Teenagers can be tough to parent. On the one hand, your child still very much needs you, perhaps more than ever, as they navigate this in-between time before adulthood. (Particularly when faced with peer pressure, budding independence and the ability to make more of their own decisions.)
On the other hand, teens often think they know better than their parents, which makes actually parenting them a challenge. You need to be light handed in your approach (as to not scare them off). But you also need to be convincing enough to encourage them to make the right choices for themselves.
When it comes to unmotivated teens—and trying to motivate them—parenting becomes even more of a challenge. Teens’ growing brains actually work against them in this regard, causing many parents to lament how “lazy” their once driven children have become.
However, motivating a teen isn’t impossible when you understand how to work with them—and perhaps allow yourself to let go, just a little. Here’s how to help your teen take charge of their own life and build their self motivation in the process.
What causes teens to be unmotivated
Motivating a teenager can feel impossible sometimes. That’s because you’re essentially working against biology. Motivation is controlled by dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with reward. High levels of dopamine make us feel great. Low levels make us feel bored and unmotivated.
Turning the teen years dopamine levels tend to be low, typically because of stress. There’s a lot of academic pressure on teens to do well in school and get good grades in order to have a successful future, get into the “right” college and (in some cases) please their parents. There’s social pressure to fit in and be popular or at least have some friends. This everyday stress and anxiety can cause dopamine to plummet.
Then, when you think about how much time teens spend on their devices and how social media apps can cause anxiety, depression and depleted dopamine levels, it’s no wonder that teens get stuck in a motivation rut.
In addition to the dopamine factor, teenagers tend to be more emotional and prone to outbursts. Their brains are rapidly changing in the puberty years, making everything in their lives feel like a huge deal. Unlike the popular platitute, they very much sweat the small stuff. Much like you probably remember from the toddler years, teenagers can be very reactive as their brains struggle to emotionally regulate in the wake of all of this biological change.
All of this leads to many teens feeling unmotivated—and many parents unsuccessfully nagging them to stop being so lazy.
What should parents do when their child seems unmotivated?
When you’re up against these biological and social factors, how exactly do you help motivate your teen? While there’s no foolproof formula to spur your bored teen into action, there are some things you can do to help encourage them.
Here are a seven key things you can try:
Really listen to them
Take the time to talk with your teen about why they feel unmotivated. Listen more than you speak so your teen feels heard and try to reserve judgment or advice. Sometimes, teens (and people in general) just need a sounding board to help process their feelings. You might even share a journal with your teen so you can write back and forth to each other or email each other if your child is better at expressing themselves in words.
Understand their motivators
Think about what motivates your child. Is it money? Is it screen or computer time? Getting to use the car? Being allowed the freedom to sleep over at a friend’s house? Whatever their motivators are, use these to encourage your teen to do what needs to be done to earn these perks.
Help them learn how to manage stress
Since stress and dopamine are dependent on each other, it’s worth treating the root cause of your teen’s lack of motivation. Encourage your teen to try meditation or yoga to reduce stress and give them the tools and resources to do these things. Talk about the activities and rituals you rely on to relax and let them know that you want them to feel like they’re entitled to downtime, too. You could even bring up the option of therapy if you feel like your teen is overly anxious or depressed.
Teach them how to make smaller, achievable goals
Sometimes, teens feel overwhelmed with the task at hand, which paralyzes them from even getting started. Whether it’s a 10-page paper or a mountain of college applications, some to-dos feel insurmountable, especially to teenagers who haven’t had any practice with the stress of the real world. Help your teen break down bigger tasks into smaller goals—you can even teach them how to use the SMART goals system—so that they feel like they are making slow, steady progress.
Encourage after school activities
You may think that letting your teen do something fun is counterintuitive when they need to, say, get their grades up. But physical activities like sports or dance and activities like creating art or volunteering can release feel-good chemicals in the brain. Exercise in particular can help regulate dopamine, which is key for motivation. While these activities will take time away from homework (and chores) they can help your teen in the long run.
Inspire them to find a mantra
It may sound cheesy—and your teen will almost definitely roll their eyes at you for suggesting this—but you can motivate your child by helping them find some inspiration. Encourage them to read an inspirational book or browse the internet for TED talks they can watch. You might even steer them toward motivational quotes or encouraging memes that they can turn to when they need a boost of inspiration.
