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How to Motivate the Underachieving Teenager

by Kathryn Hatter

Watching an underachieving teenager approach responsibilities with a lack of drive and energy can be frustrating for parents. When your teenager needs a jump start to attack goals with renewed fire, approach the situation carefully to ensure your efforts don’t have an opposite effect. With the right technique, you can encourage your unmotivated teenager to tackle objectives and provide effective assistance for success.

Talk with your teenager about goals, desires and plans. An apathetic teenager might be forthcoming when you initiate a conversation, but a few strategic questions might start a thought process, suggests the University of Wisconsin-Madison Student Motivation Research Team in "Making Connections: Helping Your Teen Find Value in School." You might ask, “What do you see yourself doing one year from now (or two or three)?” or “What’s your favorite subject in school?”

Talk for at least a few minutes every day to keep a connection with your teen. Perhaps you’ll just discuss incidental time-of-day happenings or your teenager might come to you for help or support once you have a solid connection.

Find your teen’s hot spot -- the things in life that your teen cares most about, advises social worker James Lehman, with the Empowering Parents website. Simple observation should help you discern these priorities. Many teens treasure a cell phone, computer, car privileges, television, allowance and going out with friends.

Communicate with your teenager about making her priorities earnable, with strings attached, to help encourage motivation. A teenager who loves her cell phone and places it high on her list of priorities might suddenly become more motivated to try harder with school work if you make the cell phone contingent on school performance. Similarly, a teenager who wants regular use of the car might also try harder to get her assignments done in a timely manner if her car privileges are contingent on timely and high-quality work. Tell your teenager that she can continue to enjoy her cell phone or other privileges as long as she meets your requirements.

Monitor your child’s performance after instituting the consequences for substandard work. Regular communication with teachers by telephone or email can ensure that you know about problems or timely completion of assignments. Make sure your child also completes other requirements, such as household chores.

Follow through with your promise to take away privileges if your teenager does not perform. Once your teenager begins performing to your specifications again, she can earn back her privileges.

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