My Son Can’t Get Motivated

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 186 · Duration: 00:17:33

My Son Can’t Get Motivated

What do you do when your 16 year old son is depressed, unmotivated, and collecting a whole lot of zeros in his classes?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, My Son Can’t Get Motivated.

Today we’re hearing from Max of Elk Grove California and Max writes:

My 16-year-old son is depressed and really struggling.  He’s been online learning all year and his grades are low due to low effort and a lack of completion of assignments.  He plays games, often with friends and since that’s one of his few social opportunities, I don’t want to take that away.  He’s really a good kid so I don’t want to come down on him and I worry that my getting tough with him will only add to his depression.  We’ve all gotten our shots and he has the option to go to school two days a week now, but he is choosing not to go.  I worry about his isolation and the amount of time he spends in his room.  I’ve told him he needs to exercise and that his junior year grades are important for college, but I’m not getting through.  What can I do to help him?

To answer Max’s question:

Max, your situation is one I’ve seen quite often so thanks for taking the step to ask about it.  Yes, this pandemic has interfered with normal development for teenagers leading to isolation and depression.  Some families have been able to use the time to get closer yet many have really struggled with how to support their teenagers.  

Let’s take a look at your particular situation:

Your son is depressed, isolating in his room, not completing his work, and choosing not to attend in-classroom learning.  His main social activity is gaming and while you’ve talked with him about all this, nothing is changing and quite reasonably, you don’t want to come down on him.

So Max, this is a time for “Super-Dad” right?  So get your cape on and let’s go because your son needs you, not to come down on him, but to help him.  And to help our teenagers, we always want to keep the bigger picture of adolescent development and parent – teen dynamics that support healthy development in the forefront.  

One way to think of the adolescent journey is that it’s a time when parents transfer responsibility for executive functioning to their kids.Click To Tweet Let me explain. Generally speaking, the younger kids are, the more parents do the work of deciding what their kids do and when they do it.  Then, as kids grow from their childhoods towards their adulthoods, the decision making and responsibility for taking care of business effectively moves from parents to kids; the transfer is a gradual process as kids develop the neurological ability, skill sets, and experience.  

Additionally, a large part of mental health I’d even say the largest part, are mental wellness skills.  These skills include: exercise, healthy food choices, interests and passions that one pursues, supportive friendships, the ability to manage responsibilities without getting overwhelmed, the ability to manage feelings.

Being a teenager and working on all these things under pandemic circumstances is tough. But under good circumstances or bad, the goal is the same: to learn and grow one’s skills.Click To Tweet

So Max, now we’ve framed your challenge in a new way, “how can I help my 16 year old son grow his executive function and mental wellness skills under these trying circumstances?”

Now we’re getting someplace.

Max, now that we’ve framed your objective this way, does it make sense that you don’t want to “come down on him”.  If you do and even if he complies and does what he’s told, you’re using your executive function to influence his behavior, rather than inviting your son to use and grow his executive functioning to manage his own behavior.  If you get him to change his behavior today, you’ll need to do it again tomorrow.  It’s kind of like the difference between giving him a fish or a fishing pole.  

So here’s one idea you can use but of course I don’t know you or your son, so feel free to modify this as you see fit.  

State the problems to your son as you see them, and invite him to come up with responses to them.  

I’ll give you an example of what this might look like and I’ll call your son Jeb.

DadJeb I just received an email from the school that you’re not completing your work and are piling up zeros in several classes.

JebI’m not worried about it.  No one is taking school seriously this year, besides, I’ve tried but I just can’t motivate myself.

Dad:  I get that, you seem depressed and all you want to do is play video games. 

JebI feel better then and at least I’m with my friends and we have fun.

DadI have a few thoughts I need to share with you.  Your grades do matter, this is your junior year and F’s or low passing grades aren’t going to help you get into your choice of college.  More than that, your schoolwork is just that, your schoolwork, it belongs to you, it’s your responsibility and you’re not managing it.

JebI try, I just can’t get motivated, I lose focus and get even more depressed.  

