Ep 154: What to Say to Motivate Your Teen

Episode Summary

Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson, authors of The Self-Driven Child, re-join us to talk about their latest book What Do You Say. Whether your teen is unmotivated or over-anxious, Ned and Bill have just the thing to say.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Enforcing rules on teens is no easy task. Half the time they ignore you, sometimes they lie to you, and they love to find plenty of reasons to do the exact opposite of what you asked! As they gain independence, teens just don’t want to abide by your rules…even if they’re living in your house.

Plus, as much as we want kids to listen to us and take us seriously as authority figures…gosh dang it, we want them to like us! We know that it’s important to give kids restrictions and limits, but it’s hard to see why when they’re slamming the door and screaming at us for taking their XBox away. To be a parent is to constantly walk that fine line between being close to your kid and knowing when it’s time to be tough….and it can be really hard!

Luckily, William Stixrud and Ned Johnson are back to give us more great advice on finding that parenting balance. They were last on the show to discuss their bestseller, The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their LivesToday, they’re here to share some groundbreaking material from their brand new book, What Do You Say? How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home

Although they’re big believers in giving kids autonomy, Bill and Ned know that parents still have an irreplaceable role in guiding kids through the perils of adolescence. That’s why we’re discussing how parents can best respond to a child who comes to them with a crisis. Plus, we’re debating the idea that kids should always “try their best” and revealing how you can start equipping kids with the independence they need to survive college and beyond.

Talking to an Anxious Teen

When teens tell you they’ve gotten themselves into trouble, it’s hard not to freak out. They come to you, upset that they got a bad grade on their calculus exam, and instantly you want to nag them about how they should have studied more and declare that they’ll never get into college with grades like these! 

According to Bill and Ned, however, it’s important to stay calm in these situations, even though it’s tough. When asked who in their lives they feel the most comfortable with, most teens say it’s someone who listens, but doesn’t judge. If you want your teen to come to you first in a crisis, Bill and Ned advise keeping an even temper…at least on the outside!

In the episode, we identify different ways parents tend to respond to crises–reactions that only make things worse. Some parents find themselves catastrophizing the situation, letting their own anxiety twist it into a nightmare. Other parents partake in what Bill and Ned describe as “fortune telling”–meaning they declare that a teen’s future is ruined simply because of one detention or a college rejection. These responses are totally natural, but will likely only cause you and your teen to get more stressed than necessary!

Bill and Ned drop some pointers in our interview about how to stay chill and work through intense situations with teens. They explain how you can empower your teen to handle chaos with renewed confidence instead of giving them an extra dollop of self doubt. 

One thing Bill and Ned don’t suggest doing too often is using the term “try your best.” Although encouragement is important, they dislike the use of this term in abundance–and they’re explaining why in our discussion.

Protecting Teens from Perfectionism

We want teens to excel and find success..but we don’t want them to burn out or become so stressed that they don’t enjoy life. As a middle ground, we often tell them to just “do the best they can.” However, this doesn’t always provide the reassurance we think it does, say Bill and Ned. Instead, they encourage parents to tell teens they’ve done good enough! It’s pretty much impossible to say what a teen’s “best” is…and trying to define it only leaves kids feeling as though they’ll never measure up. 

Bill and Ned believe teens should shift into a mindset of “I want to” rather than “I have to”. If we put kids under a microscope of perfectionism, they’ll feel like they’re being forced to strive for accolades…but if they’re using self growth as a metric, the motivation will come from inside! In the episode, we talk about how we can help kids get to a place where they’re happy to work towards growth, instead of miserably feeling like they’re crumbling under pressure.

Plus, Bill, Ned and I talk about how surprisingly effective it can be to give kids amnesty or second chances instead of doling out punitive measures. This is all a part of Bill and Ned’s belief in the power of teen autonomy! In the episode, we talk about how parents can guide kids making smart decisions on their own, so we know they’ll be ok when we’re not around.

The Importance of Independence

Letting kids do things on their own can be pretty terrifying. Even just granting them permission to go to the mall with their friends can lead us to fret about them vaping, talking to strangers, or even being peer pressured into shoplifting! But sometimes we worry a little too much…and find ourselves holding their hands too long.

