Ep 19: Teenagers and Self-Motivation

Episode Summary

Ned and Bill, the authors of The Self-Driven Child, discuss the difficulties of getting teens motivated about things like homework. They provide a useful framework for helping teens develop self-motivation and self-sufficiency in their lives.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Your teen comes home from soccer practice with a bucket-load of math homework, new reading assignments for science class, and an overdue paper for English class. Your teen is tired and doesn’t know where to start. More time might be spent moping than actually working, and you might be at a loss wondering how to motivate your teenager to keep at their schoolwork.

Watching your teen struggle with stress is painful, but you are not powerless. However, taking the wrong actions can be more harmful to your teen’s development in the long run than staying distant.

Overprotecting teens from the stresses in their life deprives them of the opportunity to learn. More importantly, it deprives them of the opportunity to recover. Studies relating to how to motivate your teenager show that when developing brains are exposed to stress and then returned to a comforting environment, they grow in resilience. They become more self motivated in stressful situations as adults. There is a fine balance to strike between the exposure to stress and comfort.

Not balancing stress and recovery right will make it hard for your teen to learn how to self motivate. Research shows that teens that do not encounter periodic stress struggle to learn how to self motivate as adults. On the other hand, teens that do not have places to recover often resort to unhealthy means of stress relief, such as drugs and alcohol.

To learn how to motivate your teenager while balancing stress and recovery, I spoke to Ned Johnson and William Stixrud. Ned is an elite SAT tutor who specializes in developing self motivation for teenagers who are preparing to take important exams. William is a leading neuropsychologist, professor, and expert on the adolescent brain. Together, they wrote the incredible book, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, and they were so gracious to talk to me about learning how to motivate your teenager.

In our conversation about how to motivate your teenager, Ned and Will explain that parents can benefit from something called collaborative problem solving. Collaborative problem solving is coming up with mutually agreed upon boundaries instead of the parents deciding everything. Ultimately, Ned and Will think parents should learn how to act more like “consultants” for their teens as they figure out how to solve problems in stressful situations.

Parents As Consultants

Being a consultant means communicating strict time boundaries around your availability to help your teen solve problems. For example, you can tell your teen that you are only available to help them between 6-7pm. Ned and William call these “Consulting Hours.” Outside of that time, you don’t have to fixate on how to motivate your teenager. Rather, teens must learn to motivate themselves to solve their problems more independently. And this time frame isn’t just for the teen to honor, but the parent, too!

Something Ned and William emphasize is that your teenager’s problem is in fact their problem! Not yours. Learning how to motivate your teenager involves as much restraint on your part as it does action on the part of the teen. Even if a teen doesn’t have the wisdom to solve a certain problem, experiencing how to manage the stress of a problem helps them become more resilient.

When a parent breaks a boundary like the “Consulting Hours,” it not only reduces the value of that time, but it diminishes the trustworthiness of boundaries in general. As teens learn how to self motivate, your word as a parent is important to their growth. Your teen won’t see its importance, though, if you often break your word and boundaries.

Practicing how to motivate your teenager by choosing not to help them at all times can be hard. However when you put faith in their abilities by giving them space to problem solve, you can build trust with your teen. It takes time and patience, but gives your advice so much more meaning when your teen does ask you for it.

This creates another trap to look out for, though.

The “Command & Control” Trap

As Ned and Will explain, it’s so much better to receive advice when you ask for it than when you haven’t. Even as adults, it’s hard to deliver advice to people who don’t want it. The recipients can get defensive, and that’s often how fights start. They relate this to Consulting Hours by explaining that when your teen does eventually ask you for advice, that you do not squander this opportunity by lecturing. They call this temptation, “command and control,” and this can damage your teen’s ability to recover from stress.

“Command and control” is when your teen asks you for help on one line of an essay, and then you end up deconstructing and rewriting the entire paper. According to the pros, that’s not how to motivate your teenager. By taking “command and control” of a situation after a teen has bravely admitted incompetence, you are making the feedback experience painful for them. This adds to the teen’s stress, when they are coming to you for relief. And they probably won’t come back again.

