Every now and then a book comes along that stops you in your tracks, with multiple light bulb moments, and a really important message. ‘He’s Not Lazy’ by Adam Price was a book like that for me. As someone who is always looking for new evidence and creative thinking about young adults’ mental health and wellbeing, I have read a LOT of books about the teenage brain or raising kids. There are many brilliant books out there, but this one stands out for me.
Let’s start with why this book matters, and then I will share my thoughts on why it might help you.
I regularly give talks to parents and teachers, and I have, for several years, raised the topic of toxic perfectionism and over-competitiveness in our society. It’s even the subject of one of my TEDx talks.
I REALLY worry about the impact the rising levels of perfectionism in young people is having on their mental health. But interestingly, whilst many parents agree with what I say in my talks, and often come to speak to me about their concerns at the end of my talks, I also notice how some parents raise their worry with me that their teen (usually a boy) is behaving in the opposite way.
He’s NOT trying hard, not seemingly concerned about grades or school, in fact they might describe him as ‘barely motivated’, or even ‘lazy’. Parents often seem very worried about their son, who seems to be doing ‘the bare minimum’.
What’s going on?
Having had this conversation with parents several times I became intrigued, and so wanted to delve a little deeper into this concept of ‘laziness’. From what I know of teenage development, young people are usually really motivated to learn about stuff that interests them. They develop multiple passions, and it’s a time in life for real engagement in hobbies and interests. Genuine laziness is rare, there is usually an underlying reason for what we see as laziness. So what was going on here, with these mostly bright boys, being perceived as ‘lazy’?
That’s when I discovered Dr Price’s book. And it all started to make a lot more sense.
It’s not laziness, it’s ‘overwhelm’
These kids are not lazy, but they are ‘opting out’. Not because work is too hard, and they are taking the easier option, but often because they are overwhelmed, afraid of failure, or are struggling with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or even depression. This perceived laziness is if you like the other end of the spectrum reaction of the hypercompetitive society we live in, with Perfectionism at one end and ‘Opting Out’ at the other. To generalise, the girls tend to move towards perfectionism and the boys towards overwhelm. And it’s all down to brain development.
They are struggling silently, in a world that is too competitive, surrounded by a perfectionistic culture, and because their brains develop later and differently from girls’ brains (and the school system is biased towards a learning style that suits girls more than boys in general- encouraged by sitting in rows, teacher led learning), the boys feel overwhelmed. They give up, not because they are lazy but because they don’t have the skills and brain ‘executive functions’ yet to cope.
How can we help?
If you recognise this behaviour pattern in your child, then I would first of all encourage you to read ‘He’s Not Lazy’ for yourself, as it is accessible, sensible and practical, but I will try to summarise the key approaches to managing the situation here.
Dr Price’s key strategies include;
1. Avoid blame and conflict with your son about this behaviour.
2. Engage him in conversation about any concerns he may have, and always AVOID SHAMING him. Shame is one of the most powerful and negative emotions for teens and can lead to damage in your relationship if you shame him when he already feels overwhelmed and stressed. (If you’re thinking “well he doesn’t seem very stressed by it, that’s half the problem”, he is probably blocking it all out and hoping it will go away.)
3. Address his fear, his anxiety, and any ‘fixed mindset’ he may have around ‘I can’t do this’, ‘I will never be able to do this’. Tell him even if he can’t do it YET, there’s plenty of time to learn.
4. He has to make any changes, though you can motivate him, be alongside him and coach him. But you can’t MAKE it happen. He will need to understand what is happening, why he feels like this (he could read bits of the book with you, talk to teachers, and try some of Dr Price’s exercises).
5. Don’t call him lazy! Remind him he controls his future, and it’s up to him to get engaged, and tackle his worries, but you will be there to help and support him.
I hope this has been a helpful insight into an increasingly common scenario, and that I have reassured you that you have lots of options if you are dealing with this at the moment. Girls can of course have similar issues, it is just a lot less common for them.
It’s a confusing and challenging world out there, and our adolescents need our help to learn to navigate it. Thank goodness for books like ‘He’s Not Lazy’.