Bill, Ned and I discuss how kids these days aren’t taught to survive on their own– the amount of young adults returning home from college after one semester is on the rise! If you don’t prep your teen to go out into the world and fend for themselves, they might just end up flocking back home and living in the basement.

When we’re begging teens to get started on their piano practice or constantly nagging them to come home on time, we’re sending them the message that it’s our responsibility to keep their lives together, say Bill and Ned. They warn parents that the more they push, the more teens are likely to push back! If parents are trying harder than the kid, that kid isn’t likely to blossom into adulthood any time soon. In our interview, they share how letting go might be the best way to propel teens forward.

This is especially relevant when it comes to the parenting crisis of the decade: getting teens to manage tech use! Bill, Ned and I talk about how giving kids the option to play Fortnite with no time limits might actually remind them that there are consequences to mindless gaming. If teens keep putting off their work to play, they’ll find themselves getting a bad grade as a result! Then, although it might be tempting to drop an extra satisfying “I told you so” parents can use the situation as a lesson about managing screen time, say Bill and Ned.

In the Episode…

It was lovely covering a wide range of topics with Bill and Ned this week! On top of the ideas mentioned above, we talk about…

  • Why kids from affluent families are more susceptible to substance abuse and anxiety disorders
  • How you can help teens with chronic stress
  • Why it’s so hard to let kids fail and what you can say to make it easier
  • How you can model resilience for your teen

If you enjoyed listening, check out Bill and Ned’s books wherever books are sold and re-listen to their first interview! Happy hearing, and don’t forget to subscribe.

Parenting Scripts

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

1. When your teen starts to regret binging on games/TV/their latest obsession:

“Great. If you reflect on it, how many hours do you think would have been necessary, if it was less, to get your [Fortnite] fix in?”

Ned Johnson

2. Check in to see if your teen wants help managing their habits:

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3. Remind your teen that you have confidence in them: (1 of 4)

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4. Remind your teen that you have confidence in them: (2 of 4)

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5. Remind your teen that you have confidence in them: (3 of 4)

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6. Remind your teen that you have confidence in them: (4 of 4)

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7. Let your teen know there’s always a next time:

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8. Empathize with your teen’s anxiety:

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9. Instead of “do your best” and try:

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10. Make it clear that your teen’s responsibilities are their responsibilities:

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11. Take the pressure off:

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12. Give some long-term perspective:

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13. Dole out consequences and have a conversation about it:

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14. Get your teen thinking about how to learn from their mistakes:

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15. Put the onus of choosing a ‘punishment’ on your teen:

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16. Save your relationship, and grant amnesty with: 

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Really excited to have both of you back on the show. I feel like I’ve known you guys for a while now, and it’s really cool to see your work evolving, and to see you putting out this new book, which is called, What Do You Say? How to talk with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance, and a happy home. Thanks for putting out this awesome book. Talk to me about it. Where did this idea come from? Why was this the next book that you needed to write?

Bill: Well, so often, what parents responded to in The Self-Driven Child, our first book, is some of the dialogues in it. And so often, when we lecture, people say, well, if my kid does this, what should I say? I tell them a million times, but I still can’t get through to him. We were talking with our agent about a second book, and he said, god, he said, The Self-Driven Child is a great book, but write a book that just has more language for parents. What do you say to kids if you want to try to help them change, or try to help them find their motivation, or try to help them regulate their sleep or their use of technology, or pursue happiness in a more sane way. And so that’s what we focused on for a year and a half or so, and then put together this new book. Ned, what do you want to add, my friend?

Ned: I think that pretty much covers it. The other thing that I would add, in The Self-Driven Child, we principally talked about autonomy, right, and the importance of autonomy, both from a stress perspective and stress tolerance, but also for kids to be intrinsically motivated. But along with that model of self-determination theory holds that relatedness is important. And one of the things that occurred to us is that oftentimes, there’s a bit of a trade off between autonomy and relatedness. If I’m a parent, if I’m trying to get my kid to do something, I may be undermining his autonomy. And he might go along with that, because for him to fight me on it, it means he has to sacrifice his own autonomy to maintain the relationship with me.

