By Jessica Koehler PhD
I find teens insightful, clever, funny, and candid. I’ve worked with them for over 20 years as an educator, researcher, and adolescent motivational coach. It’s exciting to be a part of their transition into independent adulthood. Their parents, though, are worried about them, often wondering how to control their teenagers.
Teens are pulling away from their parents, as is developmentally good and expected, but their parents are worried sick over their teen’s less-than-ideal grades. Parents tell me: “I don’t understand what my teen needs or wants,” “We’ve tried everything,” “I don’t know what to do.” They lean toward cracking down on their offspring with greater control and discipline. The problem is, that combination doesn’t work. I’ve found that the more you try to control a teen, the less likely you are to achieve your desired outcome.
It’s a Catch-22.
But how else do you ensure that you’re successfully launching your teenager into adulthood? Here are my best suggestions.
Shift away from controlling your teen. Move toward cooperation.
Over the years, I’ve worked with teens and conducted several studies with them. While everyone is different and in a unique situation, this story of parents’ increased efforts at discipline leading to worse outcomes comes up time and time again. Good news! A few small shifts can produce great results.
Shift 1: Motivating Teenagers—Listen and Validate
I’ve worked with teens whose grades mysteriously dropped despite tutoring and therapy. Everyone knows something’s wrong, but identifying the problem is very complicated. Teens, particularly younger ones, often have trouble articulating what they are struggling with.
What seems to make a world of difference every time is to simply take a step back. Start by assuming that there’s a reason why they’re struggling. Ask your teen questions. Validate what they are experiencing.
How to validate:
As an example, it’s common for kids who did well in elementary and early middle school to slip academically in later grades as schoolwork gets harder. Math in higher grades asks students to solve complex equations. Putting in that extra effort and showing their work step-by-step might feel new and overwhelming to kids used to solving problems with mental math alone. Validate those feelings.
Listening to their issues and validating your teen’s may sound too simple to make a difference, but over and over I’ve seen that a small shift like this can flip a switch in a teen’s brain. Validation boosts motivation. Try it out and see how it works for you!
Shift 2: Be Fearlessly Optimistic (or pretend to be)
There are many reasons why students may be failing classes. When missing work is an issue (or any task that seems daunting to the student and causes them to freeze with fear) I recommend fighting that fear with optimism. Why? Because fear is the brain’s enemy when it comes to focus and learning, it forms a feedback loop that insists the work can’t be done. Optimism disrupts that loop, allowing the brain to refocus, work, and learn.
Teens report that my optimism helps their focus. My optimism helps to reduce their fear so they can achieve more. They complete their work and pass their classes. When I show them that I believe in them, they start to believe in themselves and they’re able to muster the motivation to catch up on work.
Maybe my interactions with these kids are easier because I’m not their parent. Still, I wonder what could happen if a parent were to face such situations with bold optimism. Even if you have to pretend to be brave, say to your teen, “I know you’ve got this!”
Shift 3: Outsource and Delegate
I’ve included this third shift because I am well aware that parents of teens have limited power over them. Teens are literally wired not to listen to parents (yep, even brain scans have proven this. See this study from The Stanford School of Medicine). So, why not give yourself permission to outsource and delegate? Are there other adults in your community—teachers, coaches, family members, after-school club sponsors, etc.—who can or might connect well with your teen? Lean into those people. It takes a village. Support from a non-parent adult can work wonders to motivate your teen’s performance and give you a break. You don’t have to do it alone!
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to working with or parenting teens. Even after having worked with thousands, I can still feel stumped. However, these three simple shifts have served me well, and I’m hopeful that they can make your job parenting your teen easier, too.