“Our fourteen-year-old either sits in their room listening to violent rap music or slouching toward school with his slacker buddies. They were a good student until 7th grade, and then it’s been all downhill. They just doesn’t care anymore. They either ignore me or sneer when I ask what they want to do with their life: their latest comment is that we’re all going to be dead of genetically engineered viruses by the time they’re twenty-five, so why bother? From their point of view, they might as well do drugs and cut school because it’s the best thing they can do with life right now. Yikes! There’s no light in their eyes. I went to the high school and walking down the hallway was like Night of the Living Dead: These kids are so wary, so detached, so negative that they seem like zombies. The clock is ticking, and in four years or so they’re going to have to face life and make something of it. What in the world are they going to do?”

My two previous columns have discussed the key challenges of the teen years: isolation, mediocrity and risky behavior, and conflict. The best way to minimize these problems is to lay a foundation prior to (and during) adolescence of loving intimacy, positive motivation, and effective problem-solving. In this column, we will explore how parents can support the development of the positive motivations within their kids that will draw them toward productive and healthy paths.

A Personal, Positive Vision

Adolescents need to know in their bones that two things are true:

  • There is a positive way to live that is desirable in terms of their own values.
  • They can earn that way of living through their own efforts.

For example, teenagers need to know that there are tangible links between (A) having the money they want, (B) the career that can produce that income, (C) the schooling and credentialing necessary for that career, and (D) studying (let’s say) for their mid-term in trigonometry.

Otherwise, an adolescent will have little internal motivation to do the hard work—and forego the distracting pleasures—necessary to prepare for and have a good life as an adult. Without internal motivation, teens can slide into mediocrity and risky behavior.

It is reasonable for parents to ask their kids what their values are. Some good questions are:

  • What kind of life do you want to have? Let’s say you’re 25: how do you want things to be in a typical day? How about when you are 35 or 45?
  • What kind of contribution do you want to make in the world?
  • Are you interested in doing things of quality? Are you interested in excellence?
  • What kind of people do you want as friends or co-workers?
  • Do you want to get married? Do you want to have children?
  • What do you need in order to have the life you want? How much money? What kind of training? What’s your plan to get what you need?
  • Do you think it is up to you, or up to somebody else, to give you the kind of life you want?
  • Do you feel you are able to do the things necessary to have the life you want? What do you need to work on?
  • Is there any way I can help you build the life you want?

Teens Gotta Have Fun

The majority of teenagers dabble with mediocrity and risky behavior, have some (sometimes scary) fun, and then move on. Adolescents do usually learn valuable, lifelong lessons through experiences that can stand their parents’ hair on end. Parents can overreact and see a bogeyman in the pages of Thrasher magazine or in the pierced nose of their kid’s best friend. A parent’s (often unconscious) attitudes toward their own pleasure-seeking can get laid onto the desires of teenage children.

Adolescents need time to goof off and hang with their friends, which helps them develop social skills, a sense of themselves as part of a group, and early experiences with romance and sexuality. I fear that the sometimes numbing quantities of “so what?” homework required of teenagers can interfere with more enduring lessons, ones that will last long after the dates of battles in the Civil War fade from memory.

Not On My Watch

Nonetheless, there is a middle path in which parents are reasonably tolerant of a teenager’s foibles and efforts at pleasure—while steadfastly encouraging (and even requiring) their child to make an effort in school, cultivate real skill in something besides video games, and stay out of trouble. When they become adults, children can make a mess of their lives if they choose, but at least as parents we will have done our best while we were “on watch.”

A Positive Path

So how can parents nurture their children’s commitment to a positive life path? Here are some ideas that I’ve seen work; you can adapt them to your own situation.

  • Find out what their real interests are, and look for realistic ways to support them. If they mention some seemingly ridiculous life goal, like being a movie director or wide receiver in the NFL, take it seriously and muse with them about how they could do it for real. This doesn’t mean taking over their plan or making lots of suggestions. It means being encouraging and positive, with the very occasional diffident offering: I figure you’ve probably already thought of this, but you could check into working at the public access TV studio. I could take you there if you need a ride. . . Let them be the one to say that the idea is far-fetched or undoable.
  • Create opportunities for your kids to discover real interests. Expose them to the passions, vocations, and careers of adults. You could visit local colleges, laboratories, corporate offices, stock exchanges, museums, art galleries, city council meetings, craftsmen, poetry readings, concerts, libraries, construction sites, factories, etc. There are also structured programs (often occurring in the summer) that introduce teens to different kinds of work.
  • Give your kids tangible opportunities to experience a sense of real contribution. One example is community service; besides being worthy in its own right, helping others can both awaken meaningful interests and provide an eye-opening exposure to the risks in life.
  • Encourage moral development. Engage kids in discussions of ethical dilemmas (usually those of other people!). Challenge lies, double-dealing, or the exploitation of others. A sincere religious involvement — in whatever form is meaningful for your family — typically nurtures moral development. Ask kids what their own inner sense of integrity would call them to do.
  • Help teens understand the path they can take to have the life they want. For example, work backward from the lifestyle a teenager wants . . . to the career that can support that lifestyle . . . to the university training required to enter that career . . . to the grades in high school this semester that are necessary to get into college.
  • Insist that kids perform in school at least close to their intellectual potential. No one can afford to blow high school!

If you are unclear about your child’s academic capabilities, a psychologist or educational specialist can do some testing and tell you. Chronic problems with school may be due in large part to problems with attention or learning. If you think this may be the case, you should have your child assessed. If you are locked in power struggles with your child over academics, consider bringing in other adults, such as the teacher or a resource specialist at your child’s school, your spouse, or a tutor.

  • Practice excellence in your own home, such as by having an orderly environment, getting the daily work of the family done well, or maintaining a loving and civil atmosphere.
  • Encourage the development of the will. This comes in different names, such as determination, perseverance, staying power, stick-to-it-iveness, etc. Talk about willpower. Point out will in the life of your child or others. Read stories of determined journeys, such as The Lord of the Rings or Watership Down.
  • Hold kids to their word. What they say matters. (And of course you need to keep your agreements with them too.)
  • Bring teenagers into contact with the concrete and sometimes harsh realities of life, so they can see the potential consequences of mediocrity and risky behavior. Visit an unemployment office, courthouse, police station, drug rehab center, welfare office, or soup kitchen. Don’t do this punitively but with compassion and humility.
  • Encourage them to enter situations, appropriate to their level and physically safe, that give them opportunities to deal with the sometimes all too real world. Examples include athletics, martial arts, performing arts, starting a little business with their own money, outdoor experiences such as rock climbing or sailing, or Outward Bound. One possibility is for one of their chores to be the mechanics of paying your monthly bills: that’s a definite wake-up call for many teens!

In Their Heart of Hearts

Deep down, even the most seemingly negative, unmotivated, dazed, and confused teenager wants a good life, wants to contribute, wants to feel that it meant something to have walked the earth for their time. By evoking and nurturing and protecting positive motivation in your kids — and by giving the occasional flat-out nudge — parents can help teenagers fulfill the promise you saw in their eyes, their hearts, on that first day they rested in your arms.

In my next column, I will discuss how to prevent and resolve conflicts with teenagers.

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This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.