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 I hovered, nagged, nudged, lectured, pleaded, and punished, the less likely he was to do what I wanted.


Because the more I pushed, the more he automatically pushed back.

I often found myself wondering the same thing you’re probably wondering:

How can we as parents help our resistant or defiant teens become more motivated to do the things we know they need to do to have a happy, productive life?

The short answer is: we really can’t make anyone become motivated because motivation is an inside job. Motivation is not something that can be forced upon us by someone else; it’s a desire and drive that comes from within.

Motivation = Internal desire + willingness to reach goals

Motivation not only means you have a strong desire within yourself to achieve something, but it also means that you have the willingness to do what it takes to get there–because the results you want are that important to you.

To illustrate this in another way, 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.

This all works the same for teens too: In order for them to truly want to achieve a goal, like changing their behavior (and to be willing to do the things required to get there), they have to truly have an internal desire to change and the willingness to do what it takes.

Whose ‘problem’ is it?

The most common reason your teen is not motivated to change what they’re doing is because whatever it is that you are trying to get your teen to do is a problem for YOU but not a problem for them.

Some a few examples of the things we as parents have problems with but are often not “problems” for our kids:

  • Grades
  • Sleep cycles (Staying up late, not getting themselves up in the morning)
  • Personal hygiene
  • Messy rooms

A lot of times, teens are simply not internally motivated to do anything differently about things like the ones I listed above because they don’t see these things as things that they need to change. A lot of times, this is because they have not been allowed to feel the sting of the natural or logical consequences that happen as a result of their choices and actions related to these issues. Sure, they hear our threats and have to deal with whatever punishments we put in place for not doing what we say, but threats and punishments don’t result in long-lasting change. To your teen, your threats and punishments seem unreasonable, arbitrary and mean-spirited…and they rarely if ever inspire change or increase the internal desire and willingness—the motivation—to change.

What DOES work:

When you allow your teen to take ownership of his/her choices and you allow natural and logical consequences to happen, your teen will learn a very important lesson that will last into adulthood: “Every action I take and choice I make has results; I choose the action, therefore I choose the result. And if I want different results, I need to take different actions.”

And, they will also learn that sometimes, in order to get the results they want, they will need to be open and responsive to the help, input and support of others—like you!

An important reminder:

One very important thing to keep in mind is this: I am not suggesting that you just let go, let them fail and let the ‘chips fall where they may’.

Instead, I am recommending an approach where you strategically guide your stubborn, resistant and/or defiant teen to a point where they are ready and willing (and motivated) to accept help and input. This is done by letting them choose their actions and then let them experience the consequences of those actions in a controlled, strategic environment.

Even though at the beginning you are stepping back, in the end, when they get to the point where they decide they want different results and realize that they don’t have the skills or knowledge or tools to solve the problem on their own, then that’s when you step back in and offer your help–in an empowering way vs. an enabling way.

For more information (and some specific examples of natural and logical consequences), go HERE.