What to Say to Motivate Your Teenager

Posted April 1, 2016 by

What to Say to Motivate Your Teenager

This mom sums up what a lot of people are experiencing: “My child will not take her college applications seriously! She has to take an interest in her grades, her college applications, her test scores. She just blows it off. Why won’t she take this stuff seriously?! It’s HER future!”

Sound familiar? You want your child to be excited about going to college. They aren’t. You want them to understand the importance of good grades, high SATs, and completed college applications. You want them to care about their future happiness, their security, the opportunities that will open up for them if they’d just do the work. They don’t care. You’ve talked until you’re blue in the face, telling them what they’re risking if they don’t get on top of these things. Threatening them with dire images of their un-educated future isn’t working. Plying them with images of their dream careers, or even promises of college parties, isn’t working. No matter what you do, your kid just doesn’t seem to take their future seriously. So frustrating!

The reality is, you can’t make someone care about something. No perfectly well-reasoned argument, no eloquent speech is going to make your child care about their future the way you do.

And to be honest, that’s a good thing.

Why? Because it means you can stop working so hard. Trying to convince your child to take these things seriously is a power struggle, and power struggles never work.

A far easier – and far more effective – approach is to use what your child values in order to get what you value. If you want your child to complete her college application, use natural consequences and relevant currency to motivate her. Instead of the usual power struggle, your conversation might look like this:

“I know you’re not interested in college right now. That’s fine. However, you do need to finish your applications, as that is a requirement in this household. You need to complete one application each week, by Friday at 3 pm, in order to have the car over the weekend. If you haven’t completed an application by 3pm, you will not have access to the car, and you’ll get to try again the following week.”

Debbie Pincus offers this advice to parents struggling with motivating their teen:

“You want to help your child define for himself who he is, what’s important to him and what he’s going to do to make those things happen. Our responsibility is to help our kids do that, not to do it for them.” -Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC, Creator of The Calm Parent AM & PM

For more on this challenging topic, Unmotivated Child? 6 Ways to Get Your Child Going is a great article.

Look for the completion of tangible tasks, rather than frustrating yourself trying to convince your child to be excited about the future. Give it a try and see how it works! And let us know how you’re doing. We’re always here for you.


Denise, Empowering Parents Coach


Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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  1. twoshoes8243 Report

    I get what your saying but what if one minute he wants to go to college and the next minute he doesn’t. I’m assuming you’re thinking that every household requires their going to college. But I’m not so sure my son is ready for college. I feel like if I imposed a rule on him like that, he would just be in a mood and say, “I’m not going to college” Then what?

    • Empowering Parents Coach drowden Report

      I appreciate this perspective. Truthfully, not every family
      is going to make college a requirement, and, that’s OK. I’ve used it here as an
      example because it’s a question that has come up often over the past few weeks.
      The basic idea is to decide what expectations your family does have and hold
      your child accountable to those. I hope this helps to answer your question.
      Take care.

  2. Shelley Report

    What do I do to encourage my child to work harder on his studies.  He is at such a lower grade level then his peers and has ADD, autisim, and lives with his father who does not see the importance to keep striving to do better and to do his homework

  3. desperate mom Report

    I am a divorced mother of a 21 year-old who dropped out of a great college because I wasn’t there to “motivate him?” since then he was diagnosed with ADHD, I got him to a psychiatrist, and psychologist and into therapy where he refused to show up, which I wound up paying for missed appointments. This has been going on 4 years. during that time his father and I got divorced where he continues to pay for his car insurance, phone bills, and instilled no consequences. When my son refused to pay any rent (very, very little- wouldnt even pay the gas and electric bill but leaves every light on in the house), didnt follow the rules, I told him he needed to get out after I found him in another lie. It has broken my heart especially since he told me I have abandoned him!.  Can you sense my frustration. I have had to change the locks on my own house and basically have told him not to come back until he has actually followed through actions he needs to do. It has been very difficult since his father and I have never been on the same page about dealing with this situation and actually putting consequences into action. I have chosen tough love and of course now as usual am the bad guy with my children. all I can say is that it is more important to be a parent than trying to be their friend. any other advice would be extremely appreciated because I dont know what to do or where to turn anymore.

    • RJE Report

      @desperate mom  I don’t think you need to do any more turning.  Get on your life path and get living.  I am in the same boat with an 18 year old who believes that ignorance prevents him from having to be accountable.  it’s unfortunate that the real world does not believe that but he’ll only find out the hard way; I have had more gray hairs develop from stressing and worrying but eventually he will be out of the home to figure this on his own; too bad it will have been the hard way; his guiding philosophy is ‘to go with the flow.’  Rather than be the captain of the ship he’s letting the water take control.  I am not going to sacrifice my life nor my wife’s happiness trying to please his wishes.  Life is going to hurt but that is not a hurt I will allow him to force upon me.

