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5 mistakes to avoid when trying to motivate an angsty, moody teenager

Figuring out how to motivate a teenager is a huge struggle for parents, but it doesn’t have to be. You may feel like you don’t know your child anymore as they grow into what seems like an entirely new person, but you still do know them better than anyone else. You are still their parent, the one to encourage them and inspire them no matter what.

While parenting a teen can be so complicated it’s a punchline, being a teen is really tough, too. If you’re looking for some words of encouragement for teenagers, start with listening to find out what they want to hear. Reflecting back on what you’re hearing their struggles are is a great first step.

What you don’t want to do is steamroll over your teen in throwing words at them to see what sticks. For other mistakes to avoid when trying to motivate a teenager, read on.

Teen daughter and mom talking

Setting unreachable goals

Give your teen goals they can realistically achieve. Even if they seem very small, breaking down bigger long-term goals into smaller chunks will help your teenager manage the stress of taking on a big task and not feel so overwhelmed. If you tell them they have to have something done by tomorrow that simply isn’t possible, they’ll feel defeated. Set expectations for what is realistic, no matter whether you’d like them to be able to achieve more. Meet them where they are and it will help build their confidence so they become capable of more.

Nagging them

You do need to remind them to get things done sometimes, but reminding them every hour is only going to make things worse. They’ll only come to resent the task and you as a result. Ask them how they would like to be reminded and set a time period that they know they will not be nagged for. For example, give them a deadline of three days to do a chore and agree that you will not remind them once but that if it isn’t done the consequence will be no car for 24 hours. Or you can agree that you can write “do chore” on the whiteboard on the fridge during the three days but you won’t verbally say it out loud. Make an agreement together about how you can best support reminding them but also what will happen if they don’t do it without the reminders.

Fixing things for them

If you step in to pick up the pieces every time they make a mistake or you take care of things before even letting them make a mistake, they can’t feel motivated. To encourage them to be independent, you have to start to let them stand on their own two feet–which means letting them fall and get back up sometimes, too.

Ruling with a dictatorship

You are still in charge, but if you want your teenager to feel motivated, they need to feel they have some buy-in. Give them choices wherever you can. You choose that they need to do three household chores, but they can choose which three they are from your list. You suggest that they find a hobby, but they figure out what it is. You say they can only have two hours of screen time per day, but they can choose when it is and what devices it’s on. Whenever there is a chance for them to choose anything, jump at the opportunity to give it to them.

Forgetting to listen

Listening to your teenager is critical to motivating them. Use what they say they care about to reflect back to them as their motivation for getting things done. If they talk about wanting to go to the movies with their friends but never have a ride, suggest that getting a job to afford a taxi ride or save up for a car could help them achieve that. Don’t turn every listening session into a “you should” moment, but bring it up at another time with what you learned.

So, what do you want to do and say?

Words of encouragement for teenagers

  • “I’m on your side.”
  • “Take it one day at time.”
  • “I can tell you are trying really hard.”
  • “We all make mistakes but we have chances to make new choices tomorrow.”
  • “I’m proud of who are growing to be.”
  • “I will never give up on you.”

Think of what you’d want to hear. You’ve got this–both of you.

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Sarah Prager
Sarah is a writer and mom who lives in Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, National…
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