How to Motivate Your “Lazy” Teen with Empathy, Reflection, and Collaborative Brainstorming

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Are you a high achieving parent with a teen who doesn’t seem to have the kind of drive that you do?

You probably feel like you’ve tried everything to motivate them to do what needs to be done whether it’s homework, SAT prep, piano practice, or college applications. You may have even lost your temper a little because you can’t understand why they’re procrastinating, resisting, and avoiding. You may have even said to a friend in exasperation, “What’s wrong with them?”

Here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with them. There are internal forces causing their resistance. Believe me, I know how well-meaning your intentions are, but unfortunately your current strategies (yes, well-intended and based on experience, I get it) are less than ideal. And while it may be tempting to be snarky, berate, criticize, or even to shame, such attempts temporarily shift behavior, but they won’t cure your teen’s lack of motivation.

It’s easy to inadvertently (and lovingly) underestimate or misaddress the powerful emotional components of motivation. But do not despair! I‘m pleased to report that when you address these emotional factors, your teen will become authentically motivated and develop the kind of work ethic you’ve worked so hard to instill in yourself and in them.

I encourage you to try these three steps to help your teen access their own internal motivation: 1. empathize, 2. reflect, and 3. brainstorm.

Step One: Empathize with Your Teen’s Lack of Motivation

I know how frustrating it is for you as a hard working parent to watch your teen seem to take a nap in the backseat of their life. And I understand how much you want to help them change, but sometimes our efforts to “help” our teens actually prevent them from tuning into their own process. Setting their own goals and devising their own ways to achieve them will cultivate feelings of satisfaction and mastery (key ingredients in the secret sauce of internal drive) rather than resistance to external pressure.

Focus your energy on trying to understand what they’re going through. Chances are you can think of something that happened to you recently when you really wanted to do something, but couldn’t get yourself to do it.

My nagging sugar addiction is an example I often use to help patients empathize with their teen’s lack of motivation. The sweets in our kitchen pantry, freezer, and candy jar knock on my conscience’s door nightly. Like a seduced and then regretful lover, I break up with them each morning. I passionately declare that I will never see them again and banish them as I remind myself of their ill effects on my mood and waistline.

But invariably when I’m tired after a long day, the comfort, familiarity, and yes, the sweetness of the snacks serves as an immediate antidote to stress. Similar to your defeated, disappointed, and seemingly lazy teen, I vow to start afresh the following day.

Now, I’m not stuffing myself with cookies because I’m an innately self-destructive person who yearns for bad moods or an expanded waistline. I am a person with emotions (which we all have!) who sometimes allows my deeper feelings to overrun my rational goals. But when I acknowledge, validate, and reflect on my emotional need to feel soothed, comforted, and nurtured, I’m able to find other ways to treat myself when I’m worn out.

I promise you that although they may appear nonchalant, your teen doesn’t feel good about not accomplishing things. They don’t want to continue in the way they have been, but their emotional needs are calling the shots, and emotions almost always win over logic. When our emotions lead us down paths we don’t want to take, that can lead to frustration. Before we can affect behavioral change, we need to recognize and listen to challenging feelings like frustration, incompetence, and ineffectiveness – a slippery slope of internal negativity that can feel insurmountable and inevitable.

Some of us are born with grit, some of us develop it, and others give up easily. If your teen has a low threshold for difficult emotions, they need your understanding, not your judgment. It’s hard for them to feel, tolerate, and manage discouragement – especially if it happens repeatedly. Having empathy for your teen’s challenges is the first step to increasing their motivation.

Step Two: Encourage Your Teen to Reflect on the Emotional Ingredients of Motivation Sauce: Competence, Mastery, and Self-efficacy 

The next time your teen doesn’t do something you think they should (e.g. study for a test), avoid jumping on the shame wagon. Instead, begin to explore the emotional factors that are tripping up their process. Frame it for them (and yourself) as a mystery yet to be solved, not a disappointment that needs to be fixed. Collaboratively and nonjudgmentally begin to search for the emotional obstacles that are causing your child to procrastinate or underachieve.

You might start by helping them connect the emotional dots. Guide them to reflect on a time when they made a goal and achieved it like this:

“I remember when you wanted to improve your ice skating so you could make the hockey team. Every Saturday morning (even when you were tired), you would get up, get dressed (even when it was so cold out) and go to the rink. You fell down a lot and some days were better than others, but you were determined to do it. And each Saturday you got a little better.

I remember seeing the look of pride and accomplishment on your face as you improved. I was proud of you, but more importantly, I was glad practicing felt so good to you. The more you skated the better you got. Because of all your hard work, you made the team.”

Note the avoidance of the reflexive “snark trap” by not saying something like, ”You were able to work hard to get on the team, but when it comes to school, forget it.” You want to steer clear of shaming and labeling the behavior you’re not happy with as a character flaw.

By letting your teen know you have faith in them, and by guiding them to reflect on times when they experienced feelings of mastery, competence and self efficacy, you’ll help them believe it’s possible to achieve whatever they want.

Step Three: Collaboratively Brainstorm How to Maintain Motivation

Your teen’s laziness may be a cue that the drive they need to move from desire to execution has been derailed by feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and anxiety. You can support them by helping them to identify what they want to do, and how they want to get there with questions like these:

  1. If the world was perfect, how would you like this to work? What would make you feel really good?
  2. What would help you get there? What steps are required?
  3. What feelings might stop you from getting where you want to go?
  4. How will you motivate yourself on the days when you’re feeling the feeling from #3? What has helped you in the past?
  5. Is there’s a way that you think I can be helpful? Or is there something I do that is not helpful that you want to tell me about?

If your teen has trouble answering #4, ask, “May I make a suggestion?” If they say yes, offer a variety of options and let them choose so they can feel in control. Be aware that the tools you use to achieve goals may not work for your teen. Help them find a process that fits their personality. As your teen works through the plan they created, check in with them periodically and ask, “How are you feeling about this plan? Is it working for you?”

It’s totally understandable if you feel frustrated as a parent by your teen’s laziness. It’s important to remember that their lack of motivation is not a character flaw, but a characteristic they are struggling to develop. Be aware that you are probably judging them like you judge yourself.

The best way to guide your teen through these kinds of challenges is to let them know you understand how they’re feeling, reflect on previously mastered challenges, and brainstorm ways to identify what they want and create their own plan for how to get there.

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