Ned: And both of these things matter, and so, one of the reasons that parents will tell a kid a million times, right, or lean on it, is they’re just not being as effective in getting across the advice or the wisdom that they have to share. And it’s not because they’re know-it-alls, because they want their kids to have the benefit of their wisdom. And so, so much of this book was really not as much about the what, as to how. And knowing that, if we as parents, as educators, are more effective in how we communicate, we can do it in a way that is respectful and effective, maintains that relationship along the way. So it doesn’t have to be a trade off.

Andy: Yeah, and I mean, you guys start out the book talking about the importance of connection and starting with a really strong connection. And you guys even have a recipe in here. I didn’t think a connection could be broken down into a four step system, but it’s been done. Where did you come up with this, and how do these work? We got to stay calm, understand, reflect, and explore, yeah.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. You can remember it with the acronym, SURE. You can be sure that you can be helpful to your kid if you, when a kid has a strong emotion, if he screws up something or you’re mad at him, or he’s not being cooperative, if you can stay calm. And so important is to try to understand, because so often, we leap to judgment. Why’d you do that, as opposed to, help me understand why you did that, that kind of thing. So it’s stay calm, seek to understand, that’s the U, then reflect. And we talk about this kind of time-honored skill of reflective or active listening, where we kind of summarize what a kid is telling us in a way that we try to let them know, I’m paying attention, I’m trying to understand what you’re saying.

Bill: And then, we explore, we ask questions, if the kid’s open to it, we can ask questions to try to understand more, keep a conversation going. But this idea that’s so often what kids tell us. Andy, we talked to dozens of teenagers preparing this book. We had these little focus groups. And one of the questions we asked them is, who do you feel closest to? And invariably, they said it was somebody who listens to me, but doesn’t judge me, and somebody who doesn’t tell me what to do. And so often, we would leap to judgment, or we leap to giving advice. And so, that’s where that formula comes in, how to really be effective listeners and helpers.

Andy: And I like it because you reframe and get people to start thinking about kids’ strong emotions as a positive opportunity to connect.

Ned: Well, one thought on that is, people don’t generally share strong emotions, particularly ones that are hard, with perfect strangers, right? We tend to share these strong feelings with people who we think can handle that. And so, one of the concerns that we have, if we can hang with kids, when their emotions are hard, and by doing so, convey to them that we can handle their hard emotions, then we’re this constant source of recalibration for them, this safe haven, where they can go out there and really put themselves out there in the world and their friendships and school, and everything else, and they come back to us, when, “God, that was a disaster. I can’t believe…” or whatever, as opposed to saying, well, why did you do that? I mean, what? Very quickly, they get the message of, well, I don’t want to bring that to my dad. He’s going to be just as upset as I am.

Andy: There’s a story in here about your son, and he’s playing Fortnite, and they’re trying to figure out, how can I kind of get him to regulate his own Fortnite usage? So how did you work through that?

Ned: I’m glad you asked. I appreciate that, Andy. It’s funny, when we were giving talks all over the place, the country, with our first book, we talked for a while and then people asked questions. And always, the first question was, yeah, but what about technology? Bill and I would always look at each other when the first question wasn’t about technology. Because really, technology is a great benefit, but also in many ways, a real scourge on all of us, and not just our kids. And so, you really can’t have a book that helps people with communication if it doesn’t also help people communicate about their use, their kids’ use, sane and safe uses of technology. So my son was kind enough to offer me a really good opportunity to see whether I could walk the talk, right? So his sophomore year, the game Fortnite came through like a plague, and like, a lot of young men, he was just obsessed.

Ned: And it’s a well-designed game, boy, does it make it addictive. Fun, fun, fun. So here’s the opportunity. He had a Friday off from school. On Thursday night, I’m asking him, “So what are you going to do with your day off?” And he says, “Play Fortnite.” “Oh, good. Anything else?” “I’ll think about it.” “Okay.” So I come home from work on Friday, it’s like 5:00, it’s 6:00, whatever. There is my kid, lovely child, but still, sitting in front of the computer, still in front of the computer, I should add, still in his pajamas. And I admit to being a little hot. I was like, really, dude? I mean, it was all the things that he didn’t do, he didn’t clean his room or whatever, whatever, whatever, that I might have imagined he could have done.

