How to Motivate Teenagers
Q&A with Josh Shipp
Does your teen seem completely unmotivated? For
parents of teens, the refrains of, "Whatever," and "I don't care," can
become all too familiar. In this interview by Empowering Parents
magazine, Josh Shipp explains where your child's motivation really
lies—and how you can tap into it...
EP: Josh, what should parents do when their child seems to be unmotivated?
JS: I think that most--if not all--kids have
drive, but I think there has to be a reason for the drive. What most
kids need is a "why." Eric Chester calls teens "Generation Why" because
they always want to know, "Why am I doing this? Why is this history
project important to me?" And the answer from you can't be, "Because I
told you so." The answer can't even necessarily be "because this is
your school work." There has to be something within your child that
pushes him past the inconveniences, the shortcomings, and the hiccups
that will, without question, arise when he undertakes something that's
challenging. So it's important for kids to understand why they want to
do something, not just that they have to do it.
What you want to communicate to your child is that you have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.
If you're the parent of a teen, you know how much they
like to debate and question things. Sometimes that's a pain, but I
think it's actually okay to a point. Here's something I've come to
understand from personal experience as a teen. When they finally
understand how something benefits them, they will do it long term. If
the reason your child does something is only because it's important to
you, that is short term motivation and that will end. The reason also
needs to be important to your child, not just important to you. If your
daughter is making good grades only because she wants to make you
happy, eventually that's probably going to stop. She needs to have a
personal reason WHY. Her personal reason can be that when you do a good
job at something difficult, you have a sense of accomplishment. Feeling
a sense of accomplishment is worth the effort it takes to experience it.
Here's an example from my own life. I'm part of a
running group that meets every morning. Do I want to get up at 5 a.m.
and run? Heck No! Why do I do it? Other people depend on me to be
there. Something is motivating me to get out of bed. I think there's a
sense of accountability that we as human beings have; our default
nature is that we will disappoint ourselves before we disappoint
others. If it was just me, I assure you that I would hit the snooze
button seven out of ten times. But instead I think, "I promised Steve I
would be there; he'll give me a hard time if I don't show up." And
secondly, it makes me feel good. Most people don't drive to the gym and
then stay in the parking lot--the issue is that they never get in the
car. Once you do something you have a sense of accomplishment; you feel
good about it and it's worth it. It's just the getting started part
that's the pain.
EP: So what's a good way to explain what the "WHY" is and how your child is going to benefit from it?
JS: Here's the place I would start. It's very
unlikely that you have a kid that is 100% lazy and unmotivated. What's
more likely is that in a few areas that drive you crazy as a parent,
he's lazy and unmotivated. This was true for me. As a kid, in certain
periods of my life, I wasn't focused on my academics, but I was 100%
committed to baseball. I would practice batting, throwing and catching
for hours. Clearly I had the ability to be disciplined and to work hard
at something. So what I would say is, find an area where your child is
motivated. Where is she committed? Talk to her about that. You can say,
"Why is it that you're so committed to softball?" She might say, "Well,
I think it's fun. I like it and my friends are on the team." Then you
can come back with, "Okay, so how could you transfer that to these
other things that are important in your life? How could you take some
of that ambition you have and transfer that to your schoolwork, which
is also important? Could you figure out a way to make your homework fun
and involve your friends?"
EP: Why would a child want to do that? Just
putting myself into a kid's head right now, I'm thinking, "Okay, Mom
wants me to do my homework." But why would I want to transfer my love
of softball into doing my history project?"
JS: That brings us back to the "why" of things.
I think it's important to help your child understand why she needs
history and school. So you can say, "You may not love history, but you
need history in order to graduate." What you want to communicate to
your child is that you have to do what you have to do so you can do
what you want to do. Find out what your child wants to do or become in
the future. The average kid's ambition does require them to graduate
high school. I'm not saying every kid needs to go to a four year
college. Some are better working with their hands or going to technical
school, but you have to graduate high school. So you can say to your
child, "Look, history is one of those things that you have to do so you
can do what you want to do. Maybe later you want to be a computer
programmer. That's great, but you're going to need to go to college for
that. At the very least you're going to need a high school degree."
It's the concept of "short - term sacrifice for long - term gain."
I also tell teens that the issue isn't the piece of
paper--the document that says "I graduated from Central High School."
