What to do if your teen stops trying

I remember how it felt back when my son with ADHD was a teen: as time went on, it was clear that I cared WAY more than he did about just about everything. He seemed content to just coast along and the only thing he did seem to care about was his social life and playing video games…while I lived each day in a state of stress/frustration/fear.

Here’s what I know for sure now:

The more we parents hover, nag, nudge, lecture, plead, etc., the less likely teens will take control and accept responsibility for their future.


Because motivation is an inside job.

In order for anyone to truly want to change their behavior (and be willing to do the things required to get there), they have to truly have a desire to change. It has to be a problem they want to solve, (which usually comes about when they realize that they want different results in their life and in order to get different results, they have to take different actions).

If you are still not convinced that motivation has to come from within, here’s an example for you. Pick the scenario you think would be more motivating for you.

Scenario 1: Your significant other says to you, “Hey honey, don’t you think you’re getting a little chubby? I think you should eat less and exercise more so you can lose a few pounds. If you don’t, you’re likely to wind up obese and with Diabetes.” And then he/she proceeds to send you lots of articles, wakes you up early to go running, gives you the side-eye when you reach for the bread bowl, etc.

Scenario 2: You wake up one day, put on your favorite jeans and they’re hard to button; you look in the mirror and decide: “This is it. Today is the day I start taking better care of myself so that I don’t wind up obese and with Diabetes.”

I’m betting that in the first example, even if it is true that you could stand to lose a few pounds…and even if it’s true that if you keep gaining weight, you could wind up obese and with Diabetes…and even if your S.O. means well and just wants to help…instead of feeling motivated, you’re more likely to feel many other things, like defensive, hurt, and maybe even a little bit rebellious or defiant. In the second example, though, I am willing to bet that you’d be much more likely to feel motivated and have the desire to move forward doing different things so you can get different results–because you perceive a problem that you are ready and willing to take action to solve.

So what does all this mean for your teen?

If it’s true that motivation has to come from the inside, and only happens when we perceive a problem and want to change what we’re doing so we can get different results, what CAN we as parents do to help our kids who seem to lack in all motivation?

The first thing that’s important to do is to take a step back and think about things as objectively as you can. Ask yourself whether the lack of motivation you’re seeing (not caring about physical appearance or hygiene, or about grades, or whatever it is) is a problem for your teen, or is it just a problem for you?

If whatever that’s causing a problem for you is NOT a problem for your teen, it’s most likely because he or she has not been allowed to feel the sting of the natural consequences that happen as a result of their actions (remember, in order for us to want to change something, we have to get to the point where we don’t like our results which then makes us willing (motivated) to do something different in order to get different results.)

So, in order to help our teens become more motivated, we as parents have to back off and do LESS–less hovering, less nagging, less reminding, less rescuing.

I know that might sound a little scary; it probably seems to run counter to what you think “responsible” parents should do. I think a lot of us are brought up to believe that it’s our JOB as parents to protect our kids, keep them from hurt/harm and to do whatever we can do to steer them in the direction of what we know is good/right/important; and when they seem to lack motivation, we automatically think, “Maybe if they just had a little push from me….” But the reality is that when we “over-assist”, i.e. lecture, remind, rescue, and become a little bit (or a lot) like a helicopter parent, we are hurting rather than helping their chances at becoming motivated (and as I will discuss below, we risk doing other damage too).

What should parents do instead?

In cases like these, where parents care about certain things way more than their teens appear to, I have found that it’s far better for parents to step back, offer assistance in non-intrusive ways, and then let their teen get in touch with his/her inner drive to achieve.

In other words, step back and let natural/logical consequences happen so that your teen can finally see the issue as a problem he/she is ready to solve (therefore becoming motivated by the desire to get different results).

An example of a problem and the natural consequences you could “let” happen:

Your problem: Your son oversleeps and you have to keep waking him up. What will happen if you don’t (i.e. what are the natural or logical consequences?) If he wakes up late and gets to school late, he would get a tardy grade, or be embarrassed in class, or lose points or have to talk to the Principal. Or, if he misses the bus, he has to find his own way to school (walk, hire an Uber/Lyft or pay you to drive him provided he’s ready to leave when you are, etc.) When these things happen, they become a problem to him and he then becomes motivated to change his actions so he can get different results.

(If you want some more ideas and examples of natural/logical consequences to try, see the free download offer at the end of this article!)

At this point, many parents will say, “But if we just let our teen fail, I’m afraid it will just hurt their self-esteem and make them more depressed and want to give up even more.”

I understand the concern, but it’s important to keep in mind that like motivation, self-esteem is also an “inside job” and the best way to build self-esteem is to prove to yourself that you can do hard things and feel that sense of accomplishment. By offering your teen the opportunity to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes, you are helping them build self-confidence. (When you constantly do things for your kids, or rescue or shield them from failure, you are giving them the message: I don’t think you are capable. That is not a very self-esteem building message!)

The bottom line is that when we parents shield our kids from failure, we are robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to cope independently, to solve problems and to prove to themselves that they can bounce back from hard times—all critical skills for adulthood and for building positive self-esteem and self-confidence.

Things to keep in mind along the way

Remember that the outcome of good parenting is not a teen who is perfect in every way or who achieves the all things you think spell “success”, but rather, a teen who is prepared to embark on the lifelong process of growth and self-improvement while following his/her own unique road map to success. In the end, who and what your teen becomes is up to them and it may end up looking very different than you hope/dream/envision for them. I know we all want our kids to be happy, productive adults but how and when (and even if) they get there is to a large extent out of our control.

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to examine and adjust your expectations as necessary and to figure out and accept what you can control and change–and what you can’t–so you can stay calm, happy (and sane!) and have a great relationship with your teen no matter what challenges come your way.

Is that easy to do? Sometimes it isn’t! But the good news is that I can help!

I recognize that these things I’ve discussed here might sound great “on paper” but are sometimes hard to put in place at home. I get it. Any time we change something, it can be a two steps forward/one step back process and there will be bumps along the way. That’s why it can really help to have someone in your corner to give you a fresh perspective, encouragement and support along the way. If you’d like to find out more about how to work with me one on one, go HERE.

Free download offer!

For more examples and ideas for natural/logical consequences you can try, just fill in your information in the spaces below and I’ll send you my FREE parenting tip sheet: Why your punishments aren’t working to change your teen’s bad behavior (and what to do instead).

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