Spring Fever or Loss of Motivation: How to Help Your Underachieving Teen

By Jennifer Jones, LCSW,
Site Director, Palo Alto High School

It’s that time of year; the long winter is over, trees are blossoming, the temperature is warming, and we all want to go to the beach instead of to work.  That’s why Spring Break was invented.  But what if a week of vacation doesn’t revive and re-inspire?  What if that loss of interest in work isn’t temporary? As the Supervisor in a counseling center on a high school campus, I have been hearing a lot lately from parents and teens about a general loss of motivation and interest in doing well in school.  If it didn’t just start prior to spring break and isn’t “Senioritis;” if it’s been ongoing, what can parents do to increase a teen’s motivation to succeed?

As human beings we develop the motivation to please our parents as we receive nurturing, love, food and other basic needs from them.  As we grow from babies to toddlers and throughout childhood, we receive both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for behaving appropriately and doing what we are told.  By the time we become independent adults, we have learned what happens when we “don’t behave,” when we procrastinate, don’t complete our tasks, act irresponsibly, or make poor choices. How we spend our time is our choice now and we deal with the consequences. Teenagers need to test; they need to find out “what will happen if…?” on their journey to adulthood.  Making poor choices or mistakes is part of the process.

As parents, we have the most influence over our children’s lives, until they hit adolescence.  At this time, their focus turns to the outside world.  They begin to learn more from their friends, other adults, and the surrounding culture. They start behaving differently and want to spend less time with family, all normal developmental processes.  Their interests may broaden and motivators may change.  But when a parent notices a significant and alarming shift in their teen’s school performance it can be a cause for action. Two factors that tend to lead to a loss of motivation in teens, and which parents can still greatly influence, are:

1) Loss of self-confidence/self-esteem, and

2) Lack of control/choices in their life.

Sometimes a very authoritarian-style of parenting, which includes lecturing, criticizing, having unrealistic expectations, and engaging in frequent power struggles with children can erode a child’s self-esteem.  If there are too many conditions for love and acceptance, the child may just give up entirely or chose to rebel by doing poorly.

Sometimes we parents don’t realize we continue to parent our teens as if they are still younger children.  We haven’t shifted our parenting role to match their changing developmental needs.  We may continue to tell our teens what to do, when and how to do it, and how they should feel about it.  This can create dependence, low self-esteem and/or resentment.

Parents can help re-motivate their teens by empowering them to act responsibly.  Teens need to be given choices. Consequences of each choice can be explained while allowing the teen to make their own decision, and ultimately learn from their own mistakes. Parents can create a more respectful, cooperative environment by allowing teens to participate in creating the house rules.  Parents can be firm but kind, “I love you and I don’t like this behavior.”  Natural consequences are generally more effective than punishments.  Parents can involve teens in problem solving.  Parents can ask their teen what they think they should do in a given situation, leading the teen to finding a solution rather than telling them what the solution should be.  Parents can also help re-inspire their teens by doing the following:

1)       Provide unconditional support and acceptance

2)       Encourage teens to explore their passions, validate those passions and    provide the tools necessary for exploration

3)       Help teens discover their unique strengths and abilities

4)       Set small, realistic goals, especially for the procrastinator

5)       Provide positive feedback and constructive criticism

6)       Provide incentives (money, electronics, more freedom, etc.)

7)       Encourage teens to do volunteer work in their community

When something more serious is suspected, there is help out there for parents and teens.  Parents can go to their student’s Guidance Counselor, School Psychologist, Student Support Services or ACS Counselor to meet, discuss and figure out what is going on and where to access the best support, help and resources that is needed.

Teens respond to the same motivators as adults.  As parents we should remind ourselves about what motivates us, what it’s like to feel inspired, and how it feels to be successful – then consistently model that for our children.

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