Let them be in charge of their own destiny
More than anything, teens need to know that they are the ones steering their own ships now. If you have identified as a helicopter parent in the past, now is the time to land and turn in your pilot’s license. Don’t hover over them when they do their homework. Don’t constantly remind them about their college application deadlines. Sometimes, you have to let your teen experience what happens when they don’t try their best or forget to do something on time. This gives them true autonomy and allows them to feel pride when they do accomplish something all on their own.
How do you motivate a teen who has a self-esteem issue?
Many teens struggle with low self esteem. Puberty is a tough time for many kids, both physically and emotionally. When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to want to retreat into your room to escape the world.
How to improve self esteem? Encourage your teen simply by believing in them. When they know that you have their back in a real way, they can start feeling more confident in their abilities and choices. If they need extra help to develop a skill, help them research options for learning. If they feel uncomfortable in their changing body, help them find clothes that fit and help them feel more like themselves.
It may be a long process from your teen feeling insecure to becoming more confident. But working with your teen on self-esteem can really change their lack of motivation.
Tips for motivating your teen
When it comes to actually motivating your teen, some strategies will work better than others. Every child is different and you know yours best. However, there are some key ways to motivate your teen in the most common areas of concern.
Some of the biggest sticking points for parents when it comes to motivating teens are homework, housework and preparing for adulthood. Here is some advice for motivating your teen in these specific areas:
Motivating a teen to do their homework
The worst thing you can do when trying to motivate your teen to do their homework is to nag them or create more stress by emphasizing looming deadlines and the consequences of not getting things done. (Especially if you start telling them how getting behind on their 9th grade math homework means that they’ll never get into Stanford.)
Allow your teen the autonomy to get their own work done. After all, it’s their homework, not yours. Work on any lingering thoughts you may have about how your child’s performance (or lack thereof) reflects on you. Your teen is responsible for their homework—full stop. Let them know this and then let them make the choice for themselves about completing it.
Motivating a teen to do chores
The most important thing you can do to encourage your teen to participate in household chores is to work on your relationship with your child. Mutual respect goes a long way in any relationship. As your child becomes more of an adult than a kid it’s time to treat them as such. Instead of demanding that chores are done and ordering your teen around, try to calmly discuss how you feel your teen needs to pick up the slack and work with your whole household to come together toward a common goal.
Once you’ve established that your relationship is built on mutual respect, revisit the ways your teen feels motivated. A cash allowance, ability to use the family car or other perks you can offer would be solid trades for doing chores. You can discuss with your teen what they feel is fair, allowing them a voice in the conversation before you make a final decision.
Be sure to also use positive reinforcement when you see that your teen is doing the chores you’ve asked them to complete—without critiquing their work or re-doing it. (As in, if they don’t make their bed exactly to your standard, just let it go rather than trying to “fix” it. Re-doing their work does more harm than good in the long run.) Let them do their chores their way. If you need to give feedback, do so from the perspective of a teacher, not as a disciplinarian.
Motivating a teen to prepare for their future
As a parent, your job is to prepare your child for the real world. However, there is only so much you can do to really get them ready for a life outside your home. Once you have established your teen’s autonomy and built a strong, respectful relationship with your teen, you can help motivate them for what lies ahead by framing the future as something positive to look forward to.
Motivate them by allowing them to get excited for their future and all the possibilities that lie ahead of them. Talk to them about what their dreams are, what they believe their best skills and qualities are and what makes them tick. When you do this, you encourage your teen to talk with you about their aspirations. In this way, you can help them feel more self-motivated about what they truly want to do with their adult life.
Parenting a teen has its ups and downs as you watch your child grow into the adult they will soon become. As life happens, their motivation will come in bursts and then wane, just like yours does. Whenever you can, try not to put too much unnecessary pressure on your child—or on yourself.
Work toward maintaining a mutually respectful bond with your growing teen and allow yourself to be a cheerleader on the sidelines as your child gains autonomy over their own life. This will set them up for becoming a more confident, self-sufficient adult.