Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Influence

Motivating a Teenager

Dear Crucial Skills,

My sixteen-year-old daughter excels academically and plans to pursue a university education to become a physiotherapist. She is a very intelligent and sensible teenager and is admired by family, teachers, and friends. However, her teacher called me with concerns about her recent behavior, attitude, and work habits. Lately, she procrastinates homework assignments, rolls her eyes and talks when the teacher is talking, and disrupts the class by getting up during inappropriate times.

I have also noticed that she is always tired—partially due to the fact that she stays up too late. She has no ambition to get a job or a driver’s license, and she resents helping with light household chores like washing dishes.

When we try to have a conversation with her about these issues, she gets defensive and argues with us. I don’t feel like I can have a constructive conversation without it turning into a power struggle. How can I have a positive influence on her?


Dear Powerless,

It sounds as if you have a wonderful and talented daughter. Congratulations. None of this parenting stuff is easy. You and your daughter are now navigating that tricky time when you help her increase her independence, autonomy, and responsibility. It’s a time of exploring and testing, which involves growing pains all around.

There are many parenting skills I’m sure you’ll employ. These range from setting limits and providing choices to giving your daughter an opportunity to be heard. I’m going to focus on some approaches that are especially appropriate to use with people who are sensitive to being ordered, directed, or nagged by you—think spouses, bosses, and, yes, teenagers.

1. Before a conversation, ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Try to avoid getting too caught up in any single issue—unless your daughter’s safety is involved. While your short-term goal may be obedience and respect, your long-term goal is to enable her to make wise choices on her own—and to involve you in frank and trusting dialogue.

2. Encourage her to detail her long-term aspirations. Your daughter is caught between short-term certainties and long-term aspirations. These short-term certainties are winning because they are more concrete, believable, and immediate. Find ways to make her career goals more salient and real by encouraging her to get some direct experience. For example, have her visit a local college, maybe spend the night in one of their hosting programs, and attend a few classes in her area of interest. In addition, consider having her volunteer at a local hospital or clinic where she can assist professionals and see what the career is like. The more real and detailed her aspirations are, the more motivating they will be, and the more they will influence her daily decisions.

3. Ask her about her aspirations, and get her to explore the barriers. Make time to talk with your daughter about her aspirations, and take care to avoid jumping in with advice. Your goal is to show respect for her ability to work things out, and to make her do the heavy lifting. Sometimes this is called the Columbo Method, after the TV detective from the 70s. Columbo played dumb and asked open-ended questions instead of giving answers. For example, it may be obvious to you that staying up late and procrastinating are barriers, but you want your daughter to have to think it through for herself.

Parent: “Hmmm. You want to study physiotherapy in college, and make that your career. I just don’t understand your whole plan for making that happen. How do you see your classes and your grades this semester fitting into that?”

4. Don’t advocate for one side of an action if it forces your daughter to advocate for the other side. Suppose you make a statement that advocates for one side over the other. Here’s how the dialogue might go.

Parent: “When you stay up past eleven thirty, you are tired and grumpy the next morning.”

Daughter: “So what? At least I don’t miss out on the TV shows people are talking about the next day.”

You have advocated for one side and forced your daughter to advocate for the other side. Together, you’ve fleshed out both sides—the costs and benefits of staying up late—but you’ve done it in a way that puts you and your daughter on opposite sides.

5. Roll with resistance. This is a technique from Motivational Interviewing, an approach we discuss in Change Anything. If your daughter takes a position on one side, don’t rise to the bait and take the other side. That would turn your conversation into an argument. Instead, roll with her resistance—reflect back what she has said, and use the Columbo Method to encourage her to elaborate and say more. Usually, she will then explore both sides.

Daughter: “I have to stay up late. It’s when all the popular shows are on. If I don’t watch them, I’ll be left out of the conversations at school.”

Parent (paraphrase without taking sides): “You feel pressured to watch late-night shows so you don’t get left out of conversations at school?”

Daughter: “A little bit, but I like some of the shows, too.”

Parent (get her to explore both sides): “Okay, you like some late-night TV shows and you feel a little pressure to watch them. What do you see as the other benefits and costs of staying up late to watch them?”

Daughter: “I like the shows. I want to see them. But I guess it does make it hard to get up in the morning. And sometimes I have to rush to get my homework done.”

6. Practice patience. Few of us are good at weighing long-term goals against short-term temptations. Don’t expect your daughter to master it all at once. Continue to push her to evaluate her options and make her own decisions.


