Unmotivated Teens: They’re Not Lazy, They Just Haven’t Done it

“Yet is the space between thought and action. A word small in size, but huge in its potential and filled with hope and promise. We haven’t achieved world peace…yet.”

I wrote the above quote one sleepless night. Poor attempts at poetry aside, I think the quote encapsulates two messages that I’m often trying to own as a parent and pass on to other parents who struggle to motivate their children. First, can we hold our parental anxiety in check as we wait to see if our kids can do things themselves. And second, can we have faith that they eventually will do it themselves.

Unmotivated Teens: A Common Problem

At least 80% of the kids who come to see me have difficulties managing their time and taking care of their business. Parents are frustrated when their pre-teen/teen seemingly can’t:

  • Wake themselves up in the morning
  • Do their homework in a timely manner
  • Follow through on simple tasks like: cleaning up, putting clothes in the hamper, or simply turning off whatever device they’re using to come to dinner

I have found that in many of these cases, a large contributing factor is the way in which parents interact with their unmotivated child. No, this does not mean its the parent’s fault. It often boils down to a clash between parental anxiety and expectations, and a child’s need to feel in control. So, perhaps our kids are not unmotivated, but they have not yet figured out how to balance the things they want to do with the things they have to do…on their own terms.

An Example Might Help:

Johnny’s mother is frustrated. Her feeling is that, at age 15, Johnny should be doing a lot more for himself than he does. She worries about his ability to take care of himself as an adult or sooner than that, as a college student.

It’s the little things that drive her nuts.

Johnny is “messy”, leaving his things around the house for days and expecting her to clean them up…and she does.

Johnny is a “procrastinator,” leaving work until the last minute, then asking her for help at 10:45 the night before it’s due…and she does.

Johnny is “lazy”, never doing anything until she yells the fifth time.

Yelling often leads to all out fights where Johnny says things like: “I hate you, you don’t think I can do anything!” or: “You’re so annoying, why can’t you just leave me alone?”

Johnny’s mother admits she often says hurtful things too, things that reflect her own fears about what will be if he doesn’t change his ways: “You won’t get into college.” or: “Keep this up and you’ll be working at a gas station.”

Mixed Messages Make Messes

Johnny’s mother says she believes that he can do whatever he sets his mind to, but she has no faith that he will set his mind to anything. She also fears that his failure will reflect poorly on her skills as a parent…so she does it for him. Johnny both relies on this safety net and hates it, because though it takes him off the hook for having to do things, it also reinforces that he can’t do them without her.

Many parents are guilty of these mixed messages and this is because we are good parents. Good parents worry, but our kids have enough to worry about without us giving them some of ours. So here are some ways of thinking and doing that may help keep us anchored for the challenges ahead:

A Little Faith Might Go a Long Way

Let Them Fail: I realize this idea has been getting a lot of play lately in parenting circles and this is largely because it’s true! Think about the times you’ve learned the most in your life. Did these moments come from success or failure? Failure makes us question our methods and it forces us to reevaluate our thinking. When Johnny’s mother lets him do things on his own she is allowing him to approach failure without fear or apprehension, while at the same time implying that she thinks he can handle things himself.

Letting Them Fail is Hard: Following the idea of “Just let them fail” is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Recently, while sitting with my daughter as she learns how to read, I experienced this first-hand. She was struggling with a word and my first instinct was to just blurt the word out for her. Waiting for her either to get it or not get it was torturous. I realize the stakes here are much lower than they are in the junior year of high school, but the feeling of wanting to just make it all better right away is incredibly strong.

Add “Yet” and Wait Patiently: “Johnny hasn’t taken out the garbage…yet.” By adding this simple word to the end of our sentences, we as parents are able to create a positive narrative about our children. We are saying that we expect that eventually they will complete their tasks and that we have faith in their abilities. This obviously goes hand in hand with allowing them to fail, as there may be some times (or many times) where they don’t do what we want/ask/expect them to do. The word yet assumes that if the timeline is long enough, they will get there.

Additionally, I have found that setting some parameters for the time frame yet extends to is helpful with tasks like taking out the garbage. Adding something like, “you have till the end of the night” gives kids some structure for support and offers them a chance to do it on their own time…provided that we do not interfere by reminding them.

Build a Case for the Positive: Humans have a biological predisposition for finding patterns and organizing the world around these patterns. We are also highly sensitive to negative experiences as a way to keep us safe. I think that this propensity towards making patterns of negative experience has a tendency to set us back in raising children.

We are often finding and focusing on the things our kids are doing wrong and do not focus as much on the things they are doing right. We expect them to do things right and to keep doing them right. This is not the way it works. Kids move forward only to take two steps backward a short time later. One way to keep a positive perspective is realizing that if your child did something positive once, he or she will in all likelihood be able to do it again.

Don’t Be a Hypocrite: As I said earlier, about 80% of the kids I see struggle with managing their time and taking care of their business. What I often find is that many of their parents admit that when the were teenagers, they struggled greatly with the same things their kids do now! Quite often these parents are highly successful adults and comfortable with how their lives turned out. So why all the drama?

Maybe a simple way of handling the problem is to say:

“My son does not manage his time well and is not responsible…yet.”