      Get busy living, he’s made his choices, now it is our turn to make ours; I think we are the only species that does this to their offspring

    • ineedalifeline Report

      @desperate mom I’m right there with you and I don’t know what to do.  My daughter is in 9th grade and refuses to go to school.  It’s the 4th quarter and almost over!  She is ADHD and I’m paying for the therapist, as well.  Her father is completely unsupportive and blames me for everything, which in turn makes her blame me.  Mother’s often do all the emotional labor for the family and it’s very hard to just say “move on with your life”.  I only have one child and I’m not about to lose her but I’m at my end.  I can barely function at work or anywhere else.  It’s tough with you are all alone and unsupported.

  4. Inquirebug Report

    Grandparent with daughter who has cut me off. Grandkids are needy. Daughter following rules of dysfunctional family… don’t talk, don’t feel, don’t think. Am feeling cheated. Father divorced me in 09. Kids have attitude of dad, mom doesn’t count. Did not rock the boat. Enabled addiction and abuse. Now what do I do?

    • rwolfenden Report

      I’m so sorry to hear about what has happened with your
      daughter, and your subsequent loss of contact with your grandkids.  It’s a
      situation no parent envisions experiencing, and it can be difficult to figure
      out your next move when it feels like there are not many options.  At this
      point, I encourage you to make sure that you are taking care of yourself. 
      Self-care is an often overlooked component of parenting.  Your self-care
      plan can be anything you wish, from calling a supportive friend or family member,
      to using more structured support, either in-person or online.  The http://www.211.org/ is a great resource to help people
      find supports within their community, and you can reach them by calling
      1-800-273-6222.  If you are interested in seeking out online supports, I
      encourage you to read our material on estrangement, such as https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/estranged-from-your-adult-child-5-things-you-can-do/.  In the comments section,
      many of our readers have shared online support groups that they have found
      useful, in addition to sharing their own experiences.  I recognize that
      this is an incredibly difficult situation, and I hope that you will continue to
      check in and let us know how things are going.  Take care.

  5. Stressed out mom326 Report

    I can’t even get my 16 year old to GO to school! I have literally tried EVERYTHING. I take away privileges, give him chores, unplug the internet. Literally NOTHING is working.

    • Emma Report

      Stressed out mom326  I am in the same boat. Last year my 16 year old went to school regularly but didn’t hand in any assignments so failed the year. She was offered the option of leaving her school and finding a new one or repeating the year. She chose to repeat as the apparently loves her school. This year, she’s got less than 50% attendance and mostly refuses to get out of bed to go to school. Yesterday, the school gave her a final chance and said that she will have to leave if she doesn’t start to commit. She agreed and said that she will commit. Today, she refused to get out of bed again. She has no privileges whatsoever. She is horrible to be around and openly insults me, her Mum. Her Dad is losing his mind. We had to call the police last weekend as she was being physically threatening and had me pinned in a corner and wouldn’t move until she got her own way. We are working with a counselling service who have offered her the option of going and staying in a teenage unit a couple of nights a week and working with her to make things better but she refuses to go. This week we told her that things would have to change and she needed to go and stay there a couple of nights a week to get in the habit of going to school as we weren’t going to support her to just lie around all day everyday doing absolutely nothing. She agreed to go and reiterated that this was an option for her to get better at going to school with their support but she hasn’t gone yet. We live in a crazy world now where we ignore her behaviour most of the time in order to preserve our sanity so instead of screaming at her to get up, we just let her lie in bed and so that is what she does. Nothing is working.

      • Stressed out mom326 Report

        My son has 22 days out so far. We live in PA and I now, again have to go before the magistrate. I refuse to pay fines. They are doing nothing to help me. My husband and I don’t know what else to do. He does chores around the house and otherwise, his behavior is good, but he just has a day a week where he refuses to go. He is on the football team and goes after school to lifting, he participates in other things as well. The magistrate even told him they will suspend hus license. He just doesn’t get it! I have no fight left in me! I can’t do this anymore. When I confront him he gets defensive and then somehow it is my failt. I can’t get him to take responsibility for himself.