The issue is that no company wants to hire a quitter. And if you drop
out or stop doing the work, you are categorizing yourself as a quitter.
It's just not worth it.
EP: OK, that makes sense. So what should you
say if your child says that they hate math or they're not good at
chemistry? How do you motivate them then?
JS: I think it's okay for your kid to say, "I
hate history. I'm not good at this." Those are fine things to express.
And you don't need to say, "No you don't." After all, maybe they don't
like history. We all have subjects that we gravitate towards a little
more. That's not what you need to focus on. What you DO need to focus
on is "I understand that you don't like it, but how can you succeed at
this?" Maybe that means your child doesn't make an "A" in history, but
he needs to at least do his best so he can graduate.
Again, to them, it's a valid feeling when they say,
"I'm not good at this. This is hard. I hate history." In my opinion, a
good response from you is, "I have no problem with you hating history.
But I do have a problem with you quitting tonight."
EP: Josh, what about kids who come across as
lazy or unmotivated but really it's a self - esteem issue. Some kids
worry a lot and just don't feel like they can do it.
JS: This is a very good point. I think there's
a lot of pressure on kids, and many of them tell me that they get
anxious or feel overwhelmed with everything they have to do. I think,
to a certain degree, kids are not allowed to be kids these days. They
need to be college ready and fluent in eight different languages by the
time they're four years old.
Sometimes kids really are overscheduled. It's pretty
realistic that they would feel overwhelmed in that case. I think it's
important for you to help your child make positive goals and then make
sure the things that he or she is saying yes or no to match up with
Frankly, I think a lot of us (myself included) need to
make "To Don't" lists. We make so many "To Do" lists in our lives, but
sometimes they're just entirely too lengthy. I think we need to commit
to not doing some things. It's freeing for kids to sit down and write
out the things they don't need to do in their lives, and it also helps
them narrow down what they need to focus on.
EP: Josh, what about procrastination? Do teens put things off because they're anxious about not being able to do something?
JS: I think the issue here is that we often
look at step ten, but we don't see step one. We think, "I have this big
project due by next week"--but that's step ten. How do you get there?
You've got to do steps one through nine. There's a famous story about a
woman who had to write a book report about a hundred birds. How did she
do that? Bird by bird.
If your child is feeling overwhelmed, what I don't
suggest you do is relieve them of the things they have committed to by
doing any of those things for them. Don't say, "You've got five things
to do, let me do one of them for you." When you do that, you're
handicapping your kid. You're essentially letting them give up without
letting them experience the guilt. And believe me, your child needs to
experience that guilt and disappointment if he gives up.
What you can do is help him break it down. Lots of
kids are visual, so you can say something like, "All right, these are
the four things you have to do this week, let's write these four things
down. Let's look at your time. It looks like Tuesday would probably be
the best day for you to do this. Does that sound good? You could do it
Thursday afternoon after practice." Just help them break it down. Most
kids lack a game plan. So this monster that's actually quite small and
which your child could probably slay easily becomes an enormous beast
in his mind. He starts thinking, "Oh my gosh, there's no way I can do
this." And so instead of actually doing his work or getting stuff done,
your teen sits around agonizing about it. And then the deadline looms
more and then he gets more and more freaked out. My advice is, don't
handicap your kids by doing things for them; empower them by helping
them develop a plan for how to do it themselves.
EP: That makes a lot of sense. But what about
kids who need help getting started? Would you recommend giving them
help in the beginning of a project?
JS: I think that's fine. What I would want to
see, though, is my child asking for my help--not me shoving it upon
him. I think it's important to talk to kids about how they can
creatively ask for help. Your child could run his project by a friend
who's doing one of his own. He could go on the Internet and look for
ideas. He could ask you what you think about his project and how he's
planning to go about doing it. I want to see kids learning things here,
like how to ask for help and use the resources that they have. I have
no problem with a parent helping, but I think it's important for your
child to learn how to ask for that help.
And I would say, "I have no problem helping you out.
I'm not going to do it for you, but let me know specifically what you
would like help on." This is how you can relieve pressure without doing
it for your child. So let's say your son says, "Hey, I'm really having
a hard time finding this research book, Dad. Could you try to hunt it
down on Amazon or see if the bookstore has it or something?" I think
you could say, "I'm happy to do that. I know that would help you out;
I'll do that so you don't have to run across town." So making a plan,
reading it over, giving feedback, critiquing their work--totally fine
in my opinion. Again, you're helping but you're not doing the work for
them. I've met too many 17 - year - olds who are still being babied.
