Motivating teenagers can seem like a battle we are never going to win as parents.
We yell, punish, remove privileges and even offer incentive for (read: bribe) our kids all in an effort to get them to change course and become motivated about high school learning. We do this because we want our kids to learn and we know that getting good grades in high school is critical to college admissions.
But how can we get our kids to see the importance of high school learning for their futures as opposed to what we want for them? Below are some thoughts from my own personal experience as a single-parent to a teenage girl.
The first thing we need to do is realize that while we found high school to be a challenging social and academic experience filled with pressure and awkward moments, it is an even more stressful and competitive environment for our teenagers today. Teens feel a significant amount of pressure to get good grades brought on by their peers (in person and through social media) and their parents.
The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey found that, on average, teens reported their stress levels were 5.8 on a 10-point scale. Adults reported their stress at 5.1. Approximately a third of teens (31 percent) felt overwhelmed by school and other pressures with 36 percent saying that stress increased their fatigue and caused them to miss meals.
The second step is to realize that our teenagers do not always lack for motivation. Adults and most parents readily associate teenagers with laziness. As someone born into the tail end of Generation X, I remember the term “slacker generation” was often used to describe us as teenagers. However, the truth of the matter is that teens are very motivated. They are just not necessarily motivated in the ways/areas we want them to be. Therefore, the challenge is not how to get our kids motivated, but rather how do we help them channel or direct their energy to important tasks? How do we help them make the right connections? And, finally, how do we help them reduce stress levels along the way?
Connect College To High School Learning
One approach is to connect the positive excitement of going to college to high school learning. As parents, we can go about this in clever ways that help to boost enthusiasm and independence within our kids, and encourage them to set the right goals.
For example, starting in your son’s or daughter’s freshman and sophomore years in high school, ask them what kinds of subjects they find interesting and what they like to do. Keep in mind, their interests are likely to change over time – so do not panic if your child does not want to become a prize winning nuclear physicist or a Supreme Court Justice.
Once you have some clear insight into their interests, find some colleges and universities that have academic programs that meet their interests. Then request information from those schools in your child’s name.
Why? Teenagers want to be more independent. By registering them with some colleges, it will not be long before they start to receive direct correspondence from these schools with information about student life, activities and standards necessary for admission. That a college or university has reached out to them will be a positive motivator to start thinking about what they need to do academically and what extracurricular activities they may want to focus on.
My own daughter was very excited to start receiving information from colleges. After a tough freshman year, she received her first letters and packets over the summer. She decided then to attack her sophomore year, and has made completing homework and studying a top priority. What’s more, she is not satisfied with everything she is learning and has sought-out additional academic resources to improve her mastery of subjects and help build a stronger academic portfolio.
Find Ways To Reduce Stress
The other key to better channeling the energy of our teens to high school learning is to reduce stress. As mentioned above, our teens are often more stressed out than we are as adults. Think about your most stressful day and realize that your son or daughter is probably more stressed than you are. It may be hard to imagine, but it is very likely.
Talk with your teen about their day and listen to what they have to tell you. If their day sounds intense and their schedules are slammed, look to reduce the amount of tasks or activities they have. Though we often parrot our parents who lectured us about walking miles to school in snow or having a long list of household chores, we have to accept that times are different. We may need to put less pressure on our kids outside of school to help them focus on their more immediate responsibilities.
Motivating our teens to concentrate on their high school learning is not an easy task. But when we listen to our kids, we have a better chance of finding creative ways to help them apply their energy and reduce their stress to give them every opportunity for success.
When our children are younger, they need constant guidance. It starts at birth. We learn to nurture, guide, and teach. And though our kids learn at a rapid pace and start to fascinate us with their perception, creativity, and unique personalities, we spend at least ten years focused on teaching and talking.
As parents of teens, our job changes. As a single parent to a teenage girl, one of the lessons I had to learn as my daughter grew older was to stop talking and start listening more. It was not easy (Read Psychology Today’s article, “Listening To Your Adolescent” for an insightful perspective on this topic.).
It started a few years ago, when we were in the car together, and my daughter complained to me about a friend of hers. I immediately jumped in and started pointing out where she was wrong in her approach to the problem. I offered some solutions and provided some coaching on how she could initiate the conversation and handle her challenges in a constructive way. I let her know that I was adamantly opposed to her breaking off a friendship with someone who was like a sister to her for several years over what I considered to be a trivial matter. I thought to myself, how could she not want to see this friend of hers again? The two of them have been joined at the hip for years. Why was she acting so childish? I had better step in a save her from an immature decision.
After I had finished talking, I relaxed in my driver’s seat and thought I had done my job as a parent.
