One of the most common questions I get from parents of adolescents and young adults is this: How do I get my child to stop forgetting? In this blog post series, we’ll explore reasons and strategies.
Jack, age 11, was a forgetter. He left his jacket on the bus and his books in his locker. His homework didn’t make it back to school. He even forgot that he’d told his best friend they could hang out.
When he was younger, his parents called the bus company about the jacket, asked teachers for a second set of books to have at home, took his homework into the school office, and helped organize his play dates.
Now that he was in middle school, his parents were using natural consequences. That’s when instead of solving problems for others, you leave them to experience the consequences of their actions or inaction.
The assumption is that those consequences, which are usually negative, will nudge a person to discover positive behavior changes. The problem with this is that it relies on avoiding negativity to produce positive results. Negative plus more negative equals? Negative.
Jack now had so many negative life consequences that he had given up trying to avoid them. His parents stopped tracking down or replacing his missing clothing, so he endured cold or wet weather. They no longer delivered his homework to school. At first he told the teacher that he had forgotten his work and was told he could bring it in the following day, but he forgot to do that, too. The missing work piled up and his grades dropped.
In the wake of COVID, most of Jack’s work had shifted to being housed online. While technically he couldn’t lose things now, he was overwhelmed with finding them in the first place. There was so much to discover, with different teachers using their own approaches, plus an overwhelming amount to self-teach and remember from slide shows and videos. Jack discovered that consequences could not be avoided, but work could be. Forgetting was now his go-to strategy.
Why Not Just Do the Work?
Sometimes, it can feel smart to avoid things, but this is not always supported in the real world. The relief Jack felt from no longer trying to keep up with remembering his work was no match for the growing relentlessness of the demands of school and home. As the adults in Jack’s life tightened up on him, his oppositional behavior and even defiance increased. So did the discipline.
Now instead of being a forgetter, Jack was a behavior problem. He was sent to detention with his homework so he could make it up and rescue his falling grades. He was also offered short-term gain strategies: extra credit to exchange for poor quiz and test performance. This offered Jack intense bouts of misery (homework and detention) followed by relief (parents and teachers off his back). Instead of attracting him to learning and the value of higher grades, this reinforced the behavior of not doing his work until it was an emergency that someone else could structure and solve.
When kids push back like this, it’s worth considering that their behavior, while it is problematic, is a symptom rather than the actual problem. This may mean that detention and discipline are misplaced. The resulting pushback is a sign that more than aggravating behavior may need to be addressed.
What could work?
1) What to try when forgetting is more than occasional
2) Ways to prevent it from getting worse, and
3) What to do when it’s become stubbornly entrenched