Some kids are self-motivated, diving into schoolwork and hobbies and passions with wild abandon, needing very little direction. They know who they are, they know where they want to go, and they’re on their way. (You know. Your sister’s perfect kids.)
But what if your kid is not that kid? What if your teen shows no interest in anything besides video games or Snapchat or Netflix? They might still be coasting through school, bringing home all A’s — but they’ve seemingly got zero drive to get involved in anything else. What’s going on there?
Dott Kelly, clinical director and founder of Jumping Mouse — an organization that helps young people heal through expressive mental health therapy — says that disconnect may have something to do with teens not feeling in charge of their own lives. “A sense of being not-in-control drives much of the negative behavior we see in this age group,” says Kelly, a licensed mental health counselor. “A vital response from parents and teachers needs to be that we ‘hang in there,’ responding to the anxiety and possible loneliness, rather than only the behaviors.”
Easier said than done, of course, but it’s helpful wisdom to keep in mind when your once engaging, active adolescent seems, well…stuck. Or lost.
So what’s the answer? Kelly believes the most important factor in helping a teen find their way is nurturing a strong relationship with them, and shelving your own need to control the trajectory of their lives (come on, admit it — we parents are guilty as charged).
Relax. We’ve got you. Here’s some advice from Kelly — along with some wisdom gathered from a sampling of teens — on the right ways and the wrong ways to encourage and empower your kid to identify and explore what they love.
Stay available and sympathetic
Ask about experiences that are at the heart — rather than about the behavior — of your teen, Kelly said. When was the last time you spent positive time with your child — not nagging, but genuinely asking about their life? Do you know who their friends are? Do you know what’s bothering them? Have they lost anyone recently who was important to them? Have they been eating regularly and taking care of themselves? Set aside some time to let your kid know they’re not in trouble. Let them know you just want to catch up and hear what’s going on in their life because you’re feeling out of touch and miss them.
Consider underlying reasons
Is your teen unmotivated or is there a real possibility that your teen is clinically depressed or dealing with anxiety or other scary issues? Many kids who withdraw from activities and social contact are not unmotivated so much as exhausted, hurting or numb. “The more we react to behaviors, the more a teen feels unseen and unheard, which then creates a cycle of more negativity, more reaction, more power struggles and then more isolation,” said Kelly. “To dismiss or discount a teen’s responses to situations that the parent may not even know about only increases opposition.”
Make the parenting shift from control to mutual communication
This shift can be tricky for both parents and teens — and requires time and commitment. “Accept the expressed emotions [of your teen] as indicators of needs, not as rebellion,” said Kelly. “Think relationship.” Not rulership. A warm, frank, nonjudgmental conversation with a parent can be invaluable for a teen who’s feeling isolated. If your teen is struggling with bigger issues, gently ask if they think some counseling might help. Ask how you can help advocate for them going forward. Let them know they’re not alone and drop all talk of achievement and success. If your kid’s in pain, no amount of pushing is going to help, and it’s likely to hurt.
Boring and predictable and reliable goes a long way with any child, especially a teenager. “Provide continued predictability in your schedule and in your understanding of your child’s schedule,” Kelly said.