Ned: And I look at him and say, “Can you finish up that game?” Fortunately, Fortnite doesn’t take that long to win or to lose. He said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” I said, “And can you get dressed? Because I would like to go out for pizza.” “Oh, yeah, yeah. Sure, sure.” And he’s a really easygoing guy. So I calm down, he finished his … wins or loses, I don’t know. We as a family go off and have pizza together. Awesome. I simmer down and we have a nice dinner. I say nothing more about the Fortnite. Saturday, I say nothing about the Fortnite. Sunday, I say nothing about the Fortnite, until 5:00, which, for those of you who have ever been a teenage boy, or have a teenage boy, 5:00, the witching hour. And he goes, “Oh”, and everything that’s due on Monday occurs to him, and then it’s six hours to do … you’ve just got four hours to do six hours of homework, or whatever.

Ned: And now he’s upset with his decision about his use of his time on Friday. He’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe it, I’m such an idiot.” Right? And if ever there was an opportunity for a parental I told you so, this was it. But there’s this book, and so that felt like … okay, fine. So I put on my best Bill Stixrud and I said, “Well”, I said, “Gosh, I’m really sorry. That sounds really frustrating. I know what that space feels like.” I said, “Let me ask a question, may I ask a question?” “Sure.” “Do you recall how much time do you kind of spent playing Fortnite?”

Ned: “I don’t know, maybe eight or ten hours.” “Okay. Was it fun?” “Oh, yeah, it was awesome. I won four times.” “Great. If you reflect on it, how many hours do you think would have been necessary, if it was less, to get your Fortnite fix in?” “I don’t know, four or five.” “Okay. One more question. Would it help you, because it sounds like you’re pretty frustrated that you kind of went off the rails a little bit, would it help you if your mom or I kind of helped you manage your use of technology?” “Yeah, I think that would be helpful.” Now I have buy-in, right? And I mean, Bill and I feel very strongly that it’s not … and it’s a fool’s errand, really, but for us to try and manage our kids’ use of technology, especially once they’re teens, but rather to help them learn to manage their own use of technology.

Ned: Because, as we talked about, my kid at that point was a couple of years off from going off to some college somewhere with a suitcase full of my money and no parental oversight, right? And so, my wife and I wanted him to struggle with this. And it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t free of messes, and even now, he’s still trying to figure that out. But to be honest, I’m 51, and I’m still trying to figure out [my tech use] Who isn’t? So we just want to position ourselves so we’re working with our kids, not on them, because we need them to learn these skills and how to manage their own lives, rather than us manage them for them.

Andy: Yeah, and I think … I like that we skip the failure. We need to kind of … you did such a good job of letting him fail. I like the way you tell the story, because it’s not easy to do that. And as a parent, it’s really tough to just kind of sit back and watch, like, really? You’re just going to do that all day.

Ned: Yeah, my wife’s consistent line, and it’s completely honest and heartfelt, she said, “It just kills me to watch him waste so much time.” And that’s real, but I also, once in a while just gently remind her, you don’t have to watch it all the time, right? You don’t, and it’s hard to bite your lip, right? It’s hard to sit on your hands, but if you jump in all the time, then he’s not responding to the natural consequences of his choices. He’s responding to you, right? And now you’re disenchanted as a voice of wisdom, you’re just a scold, and he’s like, oh, stop it, mom. And it’s frustrating for her. So he is who he is, and he’s growing up every day. But if it’s too hard to watch, just walk away, because it’s probably going to be a mess whether you’re sat there or not.

Andy: You talked earlier about how important it is for our kids to know that we can handle it, that they can express their emotions, and we’re not going to freak out. We’re going to be okay. And that’s kind of the opposite of what you talk about, how sometimes, we kind of communicate anxiety to our kids. And I really like how you point out that there are these kind of distorted ways of thinking that we use sometimes without realizing it, that we sort of communicate to our kids. And you talk about some catastrophizing, shoulding, fortune telling. But how do we sometimes, without realizing what we’re doing, communicate these faulty ways of thinking to our teens?

