Motivating your Unmotivated Teen

motivating teens

Parenting, teen and frustration…. words that are commonly used in the same sentence.  So you have an unmotivated teenager at home who you might refer to as lazy. You tell your friends how they won’t get out of bed, won’t go to school or do homework which leaves you feeling angry, frustrated and maybe even embarrassed about their behavior.  The problem here is that the teen is motivated, just not motivated to do what you, as the parent, want them to do- they’re motivated to resist you.  Teenagers want to feel like they’re in control and by resisting you, they feel like they are.  You ask them to get out of bed, they resist, and in their eyes, they’ve won the battle, you’re upset, they remain in bed.  In the end, the teenager got what they wanted, leaving them feeling like they’re in control.  Teenagers are actually putting a lot of effort and energy into resisting you, there is motivation there, just not the motivation you want to see.


The struggle is finding a way to turn their negative motivation into positive motivation.  You might be asking yourself how to do that, sometimes it’s just easier to not engage in an argument, right?  Sometimes, it’s just easier for you to do their homework so they won’t fail, or it may just be easier for you to empty the dishwasher because it’s almost dinner time and the table needs to be set.  Think about how that is helping your teen, and where giving up is putting you in the hierarchy as the parent- who is really in control?  Teens that resist a parent don’t feel powerful.  They will continue to resist. They will do things like stay in bed or not do their homework in order to feel powerful. By doing this they feel like they have control over things that are happening around them.


It takes a lot of courage to parent and can be scary or feel futile when consequences are imposed.  As a parent, maintaining consequences and being consistent is the most helpful thing you can do.  In the beginning, it can feel like you’re doing more harm than good, especially if your teen starts to resist even more. This can result in more anger, arguing or your teen telling you things like the consequences you have imposed don’t matter and they don’t care.


You can’t punish your child into better behavior, so the key is to motivate them into better behavior, but how?  Look at consequences in terms of a privilege being a motivator.  Teenagers want to feel significant and feel better when they can see a task is tied to value to them.  If your teen wants to wear clean clothes, they are more likely to respect the rules tied to them doing their own laundry.  It can be helpful to sit down with your teen and establish what things mean a lot to them.  For some, a video game may be more of a motivator than a cell phone or the internet.  The benefit here is that everyone is on the same page and if a rule is broken, the teen knows immediately what the consequence will be and the parent is able to maintain consistency with consequences rather than feeling pressured in the moment to come up with something and possibly forgetting what the consequence was.  Telling your child that their cellphone will be taken away for a certain length of time and also letting them experience the natural consequences can be hard, and as a parent, can leave you feeling helpless, especially if the natural consequence has to do with homework and the child possibly failing a class.  Motivating a teen is all about rewarding their good behavior, not forcing them to do something.


Offer your teen incentives.  A reward system can be a huge motivator for some.  For teenagers, when they behave well a reward can go a long way.  For instance, if your child fails a test, there is no consequence, except for the natural consequence of failing a test and having to either make it up or face the consequences as they relate to school. When they get an A or a B, a celebration might really make them feel good.  It’s important to let your teen know you care, the positive interactions will allow them to start to relate the positive reinforcement with their positive behavior.  If your teen decides to stay in bed all day, perhaps setting rules around not getting to play on their phones, watching TV, playing video games, ect. would be helpful in increasing the behavior that you want. If they decide to get out of bed and complete some simple tasks for the day, a reward of internet time or video game time may be in order.


Consistency is key here as the parent. If, for example, grades of a C or better are expected, then setting consistent and effective consequences is required.  If your teen has experienced inconsistencies around this, for example, they received grades lower than a C and were still able to spend time with friends, they may not take you seriously. If every time their grade drops below a C and time with friends is compromised, they are more likely to work harder.  Setting effective consequences also entails setting time specific consequences.  Time specific consequences require your teen to demonstrate better behavior for a specific amount of time- this teaches your teen that their behavior is tied to the consequence and that they must demonstrate better behavior in order to earn privileges back.  Your teen will still get angry and frustrated with you, but through your consistency, they will learn that their behavior affects their privileges.


Your teen needs you to be involved and persistent- even if it is frustrating for you.  Your consistency will keep them practicing better behavior.  It takes a lot of courage to parent a teenager and setting effective, consistent, and time specific consequences is the first step!


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