They need to get up off the couch and do it themselves, because if they
don't, then they're 19 and they go to college and they wonder why
things are falling apart.
So we have to be careful as parents. I think you have
to ask yourself, "Am I helping my kid to actually help my kid or am I
helping my kid for my own ego?" This is a question I love because it's
sort of a punch in the gut. So, is it that I don't want to have the kid
that gets an "F" on his book report? Is it that I don't want to look
like an idiot or be embarrassed? Or is it that you want to help your
child learn something?
EP: So how do you motivate a child who has a self - esteem issue?
JS: People can say things that are motivational
to us; we can experience things that are motivating, but whether or not
we're motivated is up to us. I'm not necessarily of the belief that you
can motivate anybody. Motivation is something we have to choose. Every
single day you wake up and you have that choice. Will I be my best or
will I not? Not the best, but my best. Will I apply myself, will I try
these difficult things? One thing that you can do as a parent is expose
your kids to things that inspire them. Maybe your child does want to be
a computer programmer and there's a computer programming convention in
town. Take him to it. It may be the most boring thing in the world for
you, but your child is totally going to nerd out and be all excited
about it. Use what your kid is into to motivate him. Maybe you know
someone who's a computer programmer who would talk with your kid.
Obviously this person is going to say that there are certain things
you've got to do to be successful in that field, certain sacrifices you
have to make. They might say, "Yes, I love what I do, but there were
certain goals I had to achieve to get here, like graduating from high
school and going to college."
I personally find that when you surround yourself with
people who are doing what you want to do, it inspires you. You realize
that they're just people, they're not super human. They made mistakes
and had some roadblocks but they kept going and they're doing what they
love. It makes you think, "Wow, this is possible. If this guy did it,
why can't I?"
Sometimes the key is just knowing that someone else
was able to achieve what you want to achieve. Back in the '50's, no one
had ever run a four minute mile. A lot of people tried it and then
finally Roger Bannister ran it in 3:59. Then a month later, four other
people did it, and that's because they were inspired. Someone proved to
them that it was possible. Encourage your kids not to study their
heroes' end results, but their heroes' first steps. By the time someone
becomes your kid's hero, they're on step eight, nine or ten. So read
about them, look online. What were their first steps, how many times
did they go bankrupt? How many times did Michael Jordan get kicked off
his high school basketball team? How many times did the publisher say
no, we don't like your book? Study the first steps, not the end results.
I think these sorts of things provide for better
motivation than trying to come up with the perfect sentence or the
exact right thing to say to your child to get them to do what you want
them to do.
EP: Josh, you tell parents that it's not effective to lecture children and teens. What should you do or say?
JS: So much of the time we're focused on what
our teens shouldn't be doing and the things they did wrong. But I think
it's important to compliment your child on things you've noticed them
doing well. Catch your teen doing something good. Say something to them
even if it's as simple as, "I noticed that you opened the door for that
lady," or "I saw you take some time out and play catch with your little
brother. Nice job."
It's not effective to nag your kids. If you've taken
on that role, understand that any time a project approaches, your child
is going to assume by default that you are not there as a supporter,
but as a nag and a nuisance. Let's face it, all of us want to quit
things sometimes. We think to ourselves, "This is really hard. I don't
know if I can do it." But how would you feel if every time you were
working on something difficult, a friend walked into the room and said,
"Hey, you're not finished yet? What's holding you up? You should be
done by now. I don't think you're doing it the right way." You'd just
tune him out. And you really don't want to become that person to your
As I said in the last article, we don't want our kids
to give up and quit when they face challenges. But we don't want to
label them as "quitters" either. Focus on the behavior, and don't tag
them with that label. And try to avoid calling them lazy, because
chances are that they're not lazy with everything. Instead, I think
it's better to ask pointed questions that bring your child to a
EP: What kinds of questions work best, in your opinion?
JS: I would start with questions like, "Why are
you having a hard time with this? What's going on?" And really listen
to what your child has to say. Another good thing to ask is, "What can
I do to relieve some of the pressure?" Make it clear that you're not
going to do the work for your kids, but let them know that you can
help. Maybe your daughter was supposed to babysit over the weekend, but
she needs more time to finish a big project; you might try to find
someone else to babysit in her place. You can say, "Clearly you're
pretty worried about your project. I want to see you succeed. What can
I do to relieve some stress?"
