How to Motivate Teenagers, Part 2

Q&A with Josh Shipp, “The Teen Whisperer”
How to Motivate Teenagers, Part 2

In the first part of “How to Motivate Teenagers,” Josh Shipp, teen communication expert and author of the Identity Program, explained the secret of giving your child the “why” of doing things. In Part 2 of this series, Josh tells you what to say—and what not to say—when talking to your unmotivated teen.

EP: Josh, you tell parents that it’s not effective to lecture children and teens. What should you do or say?

JS: So much of the time we’re focused on what our teens shouldn’t be doing and the things they did wrong. But I think it’s important to compliment your child on things you’ve noticed them doing well. Catch your teen doing something good. Say something to them even if it’s as simple as, “I noticed that you opened the door for that lady,” or “I saw you take some time out and play catch with your little brother. Nice job.”

"If your child has a plan, then the goal doesn’t seem like a big, scary beast, and he can go at it one step at a time."

It’s not effective to nag your kids. If you’ve taken on that role, understand that any time a project approaches, your child is going to assume by default that you are not there as a supporter, but as a nag and a nuisance. Let’s face it, all of us want to quit things sometimes. We think to ourselves, “This is really hard. I don’t know if I can do it.” But how would you feel if every time you were working on something difficult, a friend walked into the room and said, “Hey, you’re not finished yet? What’s holding you up? You should be done by now. I don’t think you’re doing it the right way.” You’d just tune him out. And you really don’t want to become that person to your child.

As I said in the last article, we don’t want our kids to give up and quit when they face challenges. But we don’t want to label them as “quitters” either. Focus on the behavior, and don’t tag them with that label. And try to avoid calling them lazy, because chances are that they’re not lazy with everything. Instead, I think it’s better to ask pointed questions that bring your child to a specific solution.

EP: What kinds of questions work best, in your opinion?

JS: I would start with questions like, “Why are you having a hard time with this? What’s going on?” And really listen to what your child has to say. Another good thing to ask is, “What can I do to relieve some of the pressure?” Make it clear that you’re not going to do the work for your kids, but let them know that you can help. Maybe your daughter was supposed to babysit over the weekend, but she needs more time to finish a big project; you might try to find someone else to babysit in her place. You can say, “Clearly you’re pretty worried about your project. I want to see you succeed. What can I do to relieve some stress?”

It’s also good to get your kids to see things long term. I don’t mean to lecture them, but to just make sure they have an incentive. Again, this goes back to talking to your kids about doing what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.

I think it’s good to ask your child what tools he needs to succeed. I’ve found in my own life that there are certain days when I’m just “on”—days when I have lots of ideas and feel motivated. When I look back on those days, I find patterns: I have time to exercise, some time to myself, and time with my family and friends. The bottom line is that you should look back at a time where you succeeded and then try to duplicate that environment. Sit down and talk with your child about his best environment and the tools he needs to succeed. When I speak with kids, I always tell them, “Put yourself in a position to win.” Maybe it helps your child to get up every 20 minutes and take a short break, then go back to work. That can often be a useful technique because then he’s not feeling like, “Oh, I’m going to be sitting here for eight hours straight studying.” So encourage your child to give himself rewards if that’s what he needs. Again, you’re helping him without doing it for him.

I think the best thing that you can do is be involved in your kid’s life, know what’s going on—and then help him make a plan to reach his goals. If he has a plan, then the goal doesn’t seem like this big, scary beast, and he’s going at it one step at a time.

EP: What if you see your child starting to slack off a little on a project and you start to worry that he’s not going to finish on time. Is there anything you should step in and do at that point?

JS: I think it’s best to let teens figure it out for themselves unless there’s a fire. As a parent, you obviously need to put out fires, but if it’s just a short–term inconvenience I believe they need to figure it out for themselves.

If your child doesn’t hand in his project on time and gets a bad grade, that’s a natural consequence. Certainly, there should be guidelines and rules at home around expectations and responsibilities. But if your child doesn’t complete his work, he needs to experience the consequences of that lack of follow–through himself.

EP: Josh, a lot of parents say that their kids play video games all the time and avoid doing work. What would you say about that?

JS: I think you can use video gaming to your advantage as a parent. Frankly, I believe video games in moderation can be a good thing. They teach kids critical thinking skills, how to respond quickly and make decisions. I think you can say, “I know you have this big project due and you’re stressed out. Maybe we can set up a plan where you work on this for an hour, then you get 20 minutes to ease your mind, have a little fun, and play some video games. Then you get back to work. We’ll try it for a while and see if it works.” The bottom line is, I think you should use whatever works the best—and use the things your child enjoys to motivate your child.

Remember, discouragement arrives before defeat. That’s why one of the most important things you can do for your kid as they’re trying to do these things is just encourage them. When people stay discouraged, defeat is inevitable. It’s all about your mental fitness.

