I remember when my kids were little, and they were so happy to do just about anything for a sticker or a kind word. As they got older, it was less about the sticker and more about ice cream or cookies. Well now they’re really older, and they can get their own ice cream so it’s a lot harder to motivate them. Right?
It can be frustrating when our teens play video games for hours but avoid homework and chores like the plague. And when they were home 24/7 because of Covid, it made it worse because they were bored and had few opportunities for socializing and extracurricular activities. So they got used to more screen time and now we find ourselves nagging more than ever. And honestly, that’s exhausting.
While it’s easy to get frustrated and call your teen lazy sometimes, there can be many things at play. Are they sleeping? Many teens are tired much of the time due to sleep deprivation. Teens need about 9 hours of rest, and since many stay up too late that can make it difficult to wake up early for school. Try enforcing consistent bedtimes and limiting screen time at night as much as you can. If they need to be on their screens, have it be to read a book! We all use our tablets to do that at night–I know it’s still not the best, but it’s way better than playing games with stimulation and also better than not reading at all!
The key to motivating your teen is encouragement. Try to stay on the positive side of things. If it’s not a matter of staying up too late get curious and try to understand their perspective. Why are they having problems getting started or listening and doing as you ask? It’s so important for teens to get their buy-in and include them. Listening to them and including them in the discussion on how we can solve the motivation issue can be super helpful. Try to tackle it as a team–you’re on the same side so make sure they know that. Giving them agency is critical. Your teen is more likely to cooperate when they can approach tasks in their own way.
Just be ready to negotiate and compromise because they may have different priorities than you do. So maybe you give them an if/then. If you clean the kitchen without whining about it, then you can stay out 20 minutes later tonight. They might be more enthusiastic about completing their term paper if you promise to give them driving lessons over the weekend. When you can give on things, go for it. Let them decide how to clean their room and budget their allowance.
Parenting is a bit of a balancing act. We need to find that sweet spot between setting boundaries and exerting excessive pressure. Teens may lose motivation if they feel like your expectations are too high. Honestly, the teen years are stressful enough, and in high school, there is so much pressure to do better, do more, get higher grades, get into the best colleges. Praise them for making a big effort instead of always asking why they didn’t win first prize or get an A.
We all do better when we feel better. A compliment can make you stand up straighter, and when you feel good motivation comes easier. Teens often hear us nagging and complaining about their poor attitude or laziness. So when you are generous with encouragement and help them see their strengths, it will boost their confidence. When they have good self-esteem they will be more prepared to motivate themselves rather than rely on your attempts to get them going.
When you are struggling with their seeming inability to motivate, It’s really important to stay calm. Try having a family meeting, or get them involved in something with you–or make a bet that they can/can’t do something fast. Bets, challenges, games, and–let’s face it–rewards work better than nagging. This I know!
And when you really struggle with that just try to remember that your relationship with your teen matters more than any temporary disagreement. That connection comes first. Try to remember to speak to each other with respect and show compassion and if you simply can’t, try leaving them a sticky note or sending them a text. That step back works and it’s important that you take care of yourself as well. Allow yourself (and them) some boundaries. Take a break if you need to regain your composure, go for a walk, take a bath or just sit quietly on your deck.
Perhaps the best way to motivate your kids is through humor. If I can find a way to gently tease or outright reference something they always do (or don’t) I can often get a small smile. Even better, try to laugh about it. Teenagers enjoy a sense of humor and respond to it much better than to lectures and nagging. If you have long-running disagreements and power struggles over their outfits or screen time, humor often dissolves that tension really quickly. You just might need to repeat the same message several times and experiment with different approaches. Your teen wants to do well, and their success depends on your guidance and support.
If you need a mantra try progress over perfection. You’re raising an entire human being so really, motivating your teen is going to be an ongoing process. Celebrate all the little wins as you go, maybe with some ice cream!