Parenting an Unmotivated Teenager

Living with an unmotivated teenager can be a seriously frustrating and stressful existence for parents.

As parents of teenagers, you are focused on launching them into adulthood with the best possible foundations. You have worked hard to raise this young person with loads of potential of much to offer the world. To have them sitting around unwilling and unmotivated as a teenager feels like they are putting their best future at risk.

Living with this every day can be so stressful and frustrating it can really test your sanity!

I have been working with parents struggling with an unmotivated teenager for a lot of years now, and it is safe to say that while every family is unique, nearly all parents of unmotivated teenagers share similar experiences.

In this post, I want to call out some of the most common feelings and mindsets parents who are struggling with unmotivated teenagers have, and offer some insights on how to take positive steps forward if you find yourself in that situation.

You Feel Helpless

One of the most common experiences of parents who are living with an unmotivated teenager is a profound sense of helplessness. Sitting by and watching a capable son or daughter underachieve or waste their ability without being able to change makes even the most optimistic of parents feel powerless and anxious.

Usually, this feeling of helplessness peaks when parents admit to themselves “I can’t make my teenager do anything!” Eventually, most parents of unmotivated teenagers come to this correct, yet demoralising conclusion. And it is a correct assumption, none of us can “make” anyone else do something, can we?

While this realisation heightens the sense of helplessness over the situation, there is a positive to owning this truth as a parent. Being clear in your mind that you can’t make your teenager do anything, is the first step to turning things around.

When parents try to force an agenda on teenagers, in this case trying to “motivate” them to do something, they generally achieve the exact opposite.

Trying to coerce or force your teenager to do something is ultimately futile. By attempting to force the issue the only guaranteed outcome is your teenager will become resentful. Even if they respond initially, over time your teenager will become more resistant and less motivated the more you try to “make” them perform.

It is at this point that many parents feel really stuck. If they try to intervene and motivate their teenager they risk creating a problem. If they sit back and do nothing their teenager remains unmotivated and inactive. It is the classic case being “dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.”

What to Do?

If you are feeling helpless about your unmotivated teenager, you are not alone. Many parents feel like this. But the truth is you are not helpless, there are things you can do.

Instead of focusing on using external pressures or rewards to get your teenager to perform or act, or trying to make them do something, apply your energy to creating the conditions that will enable your teenager’s internal drive to activate.

Now how do you do that?

Well, the research tells us that activating and sustaining someone’s internal or “intrinsic” drive or motivation is much more likely to happen when they have certain helpful conditions.

What science has shown is that teenagers will generally operate with increased levels of sustained motivation when they have:

  •  Autonomy (or a sense of choice and control) over what they are doing
  • Competence and confidence to do the tasks required
  • Supportive relationships to achieve and perform

What does this all mean in practice for you as a parent?

To get started here are some steps to take in creating these conditions:

  • Talk to your teen about what they want to achieve, or what they are interested in, and discuss how they would like to achieve these things
  • Give your teen more of a say in what they do and when they do it and you might be surprised how their attitude changes
  • Focus on improving your teenager’s awareness of their abilities and build their confidence
  • Take time to help your teen master new skills and celebrate with them the things they are already good at
  • Spend time just enjoying time with your teenager doing things they like
  • Try to show your teen how much you appreciate them and value them, go out of your way to make it really clear that your teen is accepted and appreciated by you

Now that list might seem all a little bit passive and relaxed given where your teenager is. But I can assure you that if you take some time to change the environment you will see your teen start to respond differently to tasks they have historically been reluctant to do.

While you may feel helpless, and that feeling is perfectly understandable, the reality is there are things you can do as a parent that will create positive change for your teenager’s drive and motivation. Instead of trying to coerce or “make” your teenager do something, you can try to effect change by creating the best conditions possible.

Your Relationship Becomes Strained

By the time parents come to talk to me about their unmotivated teenager, the relationship between them and their teen is usually in trouble.

An unmotivated teenager creates lots of stress and frustration for parents. A frustrated and stressed parent in turn usually creates a resentful and resistant teenager.

These dynamics do not result in increased feelings of connectedness and mutual happiness.

Many parents of unmotivated teenagers end up feeling more stressed about the relationship than they do about the motivation issues.

A common belief parents have is that if they can fix their teenager’s motivation problem then they will be able to improve the relationship.

However, as with most behaviour-related issues, the solution is nearly always the opposite.

When you focus on fixing the relationship first the behavior, in this case motivation, will take care of itself.