EP: Some kids bite off more than they can chew and end up doing too many activities. Is it OK to let your child quit a few things if they’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed?

JS: Often in high school, the activities are cyclical. If my child signed up for too many activities, I personally wouldn’t want him to quit the team—I would want him to stick it out and then not sign up again. Once you allow the idea of quitting to enter into your child’s mind as an option or possibility, it becomes dangerous.

I’d rather be on the offense as a parent. Before your child is signing up for activities, sit down with him and look at what he has on his plate. I can understand why parents might want to say, “Maybe you should drop out of a few things” when they see their kid feeling overwhelmed. In an effort to relieve some pressure, parents might say, “Well maybe you should quit the softball team.” But I think its better to not join these activites in the first place.  See if there is a way to encourage your child to finish out his commitments if at all possible. I see this a lot with teens. They will overbook themselves with friends. They’ll say, “Let’s hang out this weekend,” but they only keep the appointment until someone better comes along.

I think it’s important to live by the following guideline: “My word and my commitment should be my word and my commitment regardless of whether or not it’s convenient for me.” So on the surface, something like quitting the softball team doesn’t seem to be a big deal. But you want your child to have the goal of following through on their commitments. If your child has really overbooked herself and signed up for the school play, the basketball team and yearbook committee, she is probably doing too much. Try to problem solve with her on how to fulfill all those commitments. It might be a tough six months—and it’s going to teach her a lesson.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Begin with the end in mind. Tell your child before she signs up for things to think about what it will do for her semester or for her school year. Remember, you’re always saying “no” to something. If you say “yes” to too many activities, you’re saying “no” to time with your friends, time with your family, and time for yourself.

And this is a big thing with teenagers because they don’t want to upset anybody. Even teens who are a little bit insecure usually don’t want to rock the boat. So they over–commit themselves. I think it’s fine for them to choose not to do activities. I don’t care if they say no, but I do care if they give up.

EP: Josh, some kids give up easily because they feel that everyone else is better—that they’ll never be the best. I think sometimes kids give up because they feel like other kids are better at something than they are. What would you say to them?

JS: What I always tell kids is that it isn’t about who’s the best, it’s about who works the hardest and who’s the most dedicated. When I spoke at Harvard University, kids came up to me afterward and talked about how challenging it was to come to Harvard. They were the smartest kid in their school, but now they’ve come to a place where everyone is the smartest kid in school.

I think you need to be careful about complimenting your child and simply saying things like “You’re so smart,” because it’s a relative term. It’s much better to encourage and compliment them on how hard they worked—ultimately, that’s what matters. It’s not, “Do you have good ideas?” It’s “Will you do something with your ideas?” Remember, there are a lot of people who are smart or athletic or musically talented, but all they do is sit around and think about it. It’s really not about intelligence or even natural talent. It’s about applying those things in your life.

So as a parent, I think it’s important to know what your kid’s goals are—because then you can use that as a tool to motivate them. Your child’s goals may be really good and realistic, or they may be really bizarre. I don’t think you should criticize them if this is the case, however—at least they’re dreaming about something. They might say something like, “I want to be a computer programmer.” At least there’s something there that you can use as incentive when they’re unmotivated. You might say, “Stay on target. Remember your goal of becoming a computer programmer requires that you get good grades.” 

With teens, I think it’s best to remind them of things they themselves have said. To a certain degree, you’re allowing them to co–author certain things. It’s effective for you as a parent to say, “Remember your goal is to become a computer programmer. But let’s be honest, you’re not going to be able to pull that off if you don’t have a high school degree, at least.”

Another thing I would say to kids is, “It’s not how talented you are that matters, it’s how dedicated you are that counts.” Everybody is talented in some way. Most people are smart. So what? But if you’re dedicated and smart, you can you can do amazing things.

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Josh Shipp is a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively influence the lives of the countless adolescents he’s coached. He has appeared on MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the science of getting teens to listen.


Josh provides great insight and suggests an encouraging yet 'still hold the child accountable' approach. Bottom line - preaching to a teen is terribly unproductive and damaging in the long run. Very helpful!

Comment By : Lucy

Josh,I wish I'd had this information years ago. I now have an 18 year old son that is now in the legal system and seems to still not want to do what he is supposed to do. He has dropped out of school and will not try to get a job. He feels I as his mother should give him money all the time and all he should do is plan things with his "so called" friends. He expects me to let his girlfriend stay at our house and that's just a no no. He has been in jail three times this year (10-30days at a time)and has a terrible temper. I have had to make several repairs to holes in the walls, three broken computers, etc. He is on probation now for the next year. I know he cares, has good ideas, and is very intelligent. He just won't do! Ichose to be a single mother after 11 years of an abusive marriage. I have another son who is 21 and he does not try to help with his brother. He has moved out with his girlfriend and her mom.

