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, and punish, the less likely teens will do what we want.


Because the more we push, the more they’ll push back. Especially if the things we’re pushing them to change are not things that they perceive as something that needs to change. Here’s the vicious cycle we often wind up with:

So how can we help our teens become more motivated?

The short answer is: you really can’t. 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.

The # 1 reason your teen is not motivated

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 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 arbitrary and mean-spirited…and they rarely if ever inspire change or increase the internal desire and willingness–the motivation–to change. (For more about why punishments don’t work, make sure you download the free tip sheet mentioned at the end of this article.)

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: this is not a “hands-off” parenting approach where you just let go, let them fail and let the ‘chips fall where they may’.

The intended purpose of this approach, where you let them choose their actions and then let them experience the consequences of those actions, is to 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.

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.

Here’s 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 let him choose his actions (don’t wake him up) (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. (And if at that point he is not sure what to do in order to get the results he desires, that’s when you can offer your help–at he’s going to be much more likely to hear what you have to say.)

(For 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, own their results 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 make decisions for our kids and/or 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. So in the context of these strategies, failure is good because it sets the stage for some valuable learning to takes place. But again, failure is not the end-point. It’s actually a new starting point from where your teen can learn the skills, tools and techniques that will be needed as an adult with ADHD.

Free download offer!

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).

In this tip sheet, I will share with you the the #1 reason your punishments aren’t working and I’ll tell you what you can do instead to get better results, including my step by step process for how to inspire your defiant or rebellious teen to become more motivated and more productive and responsible. Also, this tip sheet discusses in more detail some of the most common problems parents of teens just like you are up against, and lists some specific natural and logical consequences you can “let” happen so you can start seeing better results.  Just fill in your contact information below for immediate access!