How “Consulting” Stops Self-Destructive Behaviors

Sometimes you need to know how to motivate your teenager to destress. If they are too stressed out and don’t have a place to unwind, teens can search for other methods of easing their stress. This can be drugs and alcohol, but it can also be food and technology.

However, you can help prevent self-destructive stress relief by being an effective consultant to your teen. By adopting a “consultant” mentality, you can create a framework for establishing boundaries with your teen that you both agree on. Plus, you can mentor your teen on managing stress while solving problems. This should help protect your teen from turning the things that give them joy into addictive, self-medicating behaviors, whether it be eating, browsing social media, or watching YouTube.

Being a consultant to your teen takes time to learn, but when done successfully, you’ll know more than just how to motivate your teenager. You’ll know what your teen’s motivations are. Your teen will trust you to ask questions like, “Can I be late for dinner tonight so I can see my math tutor before tomorrow’s test?” or “What do I do if I go to this party and there’s alcohol?” Those are the kinds of questions you really want your teen to be motivated to ask and solve!

Ned and William might not know how to motivate your teenager specifically, but their strategies can be applied to families of all kinds.

Other topics we cover in this episode include:

  • How much sleep does your teen NEED?
  • What is a “Default Mode Network”? Why your teen should be routinely bored.
  • How to react when your teen doesn’t want your advice.
  • Parental authority and good leadership.
  • Having conversations with your teen out of curiosity, and not fear.
  • Treating kids with respect.

I am so grateful to have gotten to talk to not just one brilliant man, but two! These guys have an amazing sense of empathy that is contagious. Tune in to absorb all they have to share!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your teen to put together a plan for their life by offering more responsibility:

“You know I think there are probably things I’ve been doing or decisions I’ve been making for you. Are there things you know right now that you’d really like to be in charge of, where I’m kind of doing it too much for you? And maybe we can make some lists of things you’d like to be in charge of. But to help me feel safer with this, because this is a process for me too, I will feel so much safer letting you drive the car of your life if you can tell me what your plan is for all of these things and I won’t have this movie in my head if you going all Thelma and Louise and driving the thing right off the cliff. If I can articulate all the things I’m anxious about and together–mostly you–we can figure out that #yougotthis it’ll make it easier for me to step back a little bit.”

-Ned Johnson

2.  Instead of having a struggle with your teen about their homework, say this:

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3.  Use collaborative problem solving to set limits around technology:

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4.  Before you give your teen advice, affirm their autonomy:

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5.  Before you give your teen advice, affirm their autonomy:5.  Before you give your teen advice, affirm their autonomy:

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6.  Encourage mature decision making in your teenager:

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7.  When your teen is struggling with something and feeling down:

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8.  Be an authority, not a dictator:8.  Be an authority, not a dictator:

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9.  Tell your teen that you want to give them more freedom but you need their help:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1.  Create a Homework Consulting Agreement:

Tired of fighting with your teen about homework? Ned and Bill have a simple recommendation. Say you’re done fighting about it. You’ll do whatever you can to help but you aren’t going to care about it more than they do. Then offer to be their homework consultant. Give your teen “office hours” during which you’ll be available each night to help. You might even offer to pay for a tutor if they need extra attention. Make a list of everything you would be willing to do to help your teen with their learning. Also list your office hours and any other restrictions. Label it “Consulting Agreement” and post it on the fridge or bulletin board or somewhere prominent. Here is a sample template: “Homework Consulting Agreement: I agree to give you my full attention and to answer any Homework questions to the best of my ability during the hours of _____. I will also agree to _____. In order to be eligible for these benefits, you must _____.”

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So you guys have this new book and it’s fantastic. I just wanted to get the lowdown on how you guys teamed up. You seem like an unlikely combo, but then the book turned out incredible. So what led you guys to decide to work together and create this thing?