A helpful rule of parenting is relationship first, behaviours second. And motivation is no different.

The uncomfortable truth many parents come to realize along the journey of improving their teenager’s motivation is that their teenager’s lack of motivation is directly connected to the state of the parent-teen relationship.

I can feel some of you getting defensive and dismissive as soon as you read this. Let me try to put you at ease, a bit.

Your teenager’s lack of motivation is your teenager’s issue. It is their problem that ultimately needs to be owned and resolved by them.

However, there are usually aspects of a teenager’s behaviour and lack of motivation that are connected to the relational patterns that exist between the teens and their parents.

Without knowing or meaning to, parents communicate and send messages to their teenagers that create feelings of resentment, frustration, resistance, and incompetence. When teenagers feel like their parents do not understand or are not interested in knowing what is going on, they will be increasingly reluctant to make the type of changes their parents are looking for.

The parents I work with are quite surprised when they discover just how significantly their teen has been impacted by various parenting practices or messages.

Like you, most parents act out of love for their teenagers and are trying to achieve the best outcome for them. So, to learn that despite doing what they thought was best, their teenager has actually been adversely impacted is not a comfortable realisation for parents.

What to Do?

The best thing to do if you are feeling like you are increasingly disconnected or at odds with your teenager is to prioritize your focus on reconnecting with them and put the motivational issues to one side temporarily.

This doesn’t mean that you have to forget about whatever it is they are or are not doing. But it might mean that for a short time let it drop off the agenda in terms of your communication, and instead orientate your engagement around discovering where your teenager is up to.

Some specific mini-goals to set for you in reconnecting with your teenager might include:

  • Apologise if there have been any things said in the heat of a moment that was hurtful, mean, or unfair.
  • Admit to your teenager that you aren’t enjoying the way the relationship is going, acknowledge you have to take your share of responsibility for that and let them know you are going to try to improve things
  • Ask your teenager how they are feeling about the relationship and if there is anything they could think of that would make things easier for the two of you
  • Identify an activity your teenager enjoys that you could do with them – and then arrange to do it
  • Make a consistent effort to regularly communicate messages of acceptance and encouragement to your teen. This might involve actually planning and writing down ideas of what you could communicate – especially if you have had a negative mindset about your teen for some time up until now
  • When you get to talk to your teenager make it your goal to walk away understanding a bit more about how they see themselves, their situation, and the world. But do this without offering any unsolicited advice or opinions – just try to understand their views.

To make that list of things more achievable it might be necessary to do some other personal work in the background. Some personal work you might need to do could include:

  • Finding a safe place to express and talk about the uncomfortable feelings and thoughts you have about your teenager. While it is not comfortable, feeling angry, disappointed, hurt by, or frustrated about our kids comes with the territory. Feelings aren’t right or wrong they just are – how we deal with them is where we get into right and wrong territory. Acknowledging and appropriately processing these types of feelings will enable you to more effectively reconnect with your teen.
  • Set a timeline for putting aside the motivational issue with your teenager that is stressing you. Make a mental commitment, talk to your partner or friend, or even write down the issue you are going to set aside and a date that you will come back to address it with your teen. This will give some mental space to focus on the relationship and hopefully save you some emotional energy.
  • If you aren’t sure about how to connect or strengthen your relationship do some research and get some ideas on how to build relationships with your teenager. Or maybe you might need to develop your awareness and skills in communicating with teenagers. (As a start you might want to use our free Relationship Checklist for parents of teenagers)

This may not feel like a quick fix for your teenager’s lack of motivation, but it will give you a much-needed reset and hopefully a less stressful way forward.

Once teenagers feel secure and connected with their parents’ issues of motivation are resolved much quicker.

You Feel Like Your Teenager Is Defective

Parents of an unmotivated teenager are often convinced that their teenager just has no drive or motivation at all.  After trying a host of ideas to get their teenager engaged, and spending lots of emotional energy, parents are still left with a teenager who is unmotivated.

The logical conclusion is that your teenager has some natural motivation deficit. For some mysterious reason, your teenager lacks the ability to be a self-starter or is just terminally lazy.

While this conclusion is understandable, such thinking can be an unhelpful mindset for your parenting. If you let those types of thoughts about your teenager linger and fester, it will detrimentally impact both how you go about trying to help them, and more importantly how you relate to them in general.

The good news is, that your teenager’s lack of motivation is not some sort of incurable genetic condition or predetermined personality trait that will destine them to a life of permanent underachievement.

