What if my adolescent just isn't motivated?

Photo Credit:  Marina Vitale

Photo Credit:  Marina Vitale

You see it... the potential...and your child just isn't using it...this drives you NUTS, right?  He's got natural talent (or maybe it's inborn gifted intelligence) and he's squandering it!  

How does this make you feel as a parent?  Frustrated? Angry? Disappointed? Sad?  Let's go deeper for a moment...does his "laziness" make you feel anxious about his future?  Does it maybe even make you feel like you are failing as a parent in some way?

What can a parent DO to motivate a kid who's got SO much potential but just sits around wasting their time or talent?!

It's challenging when our sons and daughters are not putting forth their full effort. If you're like most parents, you've tried any number of different tactics to get the results you want:  nagging, lecturing, punishment, taking away privileges, inducing guilt, bribery...AND NOTHING IS WORKING!  

Well, maybe it does for a short time, but you never see any lasting change.

Before we look at a different way to approach this common problem, let me ask you two questions:

  1. Is it possible that your child isn't lazy, but may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious and is putting on the mask of laziness as a disguise for coping with these feelings?
  2. Have you considered that what motivates you to do (or become) something is not what will motivate them?  Our kids are completely separate entities than us, right?

Before we look at another way to help your child "get motivated" let's first acknowledge what you've been doing so far hasn't worked (or it "didn't stick") and YOU are motivated enough to stop the above tactics, which don't produce the results you want, and put 100% behind another approach.

Do you know why your attempts haven't worked?  It's because true motivation comes from within.  It's intrinsic.  You've been trying to get results by using external force (external motivation).

Try this:

Pick a time when there is no heated battle going on, a neutral random moment.  Look your adolescent in the eye and (with GENUINE open-mind and curiosity) ask him, "Bobby, we continue to butt heads over your low math grade... tell me, how can I best support you in earning the kind of grade that truly reflects your ability?"

(Initially you might get an off-the-cuff "I don't know.")

Be patient.

This might stump them at first...after all, they are used to the nagging/bribing/taking away things approach you have been using for some time.  They might even be suspicious of the fact that you'd ACTUALLY want to support them as they work to discover what you can do to help them.

Honestly, they might not even think their math grade is a problem.  And you can't hope to change someone who does not think they have a problem.

In Dennis Bumgarner's online E Book Motivating Your Intelligent Yet Unmotivated Teenager we learn there are five stages to change (as discovered by James Prochaska):

  1. Pre-Contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

During phase 1, Pre-Contemplation, it hasn't entered your child's mind that a change needs to be made.  This is when (if we see a change needs to be made) we ask "What If" questions...for example; 

"What would be different if your math grade improved?"  "What wouldn't be different?"

"What will happen if things continue in their current direction?"

"How would improving your math grade change our relationship?"

"How do you expect things will be around home if you don't improve?"

The idea is to get them thinking for themselves that they can see a problem and how they might be able to begin to control the outcome to this dilemma.  You are working to move them from Pre-Contemplation to Contemplation.

During the Contemplation stage, your son is beginning to weigh the possibility for change...which won't turn in to the next stage unless the pros OUTWEIGH the cons in his mind.  If he begins to do, say or take action that INDICATES he's moving to make a change, you might be incredibly tempted to cheer him on with statements like, "I'm glad to see you've come to your senses and are going to do the right thing." or "You'll be happy in the end that you did this."

DON'T DO IT!  RESIST THE URGE TO "RAH RAH" (according to Dennis Bumgarner) your child is just beginning to consider changing...don't jump in because what will happen is you'll push him back to ambivalence!  

Here's what to do to help your child move into the next stage:

No encouraging statements, no commending on new found wisdom, no talking about next steps...JUST under the radar support.  For example:

Bobby:  "Maybe I could go in for tutoring next week just to go over what's fuzzy."

YOU:  "Okay, if you decide that's what's best, let me know, I'm happy to drop you off early or pick you up if you need to stay late.  Is there anything else you think might be helpful to you?"

The second part of that response let's your child know that YOU trust THEM to come up with what they need.  You are the support, remember?  

Encourage contemplation, don't shut it down.

Stage 3, Preparation, your son has worked out most of his ambivalence.  DON'T RUIN IT BY GOING BACKWARDS...NO "RAH RAH" (again Dennis Bumgarner's words).  He's decided, at least for now, to go in and get some extra help.  Play it cool mom and dad.

Inquire, but not too much. Show interest and curiosity, but stop short of interrogation. Let him continue with his preparations without comment or criticism.
— Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW

Stage 2 and 3 are the most critical, this is where your child is learning what motivates him from the inside.  Intrinsic!

Two side notes...as you watch this unfold, know that kids will go back and forth between stages, patience is a virtue! Stage 2 and 3 is where you'll most want to encourage BUT where it can be the most harmful.  Hold tight!

Stage 4, Action, actual behavior changing is taking place.  He is going for tutoring, scheduled on his own, regularly.  Don't panic and look at grades...allow the course to flow.  For the most part, you see at this stage of the game forward motion and action on his part.  The kind of cheerleading you'll want to do at this stage is more about YOU than your child.  Ask him what success (clearer understanding of math with help) has meant for him. Remember, be interested on HIS behalf.

Stage 5, Maintenance.  You see that as the months roll by, change is stable, he's continuing to get extra help (on his own) when needed. No more arguments at home.  

THIS IS HARD WORK MOMS AND DADS!  I know it.  To support, instead of direct, to put the decision making to get better on your child's plate instead of force it yourself is one of the hardest things we can work through as parents.  Especially when there is SO MUCH pressure and anxiety on parents today.

I totally get it!

One of the most important aspects of this change process is the ENERGY you bring into the situation.  You've got to get clear within your own mind that you are okay with passing the reins to your child and you are genuinely desiring to take on the support role.  

If you would like some help with this MOST IMPORTANT element of working with your child (the energy part), reach out to me...I can help you with that if you are a willing spirit.

Would love your thoughts, share them in the comments, or email me at realifeparentguide@gmail.com.