Bill: So I’m a neuropsychologist and had been testing kids who have learning disabilities or ADHD or autism for 30 some years. And my partner Ned is a very effective motivational coach and test prep guy who is remarkably effective in getting kids to do better on tests. And we met several years ago and it became clear to us that so much of what we do in terms of helping kids feel better and perform better is related to helping kids have a stronger sense of control. And Ned saw it in trying to get kids’ test scores up by reducing their stress, and helping them sleep more, and expressing confidence in them. And I saw it in all the kids I saw at weddings, I [inaudible 00:01:07] depression, that strategies for helping them not be so overwhelmed and helping them develop a sense of autonomy, made them feel better and perform better. And so we wrote this book, which is really a “how to” manual for parents in how do you help kids develop that healthy sense of control or autonomy that seems to be good for everything.

Andy: So to me, if you can write a book that a few years after reading it, people even still remember a couple of the concepts that were in the book, then that’s a success. And I think the big thing that I got from your book was this idea that you’re helping your teen build their brain. Yeah, them succeeding at things is nice, but really what the success is, is that you help them build the most efficient brain during this time so that when you send them out into the world, they’re ready for it, right? And I thought that was an interesting way to look at it. And I was just interested if that’s something that you guys saw as a theme of the book, or if that was just me reading into it, or what you think about that.

Ned: We think that’s a really great read on what the message we’re trying to give, that at a really fundamental level, the most important work of childhood, and then adolescence, is building the brain you’re going to have for the rest of your life. And so we really want to think about, more than what’s the short term, or medium term, or long term success in terms of goals, or grades, or college, or whatever. What does a really healthy brain look like? It’s hard to develop the success you want without a healthy brain. And more importantly, because we know that all lives come with challenges, we want kids to have brains that make them well prepared to handle those challenges capably, on their own.

Andy: Right.

Ned: When they face them.

Bill: And because we spent a lot of time studying what stress does to the developing brain, and I think that our concern is so many of the kids that we see that we work with every day are extremely stressed and extremely tired during much of their adolescence. And we know that adolescents are sculpting their adult brains through the pruning process, they’re sculpting their brains.

Andy: Right.

Bill: And the last thing we want is for kids to be sculpting brains that are used to being, their default state is tired, anxious, and unhappy, because it just makes it more likely that as they get older, even if they’re successful, they won’t enjoy it.

Andy: Okay. So then of course the question is, how do we do that? And is it about what to avoid, or is it about what to seek out, or is it a combination?

Ned: Well, there are a lot of things in there. One of the researchers we love a lot is a guy named Michael Meaney who did this sort of Seminal study with rats and rat pups. And they use rats of course, because they have brain systems similar to humans, but they can do things that are terrible to rats that they would feel wrong doing to kids. And so he did this experiment where they took rat pups, baby rats. And from the day they’re born, took them away from mom. And then these lab technicians with little latex gloves would sit there and handle these rats for about a half an hour. It was really stressful to them because this is not warm, fuzzy, hairy mom snuggling with them. This is ah. And their cortisol levels go through the roof. And so it’s incredibly distressing to them. But then, if they gave the pups back to mom, and mom was a high licking and grooming rat, which is the rat equivalent of hugs and kisses, and there, there sweetheart. It’s okay, it’s okay.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Ned: And then this cortisol bleeds out of them. And they did this back and forth, high stress to total recovery. Totally stressed out, total recovery. And it wired the brains of these rat pups in ways that were really interesting. Their prefrontal cortex, all that decision making executive function part of the brain, emotional flexibility and emotional control, was able to very capably regulate their stress response, their amygdala, to the point that these pups, when they became mature rats, the scientists gave them the term California laid back rats. They were almost impossible to stress because in the presence of a stressor, the higher order thinking part of the brain is saying, hey, it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay because all their experience told them that it always had been, and therefore they imagined that it would be.