Bill: We just wrote a piece, and the title is, Be Very Afraid. And we traveled around the country talking about The Self-Driven Child for a lot, until COVID, and every place we went, mainly what people talked about was how stressed and anxious their kids were. And I went to Seattle, and they were talking about the second grade kids who were in school refusal. Ned and I went to Dallas, we were talking in an elite school, and the school counselors were saying the fifth grade boys were having panic attacks due to the pressure of middle school. And it just seemed to us, Andy, the kids, they must be getting the message that they need to be very afraid, given this level of stress and anxiety.

Bill: And it’s not this … we as parents, we aren’t the only ones who communicate, I mean, their whole environment does, their peers and their school. Our first book is about a sense of control, and the wisdom of focusing on what we can control. Simply, we can control part of what we do. And so, we talk about things that we do that can make kids more anxious, and then, but what we can do to make them less anxious.

Bill: And what you’re referring to is cognitive therapy. Cognitive therapy developed the realization that so many of our problems are, we’re telling ourselves stuff that doesn’t make sense. If you don’t do better this next time, you’ll never be able to … that’s a fortune telling error. Shoulding on yourself, oh, god, I should have done better. Where’s the evidence? Where is it written that you should have done better than you did? And the catastrophizing. We all tend to catastrophize a lot. And certainly, being mindful of the ways in which we distort reality that makes us more anxious, that makes our kids more anxious, is simply one way that we’ve found we can help give our kids the message.

Bill: I mean, ideally, we’re giving kids the message that this world is a pretty safe place, even with COVID. Most people haven’t died, and we’re probably living in the safest time and place in human history. And we’ve got to get the message that most people in this world do fine.T hey make it through school, they find a way to make a living, and they get married, whatever they do. And many kids grow up thinking that the path to being a successful adult is extremely narrow, and if they ever fall off it, they’re screwed. And this is part of what we’re trying to correct, this very narrow idea that to have a really meaningful life, a life that you enjoy, you have to be very anxious and on guard and driven and never give up, because that’s the path to burnout, not success.

Ned: And I’d add to that, if you fail this, you’re never going to be successful, I mean, all of these kind of things. In many ways, it’s encouraging kids to look for the problems, to look all the way this could go badly, right, rather than, how do you correct this? How do you make this go better? I was talking with my daughter the other day, she’s learning to drive, and making the point that, if you’re driving, right, and you’re heading on a tight curve towards a Jersey wall you don’t want to look right at the wall, you really want to look towards where you want the car to go.

Ned: And she did a lot of horseback riding. She’s like, oh my gosh, that’s just what our instructors told us. Because if I’m wrong, then your shoulders go, and the horse goes, all right. Where, if you look where you want to go, it turns all of your attention and all the energy. And so, do we have problems in life? Do we fail quizzes and make mistakes? Of course we do, right? But if we can help our kids turn their attention towards, how do I get out of here, if we turn our attention to, well, this is a challenge, but not, this leads right into the ditch of destruction, but rather, how do we turn it towards a place that gets us back on firmer ground?

Andy: But it’s kind of like, isn’t that your duty as a parent to see all the things that could go wrong and all the problems coming, and say, hey, wait a minute?

Bill: I mean, certainly, part of what we can give our kids is our experience, is the benefit of our experience. And if there’s roadblocks up ahead, there’s dangers up ahead, we can let them know. But so much of what’s happening in the work on helping kids is giving the message, I’m 100 percent confident that you can handle the situation, you can handle your own emotions. We talk in the book about a new program out of Yale. The acronym is SPACE, and it stands for Supportive Parenting of Anxious Childhood Emotions.

Bill: And the idea … this works with parents, and it’s as effective as treating anxiety in children and teenagers as cognitive behavioral therapy is working with the kids. And what it asks parents to do is to stop the accommodating, what they do to help a kid be less anxious. And say, I used to think that you needed me to walk you to the bus every day or wait until the bus comes, or walk you to school because you’re anxious. I used to think that you couldn’t handle your anxiety. And now I realize I was wrong, and I’m 100 percent confident that you can.