        • Emma Report

          Stressed out mom326  I’m sorry you’re having it tough. We feel like total failures at parenting but I’m starting to think that some kids just can’t be parented. At least we have another older daughter who is lovely so the proof is that we’re not complete failures we’re just failing with our youngest. We did manage to get her to go to school today by some miracle but it’s not easy. On a positive note, your son is involved in some things at school which is definitely helping. Our daughter refuses to join anything or to do anything. The only activity she will engage is in family meals out. And that is only because she gets to eat fries and drink soft drinks that we’re not providing at home! We’ve gone through cycles of trying to ignore her school behaviour and make it her problem rather than ours, so we’ve told her that getting up for school is her responsibility and her problem if she doesn’t get up and go and that brought a lot of peace to our lives but meanwhile she has given up on going and has taken to lying around in bed all day instead so neither approach has worked.

          Yesterday, I was home at lunchtime, unusually so I went into her room and tried to get her up. I told her it wasn’t an option for her to lie around all day but she ignored me so I took away her electronics that she has for schoolwork but is only using to watch videos and play games (cos she has no internet access). She wouldn’t talk to anyone last night because we’d taken her electronics and when I told her she had to go to bed at 10.30pm, she again ignored me and waited 15 minutes before turning the tv back on again. I ended up getting back out of bed and turning it off again, telling her that it wasn’t an option to ignore me and that she had to go bed. I think she went but I eventually fell asleep so I’m not sure what happened. This morning, there was no sign of her so we called her twice and then my husband told her that he was coming up to her room at 9am to clean it up whether she was in bed or not so she eventually got up and he drove her to school at 10.30 for an 8.40 am start! SO we had a small win but it is beyond painful.

          We have an appointment next week to arrange temporary alternative accommodation for her and family counselling. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

          I hope things improve for you. Focus on the positive though. He sounds like he’s in school most of the time. And involved in some healthy activities. That’s a major plus. Maybe the sports coach could help motivate him?

          • Stressed out mom326 Report

            I feel like a complete failure. My oldest is 19. Getting him to go to school wasn’t an issue, he always went but he had a girlfriend whose family harbored him when he ran away from home. They basically kidnapped my son. We went through hell trying to get him back home when he was 16 and were threatened with guns and violence by the girlfriend’s family. We tried everything. Eventually we realized … we have 2 other children that we need to focus on as well. Well … when my oldest was 18 this girlfriend’s father convinced my son to accompany him on a robbery as a lookout. The girlfriend’s father was shot to death that night by the homeowner and my son was in jail for a year. He is now in boot camp for 6 months. It has totally changed him for the better. I know I did all I could but I feel like I somehow messed up as a parent. Now with my younger son refusing to go to school and throwing tantrums like a 5 year old … I am totally overwhelmed. The coach has told him if he doesn’t go to school he’s going to be kicked off the team. And we fight and he cries and says he will do better. And he does …. for a week and then we are right back at square one again.

            • Emma Report

              Stressed out mom326  Oh God, I’m sorry you’re having such a tough time. If only we’d known how hard this was going to be. I wouldn’t mind but my daughter was the loveliest child in the world until she was about 12 but now she’s a monster.
              We’ve had some time off from the battle with her over going to school. She has seriously messed up in the time when we gave up shouting at her to get to school but we’ve had some time to get calm and to de-stress from the craziness of always trying to get her to do the right thing. As they say, she is now experiencing the natural consequences of her failure to get up and go to school. Maybe you should let your son miss out and tell him that it’s on him now if he doesn’t go and that you’re not going to nag him anymore. He will probably get kicked off the team and if he’s anything like my daughter, he might get kicked out of school too but he’s the only one to blame for that. You might get some of your sanity back.
              We’re at the point now where we’ve tried both. She still does nothing but when we’re trying and failing to get her to school, we are super stressed, super upset and super angry. At least when we’ve made her responsible for getting to school and she fails, we’re still upset that she’s not going to school, but we’re not having massive arguments every morning and screaming matches every day. The outcome is still the same but we get to keep our sanity.
              We’re on the point now of telling her that we won’t support her to stay at home in bed everyday. We feel like we are enabling her.
              Anyway, you are not a complete failure, if you were, you wouldn’t care and you wouldn’t be here looking for advice. You’re doing a fantastic job for just keeping on trying. Lots of parents have it easy with kids who follow the rules and behave appropriately. I have one daughter who is lovely but we thought that parenting her through the teenage years was hard going. It wasn’t. Dealing with a tough kid who won’t follow the norms of society like going to school is beyond anything that most parents have to deal with. I know we are good parents, we are just dealing with a different kind of kid who doesn’t want to be parented.
              Good luck, remember to look after yourself first. You can’t help him if you are a mental wreck. Put yourself together first and tell him that he’s a grown up now and his mistakes are on him. I’m sure you’ve taught him all the lessons you want him to learn already. So he already knows what he is supposed to do. Tell him you have some faith that he’ll do the right thing for himself and your going to treat him like an adult now and let him be responsible for himself!  You never know – it might work for him.

