Helping an Unmotivated Teenager


Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Signed,
Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,
Steve

Steve Willis

As one of the original trainers at VitalSmarts, Steve has been on the forefront of developing award-winning training programs, perfecting quality training platforms, and delivering training content that has influenced more than 500,000 people to date. In addition, Steve has trained and certified thousands of employees, managers, and trainers from Fortune 500 companies across the nation.