[Caution: Please do not listen to this episode with your child]
Ever wish that your son or daughter was a bit more motivated?
In this week's podcast, I review 3 tactics to consider when dealing with a teenager who is reluctant to challenge themselves.
Tactic 1: Acquiescence
Tactic 2: Forced March
Tactic 3: Guidance
I walk through each of these options and provide examples of how to find your modus operandi.
Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. Before we get started today, I know a lot of you out there listen to these podcasts with your teenagers oftentimes in the car driving around. In this particular case with this particular topic, I would recommend listening without them around. It's not the biggest deal in the world, but that would be my recommendation.
Turn the podcast off for now and wait till you had a more private moment. Just a little public service announcement. Today I want to discuss how to deal with a teenager who is hesitant to do anything new or challenging or at all risky. And I know this doesn't go for all teens. There are for sure some fire breathers out there, but it does seem like these days teenagers seem more apt to take a pass on taking challenging classes, joining new clubs at school, taking leadership roles, starting a new sport, learning a new skill, basically anything that exposes them to something outside of their comfort zone.
And there are no shortage of possible reasons or theories as to why this might be the case. First off, they're human. Humans typically seek comfort before a challenge. Number two, they're teenagers. Teenagers rarely want to step out of their comfort zone, especially if their peer group is not on board. Number three, some teenagers haven't woken up from the COVID trance.
They've gotten very used to sitting at home with their phones, with their computers, with their game consoles, and not engaging in the real messy world. Number four, many teenagers are suspicious about college. They're unsure about their ability to compete against other teenagers when it comes to college admissions. And they are wary, justifiably, about the very value of college itself.
And lastly, teenagers have the ability to easily lose themselves inside social media. 24 seven 365. Where they can sit and consume other people's work and don't have to expend much energy themselves. All of these things and I'm sure plenty more, probably play some role in what I see as a growing reluctance to step up and do something different or special or unique.
I've been doing this work for over ten years and I've seen a marked difference in the last three years alone in this regard. Obviously, if your teenager is stuck in this mode and they aren't getting out there and challenging themselves, they aren't doing themselves any favors. It's not going to help them in high school, getting into college, succeeding in life.
And so I raise the question, if this describes your son or daughter to some degree or another, what can we do as parents to move them off the ball? And as with most parenting topics, there are a range of options to deal with this conundrum. The way I see it is that there are two extreme paths and one path somewhere in the middle.
So why don't we start off with the extremes? And to illustrate my point, let me use a very generic example. Let's say you have a sophomore who has up until now at least gotten very good grades and has the obvious potential to be a stand out student academically. But for one reason or another, they don't want to take any advanced classes, whether that's Honors or AP or IB.
They're stuck on staying with grade level classes. Their teachers have recommended that they go to the higher level, but they don't want to do it. They don't have a particularly good reason other than I don't want to take those classes. The teachers are too strict. There's too much homework. None of my friends are doing it. I want to keep getting good grades.
I want more free time at home. The usual suspects. And we can replace this scenario related to taking more advanced classes with other challenging activities, such as studying for the S.A.T. or A.C.T., taking an online academic class over the summer. Continuing a foreign language, even though they've met their minimum graduation requirements, striving for their next belt in jujitsu.
Continuing on with their religious education classes, moving up to the next level in whatever sport they play. Trying out for the lead in the school play. Joining clubs like speech and debate. Mock Trial Model. U.N.. Looking for an internship. Trying to get a job. Emailing people about setting up shadowing sessions. Reaching out to college coaches to see if their recruitment material.
Getting their driver's license. Running for class president. Completing their Eagle Scout project. These are scenarios that I deal with all day, every day. They are things that teenagers are capable of. But they seem to be begging off. And I deal with these things not only with the prep dwellers and their parents, whom I work with on a regular basis, but with my own sons as well.
I admit these are not easy things for teenagers to do. They are for teenagers who want to stand out, who want to be successful, who want to be more than just your average Joe or your average Joe. And they take initiative and hustle and confidence and motivation and a purpose and a certain mindset. These traits are not always in large supply.
When it comes to 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 year olds left to their own devices, most teenagers would opt out of almost all of these things. Their lives and their minds would be so much easier and better. Without pursuing any of these things. They expose teenagers to the possibility, maybe even the likelihood of failure. It may separate them from their peers.