Ned: And so then as adults, they were fantastically more resilient. They were fantastically more courageous. Not inclined to hide in the corners, but actually go out and explore their little rat world. And so what we believe is that this applies to kids as well. That we want kids to both experience some moderate stressors, not things that are toxic, but things that they can’t handle themselves. You don’t make the soccer team, you don’t get good grades, your boyfriend breaks up with you. Unhappy things, but normal parts of life. And when parents try to shield kids from that, they blow up one part of that equation, of having kids feel some distress, but they also blow up the second part of it by not being that high licking and grooming parent, that high nurturing, low stress parent, that allows kids to go from stress in real life to home being a total safe base of very low stress. When we’re anxious parents, we deprive them the opportunities to experience things and handle things by themselves, and we also do an inadequate job of being that low stress that’s so helpful to a developing brain.

Andy: I think there’s been a lot of stuff written lately about helicopter parenting, and oh, you just need to let your kids experience more setbacks and failures, and that’s going to be good for them. But of course there’s a lot of nuance there and there’s some areas where yes, you’re probably not giving your kid enough freedom right now. And there’s some areas where maybe actually right now you’re already giving them too much freedom. What I loved about your guys’ book was that you broke it down, but through the lens of what you’re talking about right now, which is helping them actually practice the strategies now. Yeah, letting them experience those small failures, but then also helping them to figure out on their own how they’re going to fix it, and scaffolding that for them in a really cool way. So what are some of those areas where maybe parents already right now need to back off a little bit? And then what are some of the flip side of the coin, where actually maybe you already need to worry about how much freedom your team already has?

Bill: The second chapter in our book, it’s called ‘I love you too much to fight with you about your homework’.

Andy: Yeah.

Bill: And homework is certainly one of the areas that we feel that it’s crazy for homework to be a big fight. And what we suggest is parents to say, I love you too much to fight with you about your work, but I’m willing to do anything I can to help you. I’m willing to be your homework consultant. And I’m willing to just sit with you from 6:30 to 7:30 every night. I’m willing to get a tutor if you need it. I don’t want you to fail. I want you to be as successful as you want to be. But I’m not going to take responsibility for it because if I do I’ll weaken you because I’ll support the idea that somebody other than you is responsible for it.

Bill: And so we think that that homework is the model of this idea of a parent serving as a consultant to their kid, as opposed to the kid’s manager, or boss, or enforcer. And we just think it’s a really useful metaphor to think about what our job is and whose life is it. And our feeling is that from pretty early on, it’s useful to think this is really the kid’s life. And our job is not to mold them in a certain way, our jobs to help them figure out ultimately who they want to be and support their development. So as many things as we can, from our point of view, we want kids to be making decisions for themselves. We want to minimize the extent to which we’re trying to force kids to do stuff. At the same time, the second piece of what you’re asking about, technology is probably the main area that comes up again and again, in terms of where do you set the limits, and are parents giving kids too much freedom.

Ned: And with the technology we laugh because every parent presentation we give, we’re always surprised if technology is not the first question that people ask. And anyone who’s paying attention to this knows that the way technology has been designed today, it’s as addictive as it can be. And it has real implications for people’s mental health, physical health, happiness, focus, self-control, so on and so forth. And the challenge, the other part of that though, is that kids, particularly once they become teenagers, are so much more technologically sophisticated than the parents. And so trying to be a command and control parent is pretty hard when you’re steps behind what your kids can do with technology.

Ned: And so our feeling on this is that it’s collaborative problem solving. Sweetheart, I can’t in good faith, I can’t as a parent feel good about having you on Snapchat, or Instagram, or Facebook, or any screen for hours and hours at a time. I know that these things are fun for you and I know that they’re important to you because this is how you connect with your friends, but we should sit down and have a conversation about what are things that we can both feel okay about so that you have these connections to your friends, but you’re doing it in a way that I, as your mom or dad, can also feel okay about. And we’re going to make your use of this technology contingent upon abiding by what we collectively agree to.

