Motivating Your Unmotivated Teenager - Why Do Teenagers Change?

If you are trying to motivate your teenagers to change, your efforts beg the question "Why do teenagers change, anyway?" The answers to this question are critical and will help you avoid frustration while they take you in a more promising direction.

Based on motivation research, there seem to be three conditions necessary for teenagers to change their behavior:

1. Teenagers change in response to something of intrinsic value. This is why externally-applied consequences--punishments and rewards--tend not to be effective. Teenagers must connect the considered change to something of intrinsic significance in order to feel motivated to take a chance on changing. You will have little luck in motivating them without a sense of what is intrinsically important to them.

2. The teenager must be ready and willing to change. This sounds too obvious to need to be stated, but it drives home an important point: change will not be forced. If you attempt to compel a change with a teenager, you are likely to get the opposite of what you intend. And if that is not bad enough, that frustration will be accompanied by lots of discord, arguing, hostility, and general overall unpleasantness. So you have an unmotivated teenager--no positive change--with whom you now have a lousy relationship.

3. The teenager is in an environment that is characterized by safety, acceptance, and empowerment. Since the prime factor in this environment is your relationship, that relationship must be safe, accepting, and empowering in order to be motivating. While you may be displeased with their performance, you must dial back your criticism (this is the acceptance piece) and have your conversations focus more on their feelings, goals, and desires than yours. They must know that they can express themselves to you in a civil fashion and have their thoughts, perspectives, and feelings be acknowledged (this is the safety part). It is in this kind of relationship that they can feel empowered.

A mantra I teach the parents of my teenage clients is this: Acceptance facilitates change. It does not guarantee change nor direct it. But it is acceptance that gives us the freedom to take the risks to strive in a different direction. As true as this is for all of us, it is that much more true for teenagers.

So, if you want to have a truly motivating relationship with your teenagers, don't try to force the change that you want. Find out what changes they desire. Discover what is intrinsically important to them. Create the safety that promotes motivation by listening to them without criticism or judgment.

Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW is a family counselor who has been consulting with parents for more than 35 years. He is the creator of the parent training video "Get the Behavior You Want from Your Child" as well as the DVD "Kindness, Courtesy, and Respect" for children. Additionally, he is the author of "Motivating Your Intelligent but Unmotivated Teenager." He is in demand as a trainer for parents, schools, and social service agencies and had provided hundreds of training presentations around the country.

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