It exposes them to uncertainty, to potential embarrassment, maybe even ridicule. So for all the good that would come out of these activities, there are risks as well. These are high stakes affairs for a teenager. So what are we as parents to do to help them overcome this inherent inertia, to do nothing versus something? Well, I see three different tactics.
Tactic number one is acquiescence simply agree with whatever they say and allow them to take a pass if they don't want to take AP biology because the teacher is too strict. Okay, strike it from the list. If they want to play volleyball at a level below their potential, okay, go for it. Stick to the beat team if they want to drop Boy Scouts with only 5 hours of volunteer work left before they get their Eagle Scout, go for it.
Who needs to be an Eagle Scout anyway? Whatever they want to do, just agree with them. After all, who are you to influence them on their path forward? Let them call the shots and live with the consequences. Let's move to parent Tactic number two a forced march. Make them do these things. Hold a proverbial gun to their head, and tell them that they have to prepare for the piano recital.
They have to study for the SAT five days a week. They have to keep a Spanish on their class schedule. They must run for president of the robotics club. There was no choice in the matter. This is how we roll in this family. After all, you have a responsibility to make sure your teenager makes something of themselves. Far be it from you to roll over and just let the child do whatever they want.
They're a teenager. That's abdicating your role as a parent. And then lastly, there's parent tactic number three, which is guidance. Do what you can to present them with the facts, the pros and the cons of what might come out of the activity. Paint a picture for them. What can they expect to happen if they do this hard thing or if they don't do this hard thing?
Walk them through why it might be in their best interest to push themselves more than they want to right now, and don't dismiss their feelings as if they're wrong to be nervous or scared or intimidated. Those are all natural responses to taking action. Acknowledge that these are difficult decisions. Acknowledge that there's a chance that things won't work out.
Don't sugarcoat it. Be very straightforward with them. Let them know that they might lose, that they might not make the team. They might embarrass themselves. They might forget their lines, but also let them know about the upside in full color, in high fidelity. They don't know what that picture looks like unless you paint it for them. Listen to what they have to say.
Let them share their feelings. Try to get to the bottom of why they're resisting. Are they just lazy? Is there someone or something about a particular group that they don't like? Do they have a problem with a specific teacher? If they are pushing back, agree that they may indeed be right. There are no guarantees and don't rush them.
Give them time to think about it. Don't let them make a rash decision on the spot. Tell them to take a few days to consider it. Let it marinate in their heads. Let them live with the idea for a little while before they have to make an official decision. A teenager snap judgment on almost everything is probably wrong.
And I don't mind giving teenagers a little incentive here and there for them to take action as long as it's within reason. For example, instead of quitting the swim team, if they agree to go to the 6 a.m. swim practices, maybe you'll spot them some money to get a bagel egg sandwich after practice and before school starts. This is a small, relatively insignificant bonus in the big scheme of things that rewards them for pushing themselves a little bit more than they otherwise would.
I'm not suggesting that you should bribe your teenager with gifts and rewards and vacations to do every single uncomfortable thing, but if it serves as a little something, a little prompt to get them excited and interested, it might be worth it. Here's another idea. Instead of making it seem like you are pulling all the strings and you're manipulating them and making every single decision for them, give them some decision making power.
Well, how do you do this without giving them too much veto power for the important stuff? Well, give them veto power on the unimportant stuff. How might you do that? Start by creating an unrealistic expectation that, you know, is asking a bit too much. And when your child pushes back on it, give in to them and say, Yeah, okay, you're probably right.
You should just skip it. And when you do that, they feel empowered as if they're calling some of the shots and not listening to every single word you say. God forbid they listen to what you have to say. Give them the illusion, if you will, that they are rebelling against you and not doing exactly what you have to say, even though you know that this decision was inconsequential in the big scheme of things.
Let me give you an example. Let's say your teenage son is a basketball player and he has a league game. Let's say it's 8 p.m. at night when he comes home from school. Suggests to him that he does a quick 30 minute plyometrics workout right away so that he leaves enough time to recover before his game. He will likely come back to you with Dad.
Are you nuts? I'm not going to do a play a workout before a game. I need to be fresh. I'll do that workout tomorrow. To which you respond. Okay. Yeah, you're probably right. If that's what you think is best, You know your body this way. He believes that he has a say in his future. He's not simply doing every single thing that you say.