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12 thoughts on “Motivating a Teenager”

  1. Taffy Davis

    For 2 years, I’ve used Cruc. Conv. skills on my now, 18 yo. daughter. Starting with, “what do I really want,” is key. Often, my answer was “to know where she’s at” and “a better relationship.” I became a better listener and stopped trying to impart “life skills” (i.e. money mgmt). The AMPP skills and contrasting skills also were significant.
    Today, I feel that we have an excellent relationship, thanks to Cruc. Conv. skills. I only wish I’d had these skills to use with my oldest son.

  2. patty

    sorry, but there are a lot of wonderful talented kids out there who excel academically and if we practice too much patience and roll too much with resistance, we are doing them a disservice. staying up late with a computer or a tv? sounds like you have time for a job. not motivated to get a job? how about mom doesn’t buy your prom dress, cell phone internet, pay for meals out with friends, AND there is a date by which you must have a driver license and then when you do take the car you’ll have some money to put gas in it. and as for the teacher who called to report behavior: kudos. too many teachers make no parent contact. the teacher’s next appropriate step is to boot the little genius to the principal’s office when she is disruptive and follow through with the school’s outlined discipline policy. i am sure all of my crucial conversation friends will say i’m not starting with heart or mastering my stories. jumping to conclusions. if there is something else going on with this girl, she will respond when these lines are drawn. draw a line, mom, draw a line. she’s begging for it.

  3. Ange Finn

    These are all excellent suggestions for teens. However, I feel there is one clue in the question asked, and that is a recent change in the daughter’s behavior. Being late on homework, rolling the eyes and staying up too late are typical for most teens. But if the teen has only recently begun to show behavior that’s unacceptable in class like interrupting the teacher and getting up at inappropriate times, the parent needs to be very observant and determine if there’s been a change involving friends, activities, etc. Oppositional defiant behavior that is a change from the norm for a certain child might point to underage drinking or drug use rather than just the usual teen immediate gratification focus. These two classes of behavior require two different approaches by a parent–as David references when he puts in the caveat about your child’s safety being involved. Of course, the crucial conversation skills are appropriate to both situations.

  4. Carla

    Check the literature about what is going on developmentally in teenagers brains. There seems to be a physiological reason for their desire to stay op late and sleep late in the morning. Some high schools are actually starting the day later to help them.

    Teenagers are really tough; I wish you all the best.

  5. David Maxfield

    Thanks for your comments. Carla is right that managing teenagers is tough. As Patty says, they may be seeking independence, but they’re also crying out for limits. As Ange notes, the stakes they face are high–safety may very well be involved. And Carla is also correct: their brains are still developing, so there are physiological issues as well.

    In my column I chose to focus on just one aspect of a complex situation. I hope the skills made sense, and that you’ll find ways to try them out.

  6. Rebecca

    Seriously? If the parent is aware the daughter is “staying up too late,” then I don’t understand why we aren’t confronting this specific behavioral issue. I believe the parent needs to explore why there has been an apparent sudden shift in attitude and behavior. Has something happened that she is not feeling safe discussing (perhaps bullying)? Sure, the teenage years can be tough, but a sudden change in behavior should be addressed from an emotional standpoint. Depression can happen to teens too! Coodos for being a concerned parent. Go get ’em Dad!

  7. Julinda

    I loved this article! I don’t have a teen yet but these skills can be employed with younger children, and as you suggested, spouses, bosses, and others!

  8. Azza

    I think your daughter focus too much on a past issue she faced and couldn’t confront it or on future dreams she feels couldn’t achieve it and that make her feel depressing and choose to enter drawn zone. As she feels that in spite of all her previous positive behaviors and attitudes in the school and with others it doesn’t achieve for her safety and security and doesn’t help her in solving that issue. She feels disappointed in her inner feelings for herself as although all the welcomed and admired words she heard from others she deserves blaming not cheering for her attitude of couldn’t succeed in solving that problem or reaching to her real goals and so acting negatively.
    She needs your help to do reality check for that matter as she looks at it through telescopic lens and sees it too large than its real volume and acts on according that deceive picture with a big virtual fear that paralaysed her from acting positively . Reality check for the original volume of the issue and real aware of the present help her to make good use of the the energy generated by the adrinaleen result from her big virtual fear to enter to the performing zone and act positively.

