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Ask The Expert: How Can I Motivate My Teenager to Get Off the Couch?

The goal of parenting isn’t to raise good teenagers,” says Dr. Wes Crenshaw. “But to raise good adults.”

Together, Dr. Wes Crenshaw, a psychologist and longtime contributor to Your Teen, and high-school senior Kyra Haas will answer parent’s questions.

Why two perspectives? Well, we think Kyra puts it best, when she says: “Wes knows what works because he’s worked with teens since before your teen or I was born. I know what works because I am a teen who’s been working at life since I was born.”


Dear Your Teen:

What would you recommend to help me motivate my teenager to do more than just sit around?

Dr. Wes

First, decide what you mean by a motivated teenager. Teen motivation won’t look the same for every family. For every teenager who is, as you describe, sitting around doing nothing, there’s one who is being driven to the point of madness by scheduling too many extracurriculars, AP classes, jobs, or other calendar events.

The secret in life is to find balance. That’s as true for teens as it is for adults. It also matters whether you’re talking about motivating your teenager to say, go out for sports they don’t want to go out for (very difficult), clean rooms that they aren’t inclined to clean (fairly difficult), or do chores they don’t like (actually, pretty easy).

Find Out Which Levers to Push

In figuring out how to motivate your particular teen, first determine how he or she “leans” in terms of anxiety and inattention. Most teenagers will lean one way or the other. So what motivates your child?

Anxious leaning teenagers care too much. They want to please parents and everyone else. Their solution to any problem is to try harder and do more work. Pushing them harder will raise their anxiety, which ultimately makes them less productive.

Inattentive teenagers don’t care enough. They are carefree, wait until the last minute and don’t worry about how other people view them. These teenagers need to have their anxiety raised to a productive level. They need more structure, reward, and guidance than anxious teenagers.

Assuming you’re correctly assessing your teenagers, they sound like inattentive under-doers. So, you have a couple of options and I suggest doing both.

However, I’ll warn you up front, that requires you to do more than sit around. You have to follow-through day in and day out, and that’s where most parents struggle.

How to Motivate Your Teenager

1. Reorganize their world so that you regulate their leisure time.

This used to be standard parenting practice, but it’s failed in recent years as telephones became personal, allowing for unlimited access to computers and video games. That means you turn off all gadgets and Internet access until you complete your assigned tasks. Then turn them on again. By the way, around here we are of the “the no-electronics in the bedroom” school of thought, making what I’m proposing infinitely easier.

2. Make completion worth it.

I have no problem tying desired behaviors to specific benefits, which could be cash or time online or other privileges your teenagers enjoy.

I understand this is upsetting to some parents who see rewarding their teenagers as a “bribe,” but when was the last time you went to work without being “bribed?” Same here. In my home and those of my client families, we set things up so that rewards aren’t handed out freely. They’re paid in exchange for specific behavior. And guess what? Teenagers perform their tasks.


On Twitter, I often see tweet after tweet about how a friend is procrastinating instead of doing homework. Although I am tempted to smh (Twitterspeak for “shake my head”), the irony of the situation is not lost on me. I am what I read.

Social media, Xbox, texts and other digital temptations constantly vie for our attention. Those beeps and alerts are overwhelming—and exciting. Even now, I hear Twitter calling to me from across the room.

So, if as a parent, you want your teenager to do their homework or feed the cat or take out the trash, then take away their phone or Nintendo DS until the task is complete. Your teenager won’t like this, but I’ve found that the further away I am from my phone, the quicker I complete my physics homework. The same holds true for cleaning my room, reading a book, or doing laundry.

The reward strategy that Wes lays out is effective when the task at hand is necessary. If you don’t take out the trash, the house will reek. If your teenager doesn’t do his history homework, he’ll fail the class.

Internal Motivation

But there’s a difference between a teenager caving to his parent’s demands and actually being internally motivated to do something. You may have enjoyed basketball in high school, but pushing (bribing) your teenager to go out for varsity or play year round so you can attain some vicarious achievement won’t make your teenager a motivated basketball player. Instead, capitalize on your teenager’s interests, even if it’s not your dream pursuit.

If your teenager’s motivation stems only from a desire to get you to stop nagging, you can bet that the moment you’re not there, all that motivation will go out the window.

Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., is board certified in couples and family psychology (ABPP). At the time this article was published, Kyra Haas was a senior at Free State High School. She is now a freshman in college. 

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