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Crucial Influence

Helping an Unmotivated Teenager

Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

12 thoughts on “Helping an Unmotivated Teenager”

  1. Sharon Campbell

    No, it is not legal to bury your 13-year-old and dig them up when they are 21! Understandably tempting, though!

    On a more pertinent note, I have a nephew who was told that he was very intelligent and talented at about that age. Sadly, between that and the family “the Lord will provide” philosophy, he quit trying and has never come close to realizing his potential. He is trying to become a truck driver now in his mid-30s after lazing through engineering school. Very sad.

  2. John Shoucair

    When my son was 12 he wanted to learn to play the guitar, but bemoaned the idea because he would never be as good as his friends. I asked him how long his friends had been playing and he said two years. I suggested that if he start now, then in two years he’d be just as good as they were. It paid off. He picked up the guitar, taught himself and was amazing.

    1. stevewillisvs

      Thanks for sharing John–is he still playing?

  3. Laura Berry

    Thanks for the thoughts and I liked the P.S. Note that this week, Vital Smarts’ advertising used “suck” in its advertising (“Don’t suck at talking”) – you might all want to get on the same page.

    1. Rob

      I wonder if Steve was referencing a line from this ad on YouTube:

  4. julindaa

    Very good response, Steve Willis! My older son (17) has always tended to get frustrated when he isn’t successful right away, so I really identified with “Frustrated Father.” I have something to add, especially for those with younger kids but applicable to all. Help your kids develop confidence in their abilities. Many experts say praise effort and talk about what the kids enjoyed rather than praising outcome. (“You really worked hard on your project!” Or “What was your favorite part of writing that story?”) I do still praise outcome at times, and I think that’s okay, but teaching your children to enjoy the process is a good thing!

    1. stevewillisvs

      Love this idea. I find myself tempted when we’re reviewing grades to focus on outcome instead of the effort–what did you like and how did that make a difference in your ability to complete assignments, or you studied really hard and put in a lot of effort on your projects–it’s nice to see that pay off.

  5. Elizabeth Richards

    One thought is to help him learn to break things down into the smallest steps. I first learned this in horse training and then in clicker training for dogs. More recently I’ve started to see the concept articulated for humans who are trying to learn or change. It really makes you think hard about what it takes to succeed. It also give you the opportunity to succeed at small, easy tasks.

    I’m not a guitar player but the first steps might be to learn to hold the guitar or find the strings or hold the pick or …even take the guitar out of the case.

    Just learning to see the world as a series of small steps rather than the whole journey is a valuable skill to take into adulthood. It can be fun to see how small you can break the process down.

  6. Debi

    This is excellent advice that I wish I had been given as a young person. I was afraid to try things I didn’t already know how to do. I assumed that others were just naturally gifted in things and didn’t understand at all the time, study and persistence it would take to learn to do something well. Now that I have grandchildren and hear some of these limiting attitudes in them, I am able to help them work through some of these fears and limiting beliefs.

  7. dalydonovan

    Great article and response, Steve. It reminded me of a chapter in the book “Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children” (Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman) that discusses the idea of praising effort rather than inherent abilities for exactly the same reasons. I found it very eye-opening and only wished I was more aware of this dynamic 10 years earlier!!

  8. Jordan Snedaker

    Thanks for a great article Steve! I can also relate to the thirteen-year-old stories with my kids. I have found small victories also with reinforcing a growth mind set by replacing words like, “you are so smart”, and with “you worked so hard.” Joseph Grenny spoke at REACH 2016 about using the six sources of influence and said, “influencers involve people in 5-10 times more deliberate practice.”

  9. MomShoots

    Interesting article & I liked the responses. However, I come from a bit of a different school of thought. If you had to EARN the guitar & it’s not given to you, then a person’s intent to learn how to play it would increase significantly. I find the sense of entitlement that the younger generation of my sons, (yes – I have two), in general do not seem to have the same initiative and are very thin-skinned, so back off from challenges. This is not to say all kids, but… a huge percentage of them. IMHO

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