DadI hear you and that is a problem, and it kind of begs the question, how do we motivate ourselves when we don’t feel like doing things that we have to do?  I can relate to that and I think most people can, what are some things we can do?  

Jeb:  I don’t know, like I said, I tried.  

DadIn the past, I’ve made a lot of rules, like no gaming until your work is done.  And no eating sugary snacks before dinner, but you’re 16 now and I don’t think it’s right for me to be heavy anymore.  It’s time for you to do some self-parenting.  One way to think about this is what advice would you give yourself if you were your parent?  

JebI suppose the same thing, no games until I finish my work, but I can’t get up for my work.

DadHave you really challenged yourself and made it into a way to reward yourself?  Like if I do these three assignments, I’ll reward myself with game playing afterwards.  Also, what are your goals in your classes?

JebI don’t really have anything specific.

DadWhat are some goals you’ve had in your life and how did they affect your motivation?

JebI get what you mean.  When I wanted to make the soccer team, I practiced all the time and even when it wasn’t much fun and the weather sucked, I kept at it.

DadExactly!  I might add that the crappy food you’re snacking on all day and the lack of getting out and exercising might be having an effect on your lack of motivation and feeling depressed as well.  

JebYea, I know.

DadExcellent, I’m glad to hear that.  Now the question is that since we understand what you can do to make things better, which one of us is going to set limits and make you do them, you or me?

JebI know it’s my job.  

Dad: Excellent again, and how are you going to make it happen and how can I support you.  If you are going to take this on, which I congratulate you for, how are you going to hold yourself accountable?  

JebI don’t think I know how except to say I’ll do it.  I can’t yell at myself.

DadThat would be pretty weird.  Here are a couple of ideas; can you make a grade goal for each of your classes?  Then, how about if you write a plan for the week with what work you’ll do each day, when you’ll do it, and include when you plan to exercise and what activity you plan to do.  If you don’t know the assignments in advance, just anticipate them and make the time and write them in when they’re assigned.  Then when you complete your plan for the day, you get to play games but be sure to give yourself an ending time with gaming so that you have enough energy for the next day. Then at the end of each day, write what worked, what didn’t work, and what adjustments you need to make. 

Jeb:   That seems like a lot, but I guess I’ll do it.

DadSince we’re working together to put you in charge, how about if I go through it with you until you get the hang of it, particularly with you feeling low and not having done it before.  

Jeb:  I guess so, I really don’t want to flunk.

DadWhy not go to classes for the two days they’re asking you to go?

JebI guess it’s because I haven’t been into school, but I get it, I’ll start going now.  

Okay! Do you get the idea Max?  Yes, your kid is a good kid and he is having a hard time.  The best thing we can do for our kids is to help them learn to help themselves.  If we think in terms of helping them grow their executive functions, that gets us out of the mindset of making them do things.  By inviting your son to take this on with your support instead of you “coming down on him” you’re being a true Super Dad, cape and all.  

Max, certainly you can offer to arrange counseling for your son, or you and your son, but even if you chose that option, what we’ve outlined here is still the right path to follow. 

So parents and folks who work with families with teenagers and young adults, instead of thinking behavior and getting your kid to behave a certain way, think about growing and developing executive function.  If we put the choice about whose Executive Function we’re going to use, theirs or ours, it brings a whole new perspective and doesn’t invite Control Battles, and you know what I think of those.  I’ll remind you that Lara Honos-Webb’s book for teens and young adults titled, 6 Super Skills for Executive Functioning is an excellent resource for kids and for parents to help kids.  

Thanks for tuning in today listener and special thanks to you Max for sharing your situation with us.  I’ve really enjoyed talking with you and I’m going to take a couple of weeks off; now that I’m vaccinated, I get to visit some family and friends.  So while I won’t be able to do a podcast while I’m away, if you’ve signed up for the newsletter on my website, I’ll send you a great, actionable parenting tip the weeks I’m away.

And remember, take care of yourself.  You need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.


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