Episode #117: Motivating an apathetic teen
Question of the Day:
My son is so apathetic. He is super smart and very capable, but he doesn’t seem to care about doing well in school. I feel like I’m failing because he isn’t living up to his potential. Any suggestions for motivating an apathetic teenager?
Parent Educator Answer:
The good news is, nobody lives up to their potential so you can let that one go. We all always have more in us.
Apathy is showing or feeling no enthusiasm, interest, or concern. It can be a sign of mental health problems. Without more information it’s hard for me to tell if depression is a factor, but here are some common signs to look for.
Lack of motivation
Lack of empathy
Drop in grades
Changes in appetite
Trouble sleeping through the night
Feeling tired all the time
Inability to enjoy things that used to be fun
Sadness, crankiness, irritability that lasts throughout the day
If there is something going on emotionally and it’s affecting school and other parts of your child’s life, it’s important to talk to someone safe and trusted about it.
From my experience, there are other common reasons a child may appear apathetic and unmotivated to do well in school.
1) They aren’t interested in school.
When the subjects we learn in school aren’t inherently interesting to us, external motivations can often carry us through. Maybe you don’t care about Greek Mythology, but you care about sticker charts, getting benched at recess and helping your group get a good grade.
For some kids, no amount of peer pressure, rewards or external motivation can override a lack of interest. This is especially common in kids with ADHD. They can hyper-focus on things that interest them but have a really hard time making themselves do boring work.
2) Perfectionistic thinking is keeping them from going all in.
Many of us struggle with black and white thinking without even knowing it. For kids unmotivated to work hard in school, it often shows up as “If I know I’m going to fail, why try?”(failure meaning anything less than 100%) or “I’ll never be as good as (mom, sister, smartest kid in school, etc.) so why bother?” It’s this idea that there is a limited amount of success to go around and I either have it or I don’t.
Perfectionistic thinking is fear masquerading as apathy.
Parents who also have perfectionistic thinking can fuel this fear without realizing it. When our kid does their homework and we find more for them to do. When they get B’s and we want to see A’s. When we have the belief that they aren’t quite good enough or doing enough, it’s not unusual to see kids rebel by not caring.
3) “My Child, My Masterpiece.”
Our culture promotes enmeshment and co-dependency between parent and child. When parents tie their child’s academic achievements to their success as a parent, it creates a difficult dynamic for adolescents.
Teenagers are wired to separate from their parents. When we see them forming different opinions, values, and interests than ours, it’s a healthy sign they are forming an identity separate from us. This will prepare them for adulthood.
Kids usually start out wanting to please their parents but when parents care A LOT about grades and are highly invested in their child’s academic achievements, kids may fail on purpose just to prove their independence.
If Mom wants their kid to get a high score, and the kid gets a high score, Mom feels successful. If a kid fails, mom feels like a failure. I see many kids take advantage of this enmeshment (subconsciously) choosing apathy as a way to get their parents off their back.
Learning how to release ego attachment to your child’s grades and focus on your own success is a difficult thing to do. My Leading Your Teen coaching program teaches moms how to “love more, care less” so that your kid can take full ownership over their victories and successes and not need to sabotage in order to get parents to back off.
If we are trying to understand a child’s lack of motivation, it can be summarized by saying, “They don’t have a strong enough WHY”.
Why get up early every morning, sit on a hard chair inside 4 concrete walls, and listen to someone drone on about a topic you aren’t interested in?
Why learn about a subject you will never use again?
Why read a book when you can watch the movie?
Why struggle through math equations when the answers are on the internet?
Why waste thousands of dollars going to college when classes are available for free or cheap on the internet?
These are excellent questions to ask your kids. The answers they give will show you their values.
Do they value being seen as smart and capable?
Do they put up with history so they can get to P.E.?
Is it their friends at school that make it worthwhile?
Do they want the teacher to like them?
Is it drama and band that make the rest of the school day tolerable?
Is it better than sitting at home staring at a screen?
The important thing to remember is that motivation is individual to the person and can change in an instant. I wasn’t motivated to do well in any high school subjects other than Spanish and Drama. I like to learn practical tools that make everyday life more enjoyable. When I got to college and found subjects that were more aligned with my interests, good grades were a natural result.
Life Coaching Answer:
What gets in your way from being at peace and allowing your kid to discover their own motivation in their own time? Parental Anxiety.
I can’t tell you how many moms I have coached who go into full blown fight or flight response while watching their kid relax on the sofa instead of studying.
It’s our own anxieties that get in our way from being able to love more, care less, while allowing our kids to discover their own motivation.
Here’s what usually happens:
Our kid comes home from school and says they are going to their bedroom to do homework. An hour later we look and see them on youtube, Netflix, or TikTok. A surge of anxiety moves through us, causing us to lose our minds. We yell, threaten, argue… This discharges our anxiety but leaves us feeling frustrated and powerless.
What we want to do is recognize that this is a trigger for our anxiety. This isn’t about our kid, it’s about what we make it mean when we see our kid not working.
“They are going to fail!”
“I’m not doing my job!”