It's also good to get your kids to see things long
term. I don't mean to lecture them, but to just make sure they have an
incentive. Again, this goes back to talking to your kids about doing
what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.
I think it's good to ask your child what tools he
needs to succeed. I've found in my own life that there are certain days
when I'm just "on"--days when I have lots of ideas and feel motivated.
When I look back on those days, I find patterns: I have time to
exercise, some time to myself, and time with my family and friends. The
bottom line is that you should look back at a time where you succeeded
and then try to duplicate that environment. Sit down and talk with your
child about his best environment and the tools he needs to succeed.
When I speak with kids, I always tell them, "Put yourself in a position
to win." Maybe it helps your child to get up every 20 minutes and take
a short break, then go back to work. That can often be a useful
technique because then he's not feeling like, "Oh, I'm going to be
sitting here for eight hours straight studying." So encourage your
child to give himself rewards if that's what he needs. Again, you're
helping him without doing it for him.
I think the best thing that you can do is be involved
in your kid's life, know what's going on--and then help him make a plan
to reach his goals. If he has a plan, then the goal doesn't seem like
this big, scary beast, and he's going at it one step at a time.
EP: What if you see your child starting to
slack off a little on a project and you start to worry that he's not
going to finish on time. Is there anything you should step in and do at
JS: I think it's best to let teens figure it
out for themselves unless there's a fire. As a parent, you obviously
need to put out fires, but if it's just a short - term inconvenience I
believe they need to figure it out for themselves.
If your child doesn't hand in his project on time and
gets a bad grade, that's a natural consequence. Certainly, there should
be guidelines and rules at home around expectations and
responsibilities. But if your child doesn't complete his work, he needs
to experience the consequences of that lack of follow - through himself.
EP: Josh, a lot of parents say that their kids play video games all the time and avoid doing work. What would you say about that?
JS: I think you can use video gaming to your
advantage as a parent. Frankly, I believe video games in moderation can
be a good thing. They teach kids critical thinking skills, how to
respond quickly and make decisions. I think you can say, "I know you
have this big project due and you're stressed out. Maybe we can set up
a plan where you work on this for an hour, then you get 20 minutes to
ease your mind, have a little fun, and play some video games. Then you
get back to work. We'll try it for a while and see if it works." The
bottom line is, I think you should use whatever works the best--and use
the things your child enjoys to motivate your child.
Remember, discouragement arrives before defeat. That's
why one of the most important things you can do for your kid as they're
trying to do these things is just encourage them. When people stay
discouraged, defeat is inevitable. It's all about your mental fitness.
EP: Some kids bite off more than they can chew
and end up doing too many activities. Is it OK to let your child quit a
few things if they're feeling stressed and overwhelmed?
JS: Often in high school, the activities are cyclical.
If my child signed up for too many activities, I personally wouldn't
want him to quit the team--I would want him to stick it out and then
not sign up again. Once you allow the idea of quitting to enter into
your child's mind as an option or possibility, it becomes dangerous.
I'd rather be on the offense as a parent. Before your
child is signing up for activities, sit down with him and look at what
he has on his plate. I can understand why parents might want to say,
"Maybe you should drop out of a few things" when they see their kid
feeling overwhelmed. In an effort to relieve some pressure, parents
might say, "Well maybe you should quit the softball team." But I think
its better to not join these activities in the first place. See if there
is a way to encourage your child to finish out his commitments if at
all possible. I see this a lot with teens. They will overbook
themselves with friends. They'll say, "Let's hang out this weekend,"
but they only keep the appointment until someone better comes along.
I think it's important to live by the following
guideline: "My word and my commitment should be my word and my
commitment regardless of whether or not it's convenient for me." So on
the surface, something like quitting the softball team doesn't seem to
be a big deal. But you want your child to have the goal of following
through on their commitments. If your child has really overbooked
herself and signed up for the school play, the basketball team and
yearbook committee, she is probably doing too much. Try to problem
solve with her on how to fulfill all those commitments. It might be a
tough six months--and it's going to teach her a lesson.