Ned: Because in some ways we do have leverage, right? There are very few kids that are going out, delivering newspapers at five o’clock in the morning to get enough money to pay for their iPhones. That just doesn’t exist anymore. So we don’t want to be command and control, but we also don’t want to say, use it however you want. Because for so many kids, they will overuse technology in ways that all the signs suggest is not good for healthy brain development.

Andy: Right, of course not. You mentioned the parent as a consultant, which I thought was a really cool idea from the book. At one point there was a letter… You guys, throughout the book, have letters with little stories of different people. And one of them was about this parent who was talking about how, you mentioned her consulting hours. And I wonder if that was a thing that you teach parents to have certain hours, almost like office hours from a professor, that are their consulting hours that they’re available to help their children with something. And then what to do if your kid needs help outside of that time.

Ned: Yeah. I wrote a paper that got published in a different form, and of all places, McCall’s magazine 37 years ago, where I introduced this idea of thinking about yourself as a consultant to your kid. I also had little kids at the time, including a kid who didn’t learn easily. And I applied the same thing where I said, I’m willing to do anything I can to help, but I’m not willing to fight all the time. I’m not willing to reinforce the idea that somebody other than you is responsible for your own education.

Ned: And I would literally, I’d say, I’m available between 6:30 and 7:30. And my daughter didn’t need my help, but my kid did, and he’d come to me whenever he needed it, right? I’d see something, might see an assignment that he’s working on, but it was a sloppier. I’d say, do you want any feedback about that? And sometimes he’d say, sure. And at times it’s no, I got it. And I just said, okay, this is your education. And he didn’t have an easy time learning, but he was completely independent. He had some tutoring, but he managed stuff himself, came to me when he wanted help, came to me for help a lot in high school with writing, and got a PhD eventually. And I just know that if you just acknowledge reality that it’s the kids’ work. It’s not really your work, that it works better. And consulting hours helped to reinforce that idea that I’m willing to help, but this isn’t my work.

Andy: And it also makes your time seem more valuable to the kid, to where they maybe will respect it or value it a little more too, which I think is especially important for teenagers, right?

Ned: Yeah. The kids who procrastinate and avoid their work, you say, look, it’s much easier, rather than try to chase them around the house and get them to sit down, it’s much easier to say I’m available. Here’s my hours.

Andy: Yeah.

Ned: And if you miss their hours, well, we’ll talk tomorrow.

Andy: Hey, sorry, right? I told you beforehand, right? It was on the calendar.

Ned: That’s right. And it works.

Andy: Yeah. They only have to miss it a couple of times, right, before they start to realize that you really mean it.

Ned: Exactly.

Andy: I noticed even just, when you were giving that example, you I think just do this unconsciously now, you use that little autonomy affirmation there. You said, would you like some feedback on this, right? Instead of just saying, oh hey, this is really sloppy, and blah, blah, blah, which I think is what parents do way too often, is just feel like their job is to give the feedback. And so one concept that runs throughout the book, which I don’t think enough people are talking about, is the need for autonomy and this reactance that I think is really powerful during the teenage years.

Andy: And so that was one example that you just gave right there in terms of not just giving advice, but asking your kids, hey, would you like some advice on that? And of course the flip side is, if you do that you have to be okay with, if they say no, you are not going to be able to give that advice because they said no. Okay. So I wonder in your experience, by asking that, do they, most of the time, say yes, I’d like the advice. Or is it 50/50, or not? And then also, what are some other little ways that you affirm autonomy?

Ned: It takes some time. It takes some time. But part of it, I have yet to have the experience. And if you have any listeners who have, I’d love to hear it. But I have never had the experience of giving people advice that they told me they don’t want, and have it be successful.

Bill: And be grateful for it, yeah.

Ned: Thanks for telling me, shoving that down my throat.

Andy: Right, right.