This will empower him, and he'll feel like he's got some agency in his future. Now, you knew that it wasn't a great idea to begin with and didn't force him to do it, but you wanted to make sure that he knew that he had some say in his own program. And then, oh, by the way, he just committed on his own to doing the workout the next day, which was his decision, not yours.
This is called making progress because he's starting to take ownership and not just listening to you like a puppet. A lot of the time. Momentum is the key in these scenarios. Usually it's just a matter of getting them to the meeting or getting them through the first piano practice with the new teacher or to the play rehearsal. The starting part is the toughest part.
Once they've broken the seal and they've gotten comfortable, then they meet some friends and they realize that it's not as bad as they thought it would be. They're off to the races and they typically never look back. You just have to get them over the hump. In my opinion, this tactic, the guidance tactic, is the best tactic. At least that's the one that I've had the most personal success with.
Now, mind you, you may disagree with me. You may have had a parent who gave you 100% control over every decision in your life with no pushback at all. And you may have turned out just fine. In fact, you may attribute most or all of your success to how your parents dealt with you as a teen. And that's fine.
I'm not trying to dictate how you should handle your own child. I just want to make sure that you're being intentional about it, as opposed to just being too busy to realize what's happening in front of you before it's too late. To me, this is a passive tactic that borders on being either too distracted or too lazy to focus on what needs to get done, but only, you know what your intentions are.
I'm also not a big fan of the second tactic, the forced march approach. It just seems like there are a lot of things that could go wrong in this scenario. Resentment, rebellion, suppressed anger, all kinds of stuff. I've had prep students who will not let their parents see their college essays because of a traumatic event that they had in their past with a parent mishandling how they gave feedback on their writing in middle school.
But there again, there have been teenagers who survive and thrive in this type of environment. Sometimes they even praise their parent for pushing me when I didn't want to go to practice. Thank you. I couldn't have done it without you. You have to decide if you want to roll the dice with this extreme strategy. And finally, parent tactic number three, the guidance tactic.
This is a tough one to get right. You really have to thread the needle on this one. You can't come across as overbearing or they could easily rebel, but you don't want to come across as an apathetic pushover either. You want to try to balance the two approaches, educate them, provide facts, talk plainly to them. Don't try to bait and switch them by overpromising the results.
Provide them with options and give them time and space to consider their options. And ideally, you are modeling the principles that you're encouraging them to uphold. You're doing the hard stuff. You're doing uncomfortable things, whether it's starting your own business or getting on a strict workout plan of your own, or bucking for a promotion at work, or volunteering to read the eulogy at a funeral, or volunteering to be the team parent.
And hopefully you're coming out on top in some of these scenarios and your child is noticing. It's much tougher to make the case that your child should do these uncomfortable things if they see you taking shortcuts every day. If you, as a parent are constantly comfort seeking and not stretching yourself and not getting up and working out and not eating well and you're drinking to excess and you're sleeping in on the weekends and sitting in your La-Z-Boy and scrolling on your phone and skipping out on tough conversations with neighbors or coaches or people at work, then you shouldn't be surprised when your child balks at the thought of taking the road less traveled.
Our kids notice everything we do. And one last tip If you happen to thread the needle and your guidance leads your child into doing that uncomfortable thing, whether that's getting up for a 6 a.m. swim practice or entering their painting into an art show and that uncomfortable thing leads to a successful outcome which they would have never experienced without that little nudge from you.
Don't ever take credit for it. Don't ever say I told you so. I know it's tempting to remind them how challenging it was to get them to do that thing. Don't do it. You want them to think that this was their victory, not your victory. And by the way, they're right. Just because you helped them get over the hump doesn't mean you get credit for the victory, because they're the ones who did all the hard work.
Don't take that away from them. Believe me, they will never tell you that Your nudging really helped them get over the hump and was in part responsible for their success. But they know. They know it was. And that should be all we care about. And if we can pull off this feat just a few times when our children are between 13 and 17 years old, then they will have learned the lesson that will last a lifetime, which is that to succeed, we must push ourselves even when it's uncomfortable or intimidating.
And dare I say, even a bit risky. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. Case you didn't know this podcast supports prep academies online mentoring program where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, where I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC and athletic scholarships.
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PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.
Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.