Here's a good rule of thumb: Begin with the end in
mind. Tell your child before she signs up for things to think about
what it will do for her semester or for her school year. Remember,
you're always saying "no" to something. If you say "yes" to too many
activities, you're saying "no" to time with your friends, time with
your family, and time for yourself.
And this is a big thing with teenagers because they
don't want to upset anybody. Even teens who are a little bit insecure
usually don't want to rock the boat. So they over - commit themselves.
I think it's fine for them to choose not to do activities. I don't care
if they say no, but I do care if they give up.
EP: Josh, some kids give up easily because they
feel that everyone else is better--that they'll never be the best. I
think sometimes kids give up because they feel like other kids are
better at something than they are. What would you say to them?
JS: What I always tell kids is that it isn't
about who's the best, it's about who works the hardest and who's the
most dedicated. When I spoke at Harvard University, kids came up to me
afterward and talked about how challenging it was to come to Harvard.
They were the smartest kid in their school, but now they've come to a
place where everyone is the smartest kid in school.
I think you need to be careful about complimenting
your child and simply saying things like "You're so smart," because
it's a relative term. It's much better to encourage and compliment them
on how hard they worked--ultimately, that's what matters. It's not, "Do
you have good ideas?" It's "Will you do something with your ideas?"
Remember, there are a lot of people who are smart or athletic or
musically talented, but all they do is sit around and think about it.
It's really not about intelligence or even natural talent. It's about
applying those things in your life.
So as a parent, I think it's important to know what
your kid's goals are--because then you can use that as a tool to
motivate them. Your child's goals may be really good and realistic, or
they may be really bizarre. I don't think you should criticize them if
this is the case, however--at least they're dreaming about something.
They might say something like, "I want to be a computer programmer." At
least there's something there that you can use as incentive when
they're unmotivated. You might say, "Stay on target. Remember your goal
of becoming a computer programmer requires that you get good grades."
With teens, I think it's best to remind them of things
they themselves have said. To a certain degree, you're allowing them to
co - author certain things. It's effective for you as a parent to say,
"Remember your goal is to become a computer programmer. But let's be
honest, you're not going to be able to pull that off if you don't have
a high school degree, at least."
Another thing I would say to kids is, "It's not how
talented you are that matters, it's how dedicated you are that counts."
Everybody is talented in some way. Most people are smart. So what? But
if you're dedicated and smart, you can you can do amazing things. ###
Josh Shipp has established an international
reputation as a teen communication expert. Abandoned and abused as a
child, Josh was able to triumph over the tragedy and positively
influence the lives of the countless adolescents he's coached. He is a
recognized authority on teens for such media outlets as MTV, CNN, and
FOX. Josh has spoken at Harvard, M.I.T., UCLA, and Stanford on the
science of getting teens to listen. He is also the creator of the
How to Motivate Teenagers is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents magazine - a weekly newsletter, online magazine and parenting blog published by Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children.
"Josh Shipp has the ability to get through to
ANY teen and point them in the right direction. It's an incredible
thing to witness." —Harvard University
Josh is the host of TV Show JUMP SHIPP, author of "The
Teen's Guide to World Domination" (St. Martins Press), named a CNN
Young Person Who Rocks and was listed on INC. Magazine's 30 under 30
Josh has established an international reputation as a
teen communication expert who can get through to any teen. He's spoken
at Harvard University, Stanford, UCLA, M.I.T. and to over 1.5 million
teenagers live. He is a recognized teen expert for such media outlets
as MTV, CNN, and FOX. Josh offers up a healthy dose of advice that he
calls "in your face, but on your side."
He counsels teenagers on everything they care about
and it’s all done in a youth-friendly, humorous tone that is more
hilarious survival guide than preachy sermon.
Josh certainly knows a thing or two about survival.
Abandoned and abused as a child, he was able to triumph over the
tragedy. He attributes his personal growth to the support of a great
foster family, dynamic teachers and enriching school programs that
opened his eyes to his true potential. After serving as State DECA
President and on the School-to-Work student advisory committee, Josh
decided to commit his life to helping teens.
“I’ve found that sometimes the very thing that
has hurt you the most, is the very thing you can use to help others.
You can’t change the past — so why not focus on building an incredible
future?” —Josh Shipp
Josh lives in sunny California, is a spokesperson for National Foster Care Month, and a guitar hero.
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