Obviously, different kids have different personalities and temperaments. We can all think of people who seem to have unusually high energy levels and capacity, and then there are people who seem wired to process life at a slower more considered pace.

But motivation is not about temperament. It isn’t some type of genetic trait either.

Irrespective of your teenager’s personality and disposition, their lack of motivation is not an irreversible condition.

The simple truth is your teenager is motivated, they are just not motivated to do the things you want them to.

I am sure if you could easily identify activities your teenager is motivated to do.

Your teenager is extremely unlikely to be “unmotivated.” But they are very likely to be avoiding, stuck, frustrated, confused, worried, disengaged, resentful, or struggling with any one of a host of reasons that are leading to their inaction on the issues you think are important.

The other likely reason your teen appears unmotivated to do what you think they should be doing is they want something else.  Your teenager is more motivated to do other things and the desire for these pursuits crowds out any desire to achieve. This might be their desire to achieve as a computer gamer crowds out any desire to achieve at school. Or their desire to stay connected with their friends overrides any desire to get active and pursue physical activities.

To put it simply, your teenager’s lack of motivation is either because something is stopping them from acting or they are more motivated to do other things. It is not because they are “just an unmotivated person.”

What to Do?

Instead of feeling resigned, and possibly resentful, about your teenager’s natural lack of enthusiasm or drive, you might be better served to try and ascertain what is behind your teenager’s lack of drive for whatever it is you think they should be motivated to do.

The first place to start is eliminating any potential issues that require professional help.

There are mental and emotional factors that could be impacting your teenager’s desire and drive. If your teen is struggling with a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, their motivation is likely to be negatively affected. If this is the case, or you suspect this is the case, then getting your teenager seen by the family doctor or school counselor should be your first step.

If your teenager’s lack of motivation is particularly around school work and lack of motivation to study, then it is also important to eliminate any cognitive or learning issues your teenager might have. This includes making sure things like their eyesight and hearing are okay. I know of more than one teenager whose attitude to school changed just by getting glasses that enabled him to read in class!

If you have eliminated those types of obstacles to your teen’s motivation, then try to focus on understanding what it is that they are finding difficult or unattractive about what they are unmotivated to do.

The simple way to think about tackling this is to focus on what is happening for your teenager, instead of focusing on what isn’t happening.

The default mindset when dealing with an unmotivated teenager is to focus on what the teenager isn’t doing. But if you switch to observing or trying to learn about what is happening to your teenager then you will be empowered to find a way forward.

So what might be happening for your unmotivated teenager? Well it could be anything, but some things to look out for might include:

  • Are they avoiding a problem that feels too big to tackle?
  • Are they scared to try because they will fail?
  • Are they genuinely confused about what to do, and too ashamed/embarrassed to ask?
  • Is there a belief they have about why they can’t or shouldn’t try to do something?
  • Are they worried about the social consequences?
  • Are they trying to manage the expectations of others by under-achieving?
  • Are they acting (by not doing something) out of resentment, like a form of protest?
  • Are they emotionally not able to cope or process what is required to do the task?
  • Are they just lacking purpose and can’t connect your expectation to any meaningful goal for them?

These are just some of the things that might be happening for your teenager.

If you pivot your energy to understanding what is behind your teenager’s motivation, instead of trying to get them to do something they are resisting, you will get a much better result.

This can take some time and patience on your part. But with some gentle questioning and keen observation, most parents are able to learn what is going on for their teens and what it is that is stopping them. And that is the goal – identify what is stopping your teenager from acting or doing and help them overcome that obstacle.

Living With Unmotivated Teenagers

If you are someone who is finding living with an unmotivated teenager difficult and stressful, you a definitely not alone. Be sure not to take it to heart and get down on yourself as a parent or give up on getting your teenager to reach their potential.  There could be a number of reasons your teenager is struggling to find their motivation, and in most cases, there are things you can do to turn the situation around. The key thing is to care for yourself and to make use of parenting strategies that will help and not hinder your teenager to find their motivation.

If you would like to learn more about teenage motivation and what parenting practices do and don’t work, we have put together a short parenting guide called the “3 Crucial Mistakes Parents Make Trying to Motivate Teenagers” This guide elaborates further on a number of the concepts referred to in this article and breaks down how parents directly impact a teenager’s drive and motivation.  The guide is free and available here.

For some easy-to-implement ideas to help motivate your teenager check out our post The & Secrets of Motivating Teenagers.

 

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