Comment By : Regsmm

* Dear Regsmm: Thanks for your question. First of all, realize that you are not alone. So many parents of older children write to Empowering Parents asking for advice on their situation. I'd like to direct you to a series of articles written by James Lehman, MSW called Rules, Boundaries and Older Children, which I think will be really helpful for you. Be sure to also read Part 2, James' response to parents of adult children who wrote in with questions, and Part 3, Is It Too Late to Set Up a Living Agreement? In addition, EP will soon feature another article by one of our experts on Adult Children Living at Home. I hope this is helpful for you. Please keep in touch and let us know how it goes with your son.

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

What if your teen does not have any goals?--16 year old Junior. Even her psychologist could not get her to express anything she really wants. Her principal would not let her drop chemistry because when pushed she said "something in health care". She told me later that she just said that because she didn't have anything else to say. She is capable of doing well, but if it is a little work she just wants to give up before trying. Last week you mentioned rewards for something unmotivated kids want. The only thing she wants is to hang out with her friends and boy friend. So I set up money each week to do things with friends if she gets all As and Bs that week and no missing assignments. She liked the idea....we'll see what happens. (Negative grounding from her friends does not work--it just becomes a power struggle.) How do you get unmotivated teens to have goals or something they want to do? Is that unrealistic?

Comment By : nogoalsatall

My 16-yo junior son says all the right things, understands this is the most important year in school, etc. But it seems he is already skipping a few classes and missing assignments. We have been dealing with this since 6th grade, communicating with teachers, trying all sorts of consequences and rewards, being consistent, predictable, asking him what he needs from us, having him tested for ADD and doing a drug trial for it (made no difference). We know he smokes pot some and he was arrested for that--- we are awaiting the final outcome. Because of the pot, we give him no money except $2 a day for lunch. He has a learners permit and we have said he needs an 80 in school to get a license, but it looks like he's not on the path to get there. We just want to tell him no more plans, consistency, predictability, but's the deal: You don't keep your nose clean, the answer will most likely be "NO" when you ask for a ride to your friend's house, ask to have band practice here, ask for money for the movies, ANYTHING other than school activities. Are we being too harsh? We can't make this kid do anything. He likes to say "I'm 16," as if that means he's an adult and we have no right to tell him anything, so we will give him nothing but what is required and see how things will turn out for him. We are just so tired of it!!

Comment By : fedupmom

* To ‘fedupmom’: It sounds like you certainly are quite frustrated with your son. I’m not sure that adding more consequences to the mix is going to be effective for you. I know there is a lot you want to change and you have been working really hard to try and make those changes. I think it’s important to emphasize that when kids are using drugs, it can cause their problem solving skills to break down. In other words, it can get in the way of all the really effective techniques you have tried and it could account for the lack of progress you have seen. We recommend turning your focus to getting him some local support around his drug use. I suggest visiting At the very top of the page are a phone number and a link you can click on for support and referrals. You can also call the National Drug and Alcohol Referral Helpline at 1-800-521-7128. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Our limitations in our household are if you do not have A and B honor roll you do not play sports. Our 13 year old is intelligant enough to achieve the honor roll however he is not motivated. We try to help him stay on task and complete his homework daily but each day it is a stuggle to get him to even bring his homework to us for review or study for tests.We have tried to help him break down the tasks daily but he refuses our help. I feel he wants complete control and independance. I would gladly give it to him IF he would starts caring more about his studies. He has now missed out on two sports seasons because he continuously turns in work late and incomplete.He has A's B's and C's. We have reached the point of reality discipline. If he isn't motivaed enough to accept our help we are not going to nag and allow the rest of the household to live a daily uproar. My son of course says I am too hard on him, it's my fault he cannot play sports, and the school work is too hard. How do I motivate him?

Comment By : nomotivation

* To ‘nomotivation’: It’s so incredibly frustrating when you have a child who is capable of doing A/B work but seems completely unwilling to put in the effort. What’s more, it’s exhausting to try to make your child do the work or care about it. James Lehman reminds parents to focus on the behavior, not the feelings. It’s going to be very difficult to get your child to care or to want to do better in school, and it may also really wear you down. What might be more effective is to shift from a long-term system like the one you have now to a daily system where we focus on time spent doing work rather than the grades. The reason for this is because if the reward seems too far away, it will actually be de-motivating. Your son might need you to set up a daily study time, whether he has homework or not. After this time (one hour, for example) is complete, then he can have his electronics and social privileges for the day. If he doesn’t do it, he doesn’t earn the things he likes to do that day. This could apply to sports practices as well- the work must be done before he goes to practice. Or, if practice is right after school, he would have to do the work each night in order to be able to go to the next day’s practice. Also, you are right not to ‘nag’ him or try to get him to accept your help—that’s his responsibility. Your job is to establish a structure that will help your son work to his full potential, like the one suggested here. For more information you can read this article: End the Nightly Homework Struggle: 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids. We wish you luck as you work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

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