day’s work was done. He is also very big and aggressive towards his mother, and to add to the mix we are separating. His only love is sports, but all courses are full and are not taking anyone else on. We are at our wits’ end and want to help him so much to find a course or direction.

Sometimes I feel that there is nothing going on in his mind. I suspect he is smoking cannabis, which he denies, but he seems to lie without even realising it any more, so it’s hard to believe him.

He did well in his Junior Cert, but did not work on studies, so he is intelligent but displays no mature or responsible attitudes or actions when we try to discuss things with him. He has a sister who he never has time for. He is selfish, lazy and generally not positive or nice.

Being out of school, hanging around with a problem peer group and getting in trouble with the law are extremely worrying behaviours for your teenage son, and you are right to be concerned and to want to take action. Furthermore, going through a separation can’t be easy for you or your children, and this can add to the stress that everyone is experiencing.

The only way forward is to try to find some way of connecting with your son, so that rather than being in conflict you can work together to address some of the issues. You say every conversation ends in a row – this is understandable, given what you describe – but you will only make progress if some of your discussions with him are a little more constructive.

Often this is a question of timing – for instance, only raising an issue when you are both relaxed and have time to talk. If the discussion becomes an argument, take a pause and come back to talk later.

Though, understandably, you feel very negative about him at the moment, thinking he is lazy, selfish and unmotivated can only make things worse and close down any chance for change.

Try to step into his shoes for a moment and see things from his perspective. Being out of school perhaps he feels lost and worried about the future, and he could also feel insecure in the family, given the separation, and so on. Though he may not share these feelings, having some empathy for him will help greatly.

It is also important to try to be as positive as possible with your son. Though he only delivered three CVs when you went into town, at least he went into town and did that much with you. You could acknowledge to him that this was a good start, before looking at what to do next.

It is also worth reflecting on how you managed to get him to come in with you (how you raised the issue and so on), as this is also a small bit of progress that you can build upon.

As well as considering getting him a job or back into education, you should encourage him to do voluntary work. There may be opportunities in areas that match his interests and talents, such as sports (for example, the GAA). Voluntary work would help him structure his day, boost his self-esteem and teach him valuable skills for future work.

Whatever happens, try to keep the channels of communication open. Though things are at a low ebb, you want to try to improve your relationship with him.

Simple things such as chatting with him about ordinary daily events and interests that aren’t conflict-causing can make a difference. Even though it is hard, continue to reach out to him and look for opportunities to improve things with him.

Even though you are separating, it is important that you work closely with his mother to address these problems. The more you keep your own conflicts to one side and support one another as parents, the easier it will be to maintain the consistency of your parenting together, and thus to address the problems with your son.

As parents, focus on the important rules with your son (for example, being respectful at home) and work as much as possible in helping him be responsible.

You can make his pocket money and privileges at home dependent on him making an effort to co-operate (such as preparing CVs or contacting an education service together).

At this difficult time you should consider enlisting professional services for support. Regarding his schooling, you should contact the Education Welfare Board (, which should be able to advise about his options, either going back to his existing school or considering alternative education options such as Youthreach (

There are also counselling and advice services for separating parents and their teenagers, such as or teen counselling ( If you think cannabis is the main issue, contact the national drugs helpline for advice and a list of services (

Finally, in the long term, the important thing is to not give up and to positively persist with your son. Lots of teenagers can go off the rails for a period, and during this time it is important to remain active and involved as a parent so you can be there for them when they begin to come round and are more available to focus on getting their life in order.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2012.  John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.