You want your kid to do well in school and take their studies seriously, so they’ll have as many options as possible. But from a teen’s perspective, that can feel like one significant drag: They’re longing for more independence, and yet they have to listen to adults tell them what to do all day — and how to spend their evenings too, says Dr. Lisa Damour, bestselling author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, whose latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents is available for preorder now.
Nightly nagging and expressing your disappointment about lackluster grades are unlikely to help your kid suddenly feel inspired to do schoolwork that doesn’t appeal.
6 key points to keep in mind when it comes to motivating your kids
1. Let them know you get it
Especially when your kid is bored or frustrated by a particular subject, explain in a matter-of-fact way that school is like a buffet where you’re required to eat everything even when you don’t like it, says Dr. Damour, co-host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting. Understandably, they may feel the same way about chemistry that they feel about cauliflower. “Relating school subjects to food preferences neutralizes a lot of shame and judgment,” says Dr. Damour. As an adult (and even in college), they’ll be able to focus on their favorites.
2. The same goes for teachers
When kids insist they hate a class because of the teacher, you can validate their opinion by saying, “It’s true, some teachers can be annoying,” suggests Dr. Damour. “One of the beautiful things about teenagers is that if you acknowledge their perspective and tell them they’re not wrong, they’ll often do what’s being asked of them.” You can follow up with: “I’m impressed when you do good work for teachers who you enjoy, but I’m extremely impressed when you do good work for teachers who rub you the wrong way.”
3. Be a strategy partner
Asking an adolescent, “You haven’t started studying for your math test yet?” could do more harm than good. Teens don’t want to be judged, and if they want to have a power struggle over school, they’ll win, says Dr. Damour, because when it comes to school, they hold all the power. “I’ve seen kids do their homework and take it to school but not turn it in out of spite because they felt so pressured by their parents.”
Instead, make it clear that you’re on the same team. You could say, “Let’s think about what would help you get through this,” or “What would make it more bearable?” Perhaps watching a video that explains what they’re learning in class would be helpful. Or you could offer to keep your kid company: “I have a bunch of work I don’t want to do either. Would it help if I sat by you and did that work while you do yours, so you don’t have to be alone?”
You might help your kid figure out if they’d instead do the most accessible work first to get the ball rolling — or start with the more complex work so they can reward themselves by doing the more accessible work afterward. “Any hack that does the trick is good,” says Dr. Damour. “Empathizing with the fact that they’re disinterested and then admiring them when they come up with techniques to get their work done anyway is a huge part of how we help kids stay motivated through school.”
4. Help kids get in touch with their own goals
Reminding your kid that their grades will matter to colleges, scholarship committees, or potential employers is reasonable. However, it’s also essential to be on the same page about what the expectations are about what kind of ambitions your kid may have for college, says Dr. Damour. “Research has shown it’s best when teens and parents have similar expectations about achievement. You may need to have some tough conversations if a gap needs to be bridged.”
Not all teenagers can connect the academic choices they’re making today with the long-term consequences of those decisions. At these times, it can help to encourage kids to seriously contemplate what they want for themselves and have a future-oriented mindset. Dr. Damour suggests saying something like: “I understand that you may not care very much about your grades now, but I want to make sure that 17-year-old you won’t be upset with 14-year-old you for taking options off the table.
5. Support other interests
Especially if your kid doesn’t seem engaged with any aspect of school, help them find opportunities to pursue what appeals to them more — whether working with their hands, playing music, or something else. “We want kids to have a sense of mastery and success, and not all kids will get that in school,” says Dr. Damour. “But they should be getting it somewhere. Doing well at something is an important source of self-esteem.”
6. Know when to seek professional help
If your teen is working very hard but not seeing results, it will be difficult for them to stay motivated, says Dr. Damour, and they could benefit from an evaluation for learning disorders. If they don’t seem to care about anything — academic or non-academic — you should consider the possibility of depression or a substance use disorder and consult with a school counselor or other mental health professional.
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