“I NEED them to CARE about this so I can STOP CARING SO MUCH!”
“I can’t relax until their homework is done so THEY NEED TO GET IT DONE!”
“These grades are the pathway to success and they refuse to get on the path!”
“Your teachers, our family, my friends are going to think we are losers if you don’t get good grades!”
Whenever you feel this surge of adrenaline, like you MUST say something urgently, WALK AWAY.
When you talk to your child from this anxious place, you will not get the results you are looking for. You may get to discharge some of your anxiety, but not in a way that makes you feel proud, pleased, or productive. It will drive a wedge further in the relationship between you and your teen, and you will miss the opportunity to model what it looks like to take responsibility and do your own work.
We don’t want to put our ability to feel like a peaceful, successful parent in the hands of an apathetic, unmotivated kid.
Once you’ve resisted the impulse to discharge your anxiety by getting annoyed with your kiddo, what do you do with the crazy surge of adrenaline rushing through your body and brain?
Go for a walk, go for a drive, write in a journal, do an exercise video, frenetic house cleaning, wrestle with your younger child, stomp on cardboard boxes, etc. Your brain is in the fight/flight response so you don’t have access to logic until you’ve discharged that energy.
Once you’ve calmed down, see if you can figure out why the lack of motivation scares you. (Hint: it’s going to be something about the future or the past).
Bring yourself back to the present moment by listing facts that you know to be true about your kid.
-He has a 2.5 gpa
-He chooses video games over reading books.
-He doesn’t argue about going to soccer practice.
-He asked to go camping over spring break.
Listing true facts about your child will bring you back into the present moment, give you insights into who your child is today.
The best way to motivate your teen is to give them a vision of adulthood that looks appealing. When we are stressed out, overworked and anxious, teens become disinterested in following in our footsteps.
Supermom Kryptonite – Thinking you have to figure it out on your own
With information at our fingertips, it’s really easy to believe the toxic thought, “I should be able figure this out on my own.”
This may sound logical, but notice how it makes you feel.
My inner perfectionist used to love parenting books. I would learn new tools and tricks, feel empowered and confident, but two weeks later when I couldn’t uphold my new system, I felt defeated and inadequate.
If learning what to do isn’t actually helping you get the RESULTS you want, it’s time to hire someone to help you.
We waste so much time and energy thinking we should be able to figure things out ourselves when the solution may be simply having an expert by our side to uncover our blind spots and help us overcome our resistance.
Why offer a tutor to a child who struggles with math? There are workbooks. Online websites and video games. You, or someone you know could help them. Why are private tutoring companies on the rise? Because nothing is faster and more effective than personalized learning with a compassionate human who is invested in your success.
Why sign your kid up for swim lessons when you could teach them yourself? Because nothing is faster, cheaper and more effective at getting you the results you want than personalized learning with a compassionate human invested in your success.
I was talking with a friend yesterday who told me she’d been working with a meditation teacher for the last 4 weeks. Meditation is sitting still and practicing thinking about nothing. I cannot imagine a more illogical thing to ask for help with, and yet, she said it made a huge difference. Knowing someone was invested in her success, helping her identify obstacles and overcome her resistance, proved to be extremely valuable to getting the results she wanted.
Beware of the toxic thought, “I should be able to figure it out on my own” and focus instead on the quickest, most effective way to get the results you want.
Supermom PowerBoost – Your Zone of Genius
Hiring people to help you get the results you want in your life allows everyone to operate in their “zone of genius”.
Gay Hendricks identifies 4 zones:
Zone of Genius
Zone of Excellence
Zone of Competence
Zone of Incompetence
When I spend my time cleaning my house, I’m operating in my Zone of Competence. I can do it, it’s not utilizing my highest skill set. I grumble and complain, I cut corners and feel resentful that I’m the only one working.
When my house cleaner comes, she’s a whirlwind of tidy efficiency. She sees things I don’t see. She gets under, over, and inside. She treats my home like her personal work of art. She fixes, she beautifies, and blesses my home with her cheerfulness. I don’t know if it’s her Zone of Genius but she sure appears to be pleased when she leaves my house.
If I was to think “I can do it myself and so I should,” I would be robbing her of the opportunity to do the work she loves to do.
If you really want to feel successful in your life, and feel like you are using your gifts and talents to make the world a better place, try to spend as much time as possible in your zone of genius.
Find opportunities to allow others to operate in their zone of genius. I can take photos of my kids myself, but I love hiring photographers to work their magic and see how much better theirs turn out.
Hiring life coaches to give you the results you want in your life is also giving them the opportunity to be in their Zone of Genius.
I think The Great Resignation is indicative of more people moving closer to their Zone of Genius. They are leaving jobs that aren’t as fulfilling for ones that are more in line with who they want to be.
It’s easy to get stuck in your Zone of Excellence and Zone of Competence, but just because you are good at it, doesn’t mean it is worth your time. Delegate activities you do not love to others who do, and hire a coach to help you spend more time in your Zone of Genius.
Quote of the Day:
“One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for.” Madeline Levine