Some kids are self-motivated, diving into schoolwork and hobbies and passions with wild abandon, needing very little direction. They know who they are, they know where they want to go, and they’re on their way. (You know. Your sister’s perfect kids.)
But what if your kid is not that kid? What if your teen shows no interest in anything besides video games or Snapchat or Netflix? They might still be coasting through school, bringing home all A’s — but they’ve seemingly got zero drive to get involved in anything else. What’s going on there?
Dott Kelly, clinical director and founder of Jumping Mouse — an organization that helps young people heal through expressive mental health therapy — says that disconnect may have something to do with teens not feeling in charge of their own lives. “A sense of being not-in-control drives much of the negative behavior we see in this age group,” says Kelly, a licensed mental health counselor. “A vital response from parents and teachers needs to be that we ‘hang in there,’ responding to the anxiety and possible loneliness, rather than only the behaviors.”
Easier said than done, of course, but it’s helpful wisdom to keep in mind when your once engaging, active adolescent seems, well…stuck. Or lost.
So what’s the answer? Kelly believes the most important factor in helping a teen find their way is nurturing a strong relationship with them, and shelving your own need to control the trajectory of their lives (come on, admit it — we parents are guilty as charged).
Relax. We’ve got you. Here’s some advice from Kelly — along with some wisdom gathered from a sampling of teens — on the right ways and the wrong ways to encourage and empower your kid to identify and explore what they love.
Stay available and sympathetic
Ask about experiences that are at the heart — rather than about the behavior — of your teen, Kelly said. When was the last time you spent positive time with your child — not nagging, but genuinely asking about their life? Do you know who their friends are? Do you know what’s bothering them? Have they lost anyone recently who was important to them? Have they been eating regularly and taking care of themselves? Set aside some time to let your kid know they’re not in trouble. Let them know you just want to catch up and hear what’s going on in their life because you’re feeling out of touch and miss them.
Consider underlying reasons
Is your teen unmotivated or is there a real possibility that your teen is clinically depressed or dealing with anxiety or other scary issues? Many kids who withdraw from activities and social contact are not unmotivated so much as exhausted, hurting or numb. “The more we react to behaviors, the more a teen feels unseen and unheard, which then creates a cycle of more negativity, more reaction, more power struggles and then more isolation,” said Kelly. “To dismiss or discount a teen’s responses to situations that the parent may not even know about only increases opposition.”
Make the parenting shift from control to mutual communication
This shift can be tricky for both parents and teens — and requires time and commitment. “Accept the expressed emotions [of your teen] as indicators of needs, not as rebellion,” said Kelly. “Think relationship.” Not rulership. A warm, frank, nonjudgmental conversation with a parent can be invaluable for a teen who’s feeling isolated. If your teen is struggling with bigger issues, gently ask if they think some counseling might help. Ask how you can help advocate for them going forward. Let them know they’re not alone and drop all talk of achievement and success. If your kid’s in pain, no amount of pushing is going to help, and it’s likely to hurt.
Boring and predictable and reliable goes a long way with any child, especially a teenager. “Provide continued predictability in your schedule and in your understanding of your child’s schedule,” Kelly said.
Keep your end of the bargain, always
Do what you say you’ll do, even when you’re ready to blow your top. Don’t flake on a teenager who’s counting on you. “For instance, model being on time [and] meeting responsibilities,” Kelly said. This goes a long way toward keeping and maintaining trust during a difficult time in your adolescent’s life. Even if they’re not in the mood to talk, they want to know you’re there and you’re holding yourself, not just them, accountable to solid standards.
Take a closer look at yourself
Uh, no offense or anything, but what exactly are you doing these days to make your own fine self better? Training for a 5K or a half-marathon or just pestering your teen to be more active? Bugging your kid about doing that writing camp when your own manuscript has withered and died a slow wretched death on your desk like the pothos ivy plant? “We notice when you’re telling us to do something that you’re not doing yourself,” said one of our teen advisers. Fair enough. Don’t underestimate the power of a parent who’s vocal about their own struggles and successes staying motivated.
Create a mom squad that has your back
This parenting teens gig ain’t easy. Sometimes, you need to vent in a safe space so you can better keep your cool with your kid. “Maintain your own ‘team’ of moms who can help keep the focus on safety and trust, rather than the power struggles that easily occur [with your child],” said Kelly.
Recognize your teen might be a late bloomer
Not everyone is a violin prodigy by the age of 3 — and that’s OK. “Not everybody is meant to go on Ellen,” a wise teen told us. Hell, some adults are still just getting started, finding their way to what they love. And some people never get there. Sad, but you know it’s true. All the more reason to take a deep breath and reframe the situation minus the panic.
Find the positive spin — and go deeper into what they love
So you’re pretty sure your kid’s not depressed. They seem pretty OK, just bored or disinterested in school or extracurricular activities and unexcited about the future. Stay positive. Instead of giving them a hard time about being unmotivated (how unhelpful is that?), ask if there’s anything that sparks their interest, that maybe they’ve been nervous to try. Pay attention to anything — no matter how bizarre or tiny you may think it is — that your teen lights up about. Is there a kind of music they love? An animal? An author? A TV show? A place they want to visit? Get them talking. Ask questions. Validate what they love and explore ways for your kid to get closer to those things. Do they hate people but love animals? Let them know you think working with animals is a great idea and suggest a job at a local kennel or volunteer work walking dogs at a shelter. Have they been obsessed with a certain city? Road trip time. A TV show? Watch with them if they don’t mind watching with their dorky parent. Keep going deeper and helping them to explore their interests. As one teen said, “We might not want to show it, but it’s never a bad thing when parents show genuine interest in what we like.”
When all else fails, help them remember what they used to love
Some teens genuinely lose sight of what they loved as little kids. Fortunately, you were there, paying attention to their dinosaur obsessions or hardcore art-and-crafting ways. Do any of the old loves still hold any interest for your teen? Are there more sophisticated ways for your kindergarten crayon queen to express herself? A new sketchbook and fresh manga pens? A weekend workshop on jewelry-making?
Show, don’t tell
One teen told us, “For me, it’s seeing other people being successful at something I admire. Like when my parents take me to see a Broadway show, I’m completely inspired and it makes me want to make music myself. I’d much rather see something I love — or think I might love — than talk about it.”
Send a few links, but don’t overdo it
See something online that might interest your teen? A link to a new skateboard park opening or an article on the trap music (look it up, hipster) that’s always playing in their room? Our teens were (surprisingly) receptive to this tactic. “But don’t overdo it,” one warned. “Just a few links once in awhile can help us sort of self-define ourselves.”
Hit the bookstore
Continuing with the theme of some kids just don’t want to talk about it: How about a bookstore trip (and both of you leave your phones in the car)? Spend time wandering the aisles separately, and pay attention to what section your teen heads for. Offer to buy a few books, whatever floats their boat (no judging). As one teen put it, “I like books about inspiring people. I just don’t like to talk about being inspired.”
Focus on what they do, not what they don’t do
Nobody likes the insinuation that they’re not doing enough. (You hate it too. Admit it.) Reminisce about fun things they’ve enjoyed in the past. Let them know how proud of them you were then and still are now.
Forget about the doing, and celebrate the being
Lastly, know when to let it go. Your teen might need time off with a hug and a reminder that they are plenty enough and deeply loved just as they are. So go ahead. Get mushy. “I might not show it back,” said one teen, “but I still like hearing that they love me unconditionally no matter what I’m doing or not doing.”