Ned: And part of it, if you think about it from a brain perspective, this prefrontal cortex, all the executive functions, right, where people can plan and think about their future, and weigh pros and cons, and mental, emotional flexibility, this is the part of the brain you want to be having a conversation with. Your threat detector, or your amygdala, when this fires, when you get defensive, the thinking part of your brain goes bye-bye. And so if I want to be having a serious conversation with my kid, I want him to be listening and weighing the pros and cons, and really thinking this through. But if I force things on him, he’s likely to be immediately defensive, in which case he’s going to defend his position, or defend his reasons not to listen to me, rather than actually listening to me.

Ned: I do the exact same thing with my son and say, hey, would you like some help with that? No, I got it. Okay. Would you want some feedback on that? May I make a suggestion? And most of the time he’ll say he has it. And a lot of times it’s just my own darn anxiety that I feel like I need to push on this. But what will happen is a lot of times he’ll come back and will be curious. What was the thing you were going to say? Or say, yeah I really want help. And he now will, when he really does want help, he’ll come to me and ask, because I think any kid who’s ever gone through school has had the experience where you asked your mom or dad, could you just look at this one word or this one sentence, and then parents pick up a pen and proofread the whole darn thing.

Ned: And the kids are like, oh my gosh, I will never, ever, ever again ask for help because that was so painful. Where as a consultant, I’m giving help that is asked for. And it does take a while because if you’ve been a command and control kind of person, you can’t just do this once and think it’s going to change. The kid has to have confidence that you’re not going to flip back into the mode.

Ned: But one of the things that’s really interesting, that I started doing this, my wife and I started doing this with my son in fifth grade, and really overtly trying to ask, would you like help on that? Can I give you a suggestion? And sometimes he took it and sometimes he didn’t, and sometimes he didn’t take the test and totally screwed things up.

Ned: But he learned from that, and he’d come back later and say, I totally bombed that quiz. Well do you know why you bombed that quiz? Well yeah, because I missed too many questions. Were they thinks you should have gotten right? Or were they things you thought you knew and you forgot? Or you didn’t study the right stuff? I’m not sure I studied right stuff. And we’d go down this, playing 20 questions, and finally get to the thing. Well, maybe make a suggestion on what might help you next time to make sure you’re studying the right stuff. Yeah, what do you recommend?

Ned: And it’s fantastic. But the thing that really is cool is, I had the experience probably five, six weeks ago, my son who like his dad is a little geeky, is a sophomore in high school. And they had this big school dance. And this was the first time he got invited to that party that’s after the dance. Where all the cool kids… Right? That whole… Right? And so he was excited. He was a little apprehensive because this is a new… It’s an unfamiliar territory for him.

Andy: Sure, yeah.

Ned: And so with my family we were out for a walk in the afternoon and he’d say, hey dad, can I ask a question? Yeah, pal. What do I do if I’m at the party and kids are drinking alcohol?

Andy: Hmm.

Ned: Man. That’s the question I want to have with my kid.

Andy: Yeah.

Ned: From my perspective, I am certain that if I had been on his behind all the time about his homework, forcing help on him that he said he didn’t want, he would never ask me that kind of question. And he would feel that all of this, what I think of his wisdom, he would feel like this was stuff that was being done to him rather than stuff that’s being done for him. Because I want to be on his team, and I want him to feel that I love and support him, and not resist what would arguably be in his own best interest because it’s being forced upon him.

Andy: Yeah.

About Ned and Bill

This week, our podcast guest is a duo! William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are the authors of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.

Ned is the founder of PrepMatters, a tutoring service in Washing DC, and the co-author of Conquering the SAT: How Parents Can Help Teens Overcome the Pressure and Succeed.

A sought-after speaker and teen coach for study skills, parent-teen dynamics, and anxiety management, his work has been featured on NPR, NewsHour, U.S. News & World Report, Time, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.

William is a clinical neuropsychologist at The Stixrud Group and a faculty member at Children’s National Medical Center and George Washington University Medical School.

He lectures widely on the adolescent brain, meditation, and the effects of stress, sleep deprivation, and technology overload on the brain. He has published several influential scientific articles and is on the board of the David Lynch Foundation.