Unfortunately, my daughter sat back and felt frustrated, angry, and confused. Why wasn’t I listening? Why was her dad taking the side of her friend?
By the time my daughter was a few months into seventh grade, similar communication challenges had developed between us. She was often angry at me. When her academic performance dipped, I took away what I had previously identified as privileges: cell phone use, makeup, laptop time, etc. But instead of her following instructions and changing her attitude, the old problems persisted. Some got worse.
It was not until we met with a therapist who specialized in teenagers that the true scope of my parenting mistakes, and my daughter’s frustrations, came to light.
I had heard from friends and colleagues who have seen therapists for a variety of reasons, and it seemed like everyone has had mixed results. Nevertheless, I decided it was worth a try.
What I liked about our therapist was her approach and goals. She told me from the start that she wanted to solve the current problems my daughter and I were experiencing. To do that, she needed to understand what we were thinking and how we were behaving in different circumstances. This is known as cognitive behavioral therapy. Any thinking that was inaccurate or unhelpful needed to go. Of course, I did not think that I was making mistakes. I went into therapy thinking it was my daughter that needed to change herapproach.
I’ll never forget my first real lesson; my wake-up call. It was harsh and eye-opening.
I was alone in a session with the therapist and explained a particularly nasty morning exchange with my daughter. She had failed to complete a homework assignment before school and therefore, she had to lose one of her privileges.
Very quickly the therapist’s face went from pensive to concerned. She asked me, “Please do not tell me you took away her makeup?”
That’s exactly what I had done.
I knew my daughter valued wearing makeup in school. My rationale was pretty basic. You need to earn privileges. If they are of value to you, then you will do what you need to do to keep them. If you do not get things done, you will lose those privileges.
Boy, was I wrong! And the therapist let me have it!
She told me about all the pressures my daughter was experiencing at her school. Everyone my daughter knew was focused on how everyone else was dressing and how other girls looked. To paraphrase, the therapist told me that not allowing my daughter to wear makeup was like sending her out into the world with a scarlet letter on her face that said, “I am ugly. Judge me accordingly.” What I had done, according to the therapist, was cruel and bordered on evil.
Cruel? Evil? I have to admit, I thought that was a bit extreme.
I even told this story to other parents – especially mothers. They all thought the therapist I was seeing was crazy. No one really had a problem with what I had done.
But the reality is – I did have a problem. No matter how much validation I received from my decision to take makeup away for a day, I knew the results were not positive. I weighed everyone’s input, and in the end I decided I needed to trust what the therapist was saying.
She told me what I needed to do: apologize. I could not qualify my apology either. No saying, “I am sorry, but if you had only…” It had to be simple, direct and tackle my offense head-on: “I am sorry for taking away your makeup. What I did was wrong, cruel and evil. I did not listen to you or what you are experiencing at school. It will NEVER happen again.”
After I stopped talking, I was uncertain what to expect. This was new territory for me. Would I get a door slammed into my face? More yelling?
My daughter took a deep breath and said, “Thank you! It’s about time you understood what I am going through.” We hugged and a great feeling of peace swept over both of us.
In the subsequent weeks it was my time to get coached. I listened and learned.
Here are some highlights:
- For starters, teenagers can be fast thinkers and problem solvers. We all think they lack life experiences, maturity, knowledge and skills. And in many cases, they do. But some love to solve their own problems. When a teen or pre-teen approaches us to tell us about a challenge they are experiencing, we think they want our wisdom. In fact, they often want someone they trust to listen to them as they work the problem out for themselves. The hardest part for us as parents is to keep quiet and listen. I will never forget the first time I really sat back and kept my mouth shut. I listened as my daughter worked out how she was going to talk to a person at school who had been bothering her. She went through a wide range of options, settled on a course of action and thanked me for listening. I remember thinking, “Wow. That was easy!”
- When you are approached by your teenager, turn off all distractions or things that are competing for your attention. That means turn off the TV (sorry guys, muting the sound does not count), put the phone down, stop blending your smoothie, or walk away from the computer screen. We expect attention and respect when we talk with people. Guess what? Teenagers want the same thing. Focusing your attention on them shows you value and respect them, and what they have to say.
- Keep track of your body language when they talk. I know it can be difficult, because we sometimes do not know what shocking words are going to escape the lips of our precious children. But crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, dropping your jaw or gasping is not going to help. Watch out for mocking or trivializing what teenagers are saying. Sit down with them or stand comfortably near them, and look at them in a relaxed and attentive way.