            • Stressed out mom326 Report

              That is basically what we have been doing. He is not allowed to drive the car. He has to do work with my husband to earn video games. This week he missed Monday and was late yesterday, but he went. He has a hearing April 12 and he is going alone. I told him you did this, you can deal with it. I’ve already paid 3 fines. My husband is going toward the end of the hearning to explain to the judge that penalizing us is not teaching him a lesson. It’s an absurd concept. We are going to tell the judge that if there is a fine, our son needs to do community service to work it off because I am done with it. He will most likely have his license suspended for 3 months. I wish there was a boot camp program that i could send him to NOW before it gets worse. The rigid discipline has worked wonders on my oldest, he is completely transformed and even he calls his brother and writes him and tells him how important it is that he go to school.
              I just wonder why he doesn’t want to go. He’s a popular kid, everyone seems to like him. He refuses to talk in therapy, even when we aren’t there they have to really push to get him to talk. I just don’t know what else to do. We have a trip booked next June that is supposed to be in celebration of him graduating. It’s already paid for! Ugh. I wish you luck!

    • ineedalifeline Report

      Stressed out mom326 I have a 9th grader who stopped going at the end of third quarter.  This was a kid who never ever missed school.  She is seeing a therapist, on ADHD meds, has anxiety but this is beyond me.  I was too afraid of getting in trouble to do anything like this when I was a teen.  I could take all her things away or give her the world and her response would be the same.  I have reached out to everyone for help but no one realizes how awful this situation is for her and for me.  My husband would be happy to let her fail.  He goes to work and takes care of himself and that’s it.  I work full time and deal with all of this crap. I’m at my wit’s end.  Nothing is working for me,either.

  6. Paul Report

    I’ve been trying to get my soon to be 7th grade son that his future is creeping up on him quickly. Tried positive and negative reinforcing, taking phone, iPad, the whole 9. Doesn’t work.
    what did work is when I kept my plans to go fishing or hunting or something he loves doing with me and held him accountable for that. If he didn’t do his school work, I went on and kept my plans and he sat at home with my fiancee or his grandparents while I did what we were supposed to do together. It hurt his little feelings but it woke him up in essence to the fact the others will move on while you’re standing in their dust if you don’t take responsibility seriously. He has been getting much better at realizing this, but his mother doesn’t reinforce anything while he is with her… however the good habits I’m establishing with him are becoming effective outside of my home.

  7. Isaiah78 Report

    Not a parent but the eldest child in a single parent home. I’ve been trying to get my sister to take her upcoming GSEC exams seriously and devoting my time to helping her prepare although I myself am preparing for A Level exams. I’ve use negative imagery, made timetables, directly showed her how to do things, found useful websites with information related to her subjects and NOTHING shows me that she’s interested. I’ve given up because it only led to me stressing out myself and I noticed you can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do but I’d be sure to try this!

  8. Veryconcernfather Report

    Is there anyway to motivate a child to improve grade in math from A to a big D while the teacher think she works hard enough and is OK. Is the teacher try to cover up his deficiency? How do I settle the disagreement with my child when I told her a D is unacceptable and I am not happy with that mark. I am worry of the over react but if I don’t, my teenage child may gradual join the low grade student club. Please advice.
    The reward motivation method seems not working recently. Is there any solution without upsetting her since she has try do her part except lack iof nterest in certain area such as math and science lately.

    • rwolfenden Report

      You make a great point that it can be very difficult to
      motivate your child to improve when both your child and her teacher do not
      agree that there is an issue.  It sounds like you are doing what you can
      to get your teen to improve her grades, such as letting her know your
      expectations and offering her rewards if she meets those expectations. 
      Ultimately, you cannot make your child see things from your perspective, or be
      interested in certain subjects.  One other piece you might include is
      having a problem-solving conversation with her about how she can improve her
      grades, even if she is not interested in those subjects.  James Lehman
      describes this in more detail in his article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/sinking-fast-at-school-how-to-help-your-child-stay-afloat/.  Please let us
      know if you have any additional questions; take care.

      • GraceAnn Report

        My son is 23. Is on meds for schizoaffective since h.s. and has been hospitalized 5 times the past 3 years (psychiatric). Obsessed with poker and weed. No interest in working or taking college classes. Dropped out of junior college at 19. Seldom leaves the house. Is joined at the hip to me. I am a single mom. He gets SSI and pays rent. Am worried about what will happen to him after I die. Wish he could move on with his life. Was always so smart and a talented athlete.



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