Bill: I understand you’re anxious, I get that, and you aren’t making it up. I get that. We express empathy, but we also say, I’m 100 percent confident you can handle it. So it’s not that we can’t say, watch out here, this or this, but we also wanted to give them the message that you can handle it, that anxiety is not something to be afraid of. You can handle your feelings, and I can handle your feelings.

Andy: Also, when you’re talking about the SPACE program, I had written this down, too, because I thought it was really interesting. You talk about how parents use strategies called active participation and modification to kind of help kids calm down, or prevent them from even ever having to get upset in the first place. And that sort of ties back to what we were talking about earlier, too, with the Fortnite and allowing kids to fail a little bit. Yeah.

Ned: With the subtitle of the book, of building motivation, but also stress tolerance, we thought for a while about using the term resilience, but in some ways, it’s been in 14,000 parenting books. And I kind of feel like the meaning of it may have been bent out of shape a little bit. But technically, resilience is nothing more than the ability to return to a previous state, right? So I’m fine, I get upset. How well, or how quickly do I return to being okay? That’s a really good marker of mental health. And so, what we’re really talking about is our kids learning to have tolerance for stress. Not that we want their lives to be stressful all the time, but we naturally will experience stress. When we stretch ourselves, when we try things that are challenging, we get beat up a little bit, and that’s part of life.

Ned: And in order to develop stress tolerance, you have to tolerate stress. And what we want is for kids to have the sense that, I can handle this. No, not, I can handle this because mommy is holding my hand, I can handle this because dad is with me. And obviously, when they’re little, when they’re 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, we’re co-regulating with that. But as they get older and older and older, we don’t want to be their walking, talking security blanket so that they can handle these things when they’re with us. And so what happens with accommodating, if you think about having a two or three or baby who’s upset, we rub their backs, I mean, there, there, there, and we soothe them. But if you can get into the process, a pattern, where we reassure them constantly, as opposed to they’re having thoughts with which they can reassure themselves. Or we make all these accommodations where, they don’t like this, they don’t—

Ned: Kate Julian has this beautiful story in the Atlantic, from, I guess, a year ago now, where it talks about a family. their kid was really picky with eating. And they accommodated him by basically only feeding him what he wanted to. And they ended up having like 1,100 meals, or 11,000, whatever it was, of turkey loaf, because that was the only thing…and on any given breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it just wasn’t worth fighting with him about turkey. The whole system had worked around to support his consumption of turkey loaf, where, you could say, “Look, I know you don’t love macaroni and cheese, but that’s what we’re having for dinner—”

Andy: “That’s what we got.” Yeah, right.

Ned: “—and I know you might not love it, but I know you’re strong enough to handle macaroni and cheese.”

About Bill Stixrud

William R. Stixrud, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Self-Driven Child and What Do You Say. He is a clinical neuropsychologist and founder of The Stixrud Group. He is a member of the teaching faculty at Children’s National Medical Center and an assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine.

He is a frequent lecturer and workshop presenter and the author of several articles and book chapters on topics related to adolescent brain development, stress and sleep deprivation, integration of the arts in education, and meditation. His work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Time Magazine, Scientific American, Business Week, Barron’s, and, New York Magazine. 

In his spare time, you can find Bill performing in the bands Close Enough and Larry and the Flames.

About Ned Johnson

Ned is the co-author of Conquering the SAT and The Self-Driven Child. Considered by many to be the most sought-after instructor in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, he founded PrepMatters in 1996 and has served area students as well as clients from across the country and around the globe. In addition to his time with clients, Mr. Johnson oversees instructor hiring and training, curriculum development, business management, and coffee purchases.

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. Hear his interview about test anxiety here!

Ned resides with his wife and teens in Washington, DC.

Want More What Do You Say?

Find Ned and Bill on their website. Bill has his own website and YouTube. Ned has his own website as well as being on Twitter and LinkedIn.