- Manage your responses. Sometimes it helps to restate what you hear them saying to make sure you and your teen are on the same page. Other times, you need to ask directly, “How can I help you? Do you want advice? Or do you need me to listen more?”
- Do not overreact. One of my daughter’s friends decided to add a small blue streak in her hair. How did her mother respond? She confiscated her phone and went through all her text messages. She then banned her from seeing certain people, and restricted her activities for weeks. I have learned that this is just one example of many in which parents may project their childhood on their own kids—jumping to conclusions that because they drank, did drugs or ran with sketchy people, that their own children must be doing the same thing. As a parent who is now a very active listener, I have become very aware of parents yelling at their kids and overreacting about the smallest things. Guess what? Doing that only shuts down your teenager’s willingness to communicate with you. I experienced it and I see other parents making the same mistake. This does not mean you do not hold your kids accountable when they make mistakes. But give yourself time to think before you react.
Do you have other recommendations or thoughts? Share them below!
If you are a parent to a teenager, you know the struggles of figuring out how to motivate teenagers in the right ways. Be it in academics, sports or household responsibilities, creating a sense of urgency, priority and general motivation can feel like a constant, mind-numbing battle.
One of the challenges we face as parents is that communicating with teenagers is very different from how we address younger children. In fact, learning how to communicate and listen is one of the mostchallenging transitions parents need to make. After all, we spend approximately 10 years teaching, guiding and talking to our kids.
Through all the difficulties there are steps parents can take to help our teens become more responsive, and help them to start maturing into responsible adults. Here are seven tips for how to motivate teenagers:
- Sit down and ask your teenager what they enjoy. Sometimes we can make assumptions about our kids based on what we hear and see from day to day. However, the best approach is to hear it directly from them. Teenagers want to have more control over decisions about their lives, and it is important we give that to them. Once you know what interests your teenager, the next step is to facilitate it. Give them opportunities to experience the things they enjoy and are good at. And do not worry if their first professional aspirations do not involve following in your footsteps or becoming an investment banker.
- Induce motivation by showing real-life examples of what commitment and hard work achieves. As mentioned above, this starts with listening to what your son or daughter is interested in. It culminates with you finding and introducing your child to professionals in careers that follow similar paths to their interests. Sharing stories in the news or video interviews of people who have followed a similar pursuit or interest will help connect the dots for your teenager. I also mentioned in a previous post (See Motivating Teens: How To Connect College To High School Learning) that signing your child up for college mailing lists can also have a positive impact and induce motivation. The key is to connect your teenager’s interest with potential role models, mentors or opportunities. Give them something to shoot for and let them go after it.
- Recognize your teenager’s accomplishments and limit your critical responses. Remember, there is still a sharp learning curve for teens. And while many need direction, teenagers frequently want to learn it for themselves too. Building motivation is a delicate balance. You want to cultivate a positive attitude and desire, you do not want to kill it before it’s started.
- Another way to motivate your teenager is to set goals and encourage them to complete tasks. Even when finishing a task is uncomfortable or unpleasant, you need to push your teen to get it done. Teens, like adults, build habits. Habits are hardwired into our brains from the moment we start moving around and learning. The more bad habits we build and the longer we build them, the harder it is to change. An effective motivational tool is to build-in incentives for performance when setting goals. Just be sure to give thought into any contract or incentive-based agreement you make. Remember, teens, like adults, start to make neural associations with pleasure and pain. They put off writing research papers for the same reason many of us put off filing our taxes. What pushes us to start tasks is the realization that the pain of putting it off any longer outweighs the actual task itself. So, while trying to capitalize on a reward, remember to make the alternative as unpalatable as possible.
- The spark to the motivational fire within us often comes following success, and can sometimes occur after taking a risk. First, try to position your teenager for small successes that can serve to build confidence and excitement. Accomplishing something new, however simple, builds a positive foundation. Alternatively, you also should encourage your teen to take risks. Risk-taking can bring out a wide range of emotions and reactions in our kids—just like it does in each of us. One result is that taking risks helps to eliminate the fear we associate with trying something completely out of our comfort zone.
- Do not make excuses for a lack of motivation. We all know how overloaded and stressed our teenagers are in school and life in general. Their schedules can be tight. Our kids get pulled in a lot of directions. Do not use that excuse for a lack of commitment.
- Lastly, be sure to give your teenager attention. Talk with them. Listen to them. Be present for them. One of the most overlooked ways we can inspire motivation in our kids is to give them our time and engage them in their lives.
If you have other tips or recommendations, please share them by submitting a comment below.
Stacy is an honor roll high school student in Virginia. She participates in a number of school activities, is active in her church and has a large circle of friends. One weekend, she went on a sleepover and came home with a streak of blue in her hair. Stacy and her friends were just having a bit of fun. Her mother was less than enthusiastic.
