Here’s how to mo­ti­vate your teenage son

‘Opt-out’ kids seem dis­en­gaged, but they may be scared

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - REAL ESTATE - By Ch­eryl Stritzel McCarthy

Know any teen boys who do just enough to get by? Who have time for YouTube but not home­work or house­hold chores? Who aren’t in real trou­ble, just dis­en­gaged?

An “opt out” teen is like a Chi­nese finger trap: the harder you push, the more he’ll re­sist, says Adam Price, a psy­chol­o­gist with a prac­tice in the New York City/ New Jersey area, and au­thor of “He’s Not Lazy: Em­pow­er­ing Your Son to Be­lieve in Him­self ” (Ster­ling, 2017). Parental con­cern that man­i­fests as nag­ging does not help. In­stead, start with un­der­stand­ing, which leads to pro­duc­tive in­ter­ac­tion.

Deep down, your opt-out is afraid of fail­ure, ex­po­sure, pres­sure and, most of all, the fu­ture, says Price, who writes the blog The Un­mo­ti­vated Teen on Psy­chol­o­gyTo­ Your teen deals with this stress by avoid­ance. Anx­ious par­ents add to the stress by wor­ry­ing, which your teen sees as a lack of faith in his abil­i­ties, and res­cu­ing, which de­nies him the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence con­se­quences.

To im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion, zip it and lis­ten, Price says. Psy­chol­o­gists use the acro­nym EAR: en­cour­age elab­o­ra­tion, af­firm, re­flect.

To en­cour­age, ask ope­nended ques­tions. In­stead of say­ing, “Don’t you want bet­ter grades?” try “How do you feel about your cur­rent GPA?” If your son replies, “Fine,” ask, “Can you tell me more about that?” or if ap­pro­pri­ate, “What is it that you hate about your his­tory teacher?”

“Fight your urge to com­ment or ad­vise. Get the kid to talk,” Price says.

To af­firm, try some­thing like “It’s great you said that,” or “I know it’s not easy for you to talk about this,” or “I didn’t re­al­ize you had such deep feel­ings.” You can show you un­der­stand with­out agree­ing.

To re­flect, make a state­ment that shows you get it. If he says he’s fail­ing his­tory be­cause the teacher is a jerk, don’t re­spond, “You still have to do well.” In­stead, try “What don’t you like about him?” and “What makes you think that?”

This gives you a fight­ing chance at get­ting to a so­lu­tion: “How do you do bet­ter in a class where you hate the teacher?”

Avoid con­ver­sa­tionkillers such as crit­i­ciz­ing, ad­vis­ing, or­der­ing, threat­en­ing, min­i­miz­ing his feel­ings, us­ing your­self as an ex­am­ple or even at­tempt­ing to per­suade with logic. Re­mem­ber, you want pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion and even­tual self-re­liance. Lec­tur­ing won’t get you there.

If con­ver­sa­tion still hits a dead end, Price uses a method cre­ated by psy­chol­o­gists Sylvie Naar-King and Mar­i­ann Suarez called Stop, Drop and Roll:

Stop and eval­u­ate: Is your son es­ca­lat­ing, blam­ing, stonewalling? Then drop your cur­rent ap­proach, and roll with the re­sis­tance: Make a state­ment that shows you get it, quit for now and try an­other ap­proach later.

Don’t take your son’s ex­pres­sion of teenage de­fi­ance per­son­ally. “Re­al­ize you’re the tar­get of his frus­tra­tion, not the cause,” Price says. “If you can do that, your re­sponse will be very dif­fer­ent and much more pro­duc­tive.” For ex­am­ple, a teen might say, “You’re al­ways on my case. I hate you!” If the par­ent re­torts, “Don’t you talk to me like that. You have no idea how much I do for you, how much I sac­ri­fice for you, what it takes to keep a roof over our heads …” you’re off to the races that no one can win. In­stead, start with “You do need to talk re­spect­fully to me,” which sets a limit but doesn’t spi­ral into ar­gu­ment.

Teen boys want to do well but ap­pear ap­a­thetic be­cause they are afraid of never mea­sur­ing up and so don’t try. “Boys, es­pe­cially, think if some­thing doesn’t come eas­ily, they’re not good enough, not smart enough,” Price says. “They feel they have to be per­fect.”

What looks like lazi­ness may be fear of fail­ure, but your teen might also be a bit en­ti­tled, and you can do some­thing about this by do­ing less for him. High school to­day may be a pres­sure cooker, but teens still have time to help around the house. “They tell you they don’t. But hav­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity is im­por­tant. We treat them like their job is to get into this great school, but do­ing chores is be­ing part of the house­hold, part of a team. It’s an op­por­tu­nity to not do too much for them,” Price says.

Make a list of ev­ery­thing you do for your teen, and de­cide which you can trans­fer to him. Par­ents don’t need to sched­ule sports or youth-group ap­point­ments, pack bags for sports or va­ca­tions, or fill out forms.

Over­par­ent­ing not only tells teens, “I think you can’t,” but also gives them op­por­tu­ni­ties to say, “I think I won’t,” Price says.

Where pos­si­ble, grant your teen au­ton­omy: free­dom to choose and then ex­pe­ri­ence con­se­quences. If your teen chooses to stay up late, he can’t wake up in the morn­ing. “But if the par­ent calls the teen in sick, there’s no ac­count­abil­ity.” If the teen doesn’t put his laun­dry in the bin, don’t pick it up. “In­stead, let him run out of un­der­wear. Or tell him, ‘You have to do the laun­dry now. I’ll show you how; you do it.’

“Be­com­ing a no-res­cue par­ent means let­ting the world teach the les­son rather than you.”


To im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion with your teenage son, zip it and lis­ten, says one psy­chol­o­gist.

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