How to motivate your unmotivated teen …

How do you get a teen to do his homework, go to school, or do whatever it is you want him or her to do?

This is an issue that I see a lot, and it typically goes like this – frustrated parent brings in unmotivated child who has been grounded and punished into oblivion for not doing (insert issue here), and guess what – the punishment doesn’t work … that’s right, even with all the negative repercussions, the problem not only doesn’t improve, it usually gets worse.

So what should a parent do?

First, a personal note to fellow moms and dads … I am the mother of two (age 21 and 19) and raising them has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’ve screwed up and still make mistakes, but thankfully my kids (and yours) are forgiving and resilient, especially when we parents are flexible with can admit when we’re wrong — can you?

Now, back to business …

Of course, when a teen won’t cooperate, frustrated parents blame the child. They drag their resistant son or daughter in to see me, point and say, “Fix this person!!” Unwittingly the message to the teen is, "There is something defective about you."

What I know is that this is not a kid problem, it’s a family problem. You see, teens are stuck in a dreadful neutral zone between child and adult. Part of them is a child with all of the emotions, playfulness and emotions, while the other part is an adult who wants all the things that adults want. This creates a lethal parental cocktail causing the teen to be dedicated to doing the opposite of what mom or dad wants. The reason is that the half child/half adult wants to be independent, but also must test whether the folks love him or her for what is achieved or who they are. When parents start forcing the issue of grades and things like how well they do in sports, talent, or other activities, the teen will conclude that the parent values achievement. This is depressing to them, so they decide to stop achieving and wait for the parent to show that their love and caring is unconditional. The parent continues attempts to force the child into achievement, horns lock, and the battle is on. In the end, the teen inwardly says, “I will not let dad or mom win.”

Parents need to understand that lasting responsibility and motivation comes from within, not from being controlled and policed … and anyway, teens are smart and know what they’re supposed to be doing. Most of them are not mentally disordered, just in need of acceptance. Pressure and high expectations from you, perceived by your child as "what can you achieve," or "do you measure up?" will likely be counterproductive – think about it – when your parents were nagging and riding you as a teen did it help you to become motivated?

So, mom and dad, this is one tough lesson, but when it comes to your teen, let go … release … and allow your child the space to create his or her own success. Forget the idea that you can make your teen do things … yes, you may succeed in the short term, but you’ll be creating a whole new set of problems that resentment is likely to bring. Now comes the part where you can go to your teen and tell him or her that you have been wrong in your decision to severely punish, and that you will now be allowing them the power to decide their future.

If you release the need to police, your teen may fall on la butt. In this case, take a chill pill and know that there’s nothing like hitting rock bottom or the fear of being known as a loser to create the motivation to succeed.  No, its not fun for a parent to watch, but it’ll be one of the greatest lessons your child will ever learn.

One other thing … when I’m working with teens who aren’t motivated, won’t sleep, go to school or do school work, I will ask for a medical evaluation to make certain that no biological issues are the cause.  If this checks out and the child is healthy, I want to know also if they are motivated in other areas of their life. i.e. they hate school, but love their social life. If they are, then depression is not likely to be the issue. Still, parents should get their child assessed by a licensed therapist, and any interventions such as the  "release and let go" are best done under a therapist’s watchful eye.

I’d love to hear from other therapists and individuals about how they successfully or unsuccessfully handled similar issues with their teens … what did you learn?? Do you disagree? Cone on, let me have it!

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