Not only was Stacy told to wash her hair out until the blue was gone, she was ordered to turn over her cell phone and laptop. Stacy’s mother went through every email and text message. It was not long before Stacy was banned from seeing certain friends and given a strict punishment. Her mother had found some text messages that she thought were not appropriate.
Every parent wants their children to be safe from online predators, inappropriate material, bullying and other types of abuse. We want our kids to be good people and act responsibly. Most of all, we want them to have the opportunity to be kids, have a happy childhood and grow up to be good young adults.
But at what point does monitoring your teen’s cell phone cross the line between good parenting and an invasion of privacy? When it comes to supervising our teens, what is right and what is too much?
It is estimated that over 20 million people have downloaded Life360, a location app that allows family members and others within specific “circles” to instantly see where each person is on a map. There are other apps for monitoring teen cell phone activity such as Code9 Mobile, which allows you to set up word-based rules to alert you to inappropriate content. TeenSafe has similar functionality (across texting and social media) and boasts over 500,000 active users. When it comes to monitoring your teen, there are hundreds of options such as MamaBear and SMSTracker that are popular among parents.
According to Pew Research, 64% of parents look at the contents of their children’s cell phones. Though this trend dissipates as children get older, the one constant is that girls are more likely to lose their phone as punishment (69%) than boys (55%), and girls are more likely to have the contents of their phones monitored (50%) than boys (46%), albeit by a smaller margin.
Of course, none of this is really surprising. Parents are concerned about their teens, and tend to be more protective of (and paternalistic to) girls than they are with boys.
Yet what parents do not take into account is that all teens face the prospect of unwanted messages (sexting, spam, etc) as well as harassment and bullying via their cell phones – just as they do in school, sports and online. In fact, about 26% of teens can expect to receive such treatment through their cell phones, whereas approximately 30% of teens are suspected of facing bullying in their schools. Do we, as parents, need to track what happens and what gets said in the hallways, sports fields and other places our teens go?
What is particularly interesting about the data on teen cell phone use is that teens who do not have time limitations on their phones, and do not have restrictions or parents who use software/apps for active monitoring of their cell phones, are statistically less likely to text while driving or talk while driving. According to Pew Research, there also is no correlation between parents who monitor their kids and those who do not, and the likelihood of a teen receiving inappropriate messages.
What does play a factor is that kids who have parents who frequently communicate with them about their cell phone usage and the dangers of spam and inappropriate or sexually explicit content are much more likely to report those activities when they occur.
Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and Harvard, discovered in her interviews of teenagers that teens actively try to avoid “paternalistic adults who use safety and protection as an excuse to monitor their everyday sociality.” Instead of creating a more engaging relationship with their teenagers, many parents, especially those of teenage girls, push them farther away and encourage behavior such as hiding or masking cell phone and online activity. Not surprisingly, a 2012 McAfee study revealed that 70% of teens hide their online behavior from their parents.
So what does this really come down to?
Trust and communication.
In hundreds of interviews and polls, like the one conducted on Debate.org which is highly anecdotal, teens believe that a lack of trust, listening and communication from parents, coupled with increased spying, surveillance or monitoring of their daily activities, leads to break-downs in relationships and increased resentment. Teens often communicate less with their parents, because in many cases they find the watchful eyes to be unwarranted and intrusive.
Family therapists and psychologists often support teens in these cases noting that it is important to allow teenagers to grow independently. Adding responsibility to a teenager allows them to develop confidence and trust in themselves, while simultaneously developing greater trust from the parent.
While Stacy’s mother may believe she is acting in her daughter’s best interests, I know from listening to car ride conversations that damage to their relationship has been done. Stacy does not trust her mother, and is growing increasingly frustrated with the strict rules and her tendency to take things out of context and escalate simple issues into major confrontations. This frustration can and will cause problems in the future, and already makes Stacy less likely to communicate with her mother about what’s bothering her and thestress she experiences in school.
So, when it comes to monitoring teen cell phone use: What is right? What is too much? The answer to those questions really comes down to the kind of relationship you want to have with your child. Do you want a conversational one based on trust, or do you want a more adversarial one?
One of the most difficult concepts for us parents to grasp is the notion that our teenagers should have an expectation of privacy and trust. We must juxtapose the expectations of our children and their need to grow through adolescence into adulthood with the real dangers.
If we take a few steps back from intense intrusion, and establish more human, one-on-one channels of communication with our teens, we will have stronger relationships in the long run and will help our kids become the smart young adults we want them to be.