  9. Rod Johnson

    I agree these are all wonderful suggestions, however I’m wondering if the right angle is being pursued. If you’ve ever suffered through a teenager that is experimenting with drugs, the behaviors described are the behaviors being exhibiited. If this is the case, this is a totally different conversation and a different set of next-steps pursued. I would urge you to at least consider this – if it hasn’t already been addressed.

  10. Jocelyn

    I think David’s response provides an excellent example about how to create a respectful relationship with a “tween” as he or she blossoms into a well-adjusted teenager and before a significant problem arises. However, this parent spoke of a sudden change in behavior. This is a common sympton of alcohol, drugs use, or depression. Don’t get paranoid or jump to conclusions, but don’t stick your head in the sand either. Even honor students are not immune. Learn the signs and get immediate professional help if necessary.

    After that, it’s important to remember that you are the parent. A significant part of your role is to create age appropriate standards of behavior and enforce these standards every day. It’s helpful to have regular discussions with both parents and the child about the rules and responsibilties (chores), and to allow the child some lattitude with both. As your child ages, the rules should become less restrictive and responsibilities should become more extensive. That being said, it is a reasonable expectation that respect for adults (parents and teachers) be a NON-NEGOTIABLE element of the rules for all members of your household. It is reasonable that an appropriate bed time be part of the rules for all kids under 18.

    On the other hand, lots of other items should be negotiable, and you should teach your daughter to negotiate respectfully to achieve her goals. At 16, it is appropriate to incorporate explicit instruction about the steps in Crucial Conversations for creating open lines of communication with you! She may find your continuous examples of Crucial Conversation skills to be annoying, but you will know that you have achieved success when she begins to point out your transgressions and names them using the terms in the book. Don’t fight back. Apologize and then walk in the other room and pat yourself on the back for back for being a great parent! If you teach your child how to negotiate over rules and chores, then she will begin to understand “quid pro quo” (ie: I give something to get something).

    It is easy for a parent looking back on life to get caught up in the importance of school, but there are dozens of behaviors that contribute to long-term success in school and life, that are within a parent’s locus of control. Teaching your child to succeed at home, right now can provide her with immediate self esteem and a sense of motion towards becoming a fully functioning adult. If you play your cards right, these behaviors may also serve to create an environment conducive to good grades and high aspirations.

    After you establish ground rules of respect and fairness, then let the negotiations begin. It might go down something like this: Maybe she would negotiate for a one-night exception to the bedtime rule for the one show she likes best… not ALL of them. In return for this priviledge, you would expect some immediate behavior from her. You would not make it something ambiguous or something outside your immediate view like “do well in school” or “improve your attitude.” But you would pick something significant and observable at home (in your domain). For example, any healthy 16-year old could be expected to make all elements of a well-balanced meal for the whole family. You could specify a night before her favorite late show. No dinner, no show. If she doesn’t know how to find healthy recipes, cost out the dinner, shop for ingredients, time the cooking, use a meat thermometer, test pasta, steam vegetables, etc., then teach her. After a number of times doing the whole process together, she will become independent with a few meals, and she will feel like an adult TODAY, not six years from now – after she graduates from college. Everyone will reap the benefit of her tangible and possibly even tasty accomplishments while keeping the discussion going around the family hearth. She will be more likely to accept bedtime on every other day – making it possible to stay awake in school and get her good grades back.

    Of course, there are dozens of other adult-like options that you and she could negotiate. Together, make a list of all skills and habits of mind that an independent adult should have. Work together to put them on a schedule, and make sure that you teach her every one before she turns 18. Heap on the praise for each accomplishment that is consistent with good healthy living. The more of these she achieves, the more likely she will be to succeed in life, not just school. School success will be the cherry on top. Best wishes to you and your family.

    1. Julinda

      “That being said, it is a reasonable expectation that respect for adults (parents and teachers) be a NON-NEGOTIABLE element of the rules for all members of your household.” We should show respect to all people, not just adults!

  11. Julinda

    I came to this article from another similar one and I see that I commented on this 6 years ago when I didn’t have a teen. 🙂 Now my sons are 17 and 11 and I wanted to say I still think it’s a great article. I have tried to use respectful parenting techniques with my kids (such as working with them to solve problems rather than laying down the law) and this article along with others from the blog fit right in with that. My kids are turning out really well so far, we have a great relationship, and I feel like I am teaching them to think for themselves rather than to just do what they are told. Thanks for helping to spread some positive parenting techniques in the world!

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