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How to Get Your Teen to Do What You Want Them to Do

How to Get Your Teen to Do What You Want Them to Do

It’s a trick title.

The cold hard truth is that you cannot MAKE your teen do anything. Parents often burn themselves out trying to find the magic formula for compliance, but in case you were not yet clear, that magic formula does not exist.

Many teens DO what you want them to do most of the time, because:

  1. · Your demands are reasonable (as perceived by your teen)

  2. Your child has an easygoing/compliant temperament

  3. You have created expectations from early on, and it works well for them (see above)

  4. You have a strong, connected, respectful relationship and so they want to please you (research backs this up as a reason many teens give for not using drugs or alcohol)

  5. You have limited rules and you involve your teens in the rule making sometimes. (some shared power goes a long way)

  6. They are genuinely afraid of you (this one often backfires, invites rebellion & does not bode well for long term good results)

If you are struggling because your teen is mostly NOT doing what you want/need them to do, all is not lost. You may have already tried some of the standard parenting tools for getting compliance- take away their phone, ground them, offer them promises of cash or prizes for doing what you ask them to do. Some of this works, some of the time, depending on your child, their developmental stage, and your relationship with them at that moment in time.

The good news is that, even when nothing seems to work to MAKE him do what you want him to do, you can strongly influence your teen towards doing what you want him to do.

This is where the important concept of motivation comes into play. You as a parent have incredible power to motivate your teen towards X, and away from Y. Daniel Pink, author of Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has a great video about this, How to Persuade Others with the Right Questions. Pink uses the example of trying to get his daughter to clean her room; he explains, “when people have their own reasons for doing something, they believe those reasons more deeply and adhere to those behaviors more strongly.” In a common sense nutshell, when the motivation comes from inside, it is more powerful. The Center for Motivation and Change also has nice post explaining the truths and myths of motivation.

Once you understand motivation, you can better harness its power to influence your teen.This could mean motivating her to start doing something (clean their room, do their homework) or motivating him to stop doing something (skipping school, being mean to his sister).

Here are a few practical ideas that might help you flip your teen’s motivational balance your way:


Remember, some defiance is part of healthy teen development. Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthoodsays, “it’s a typical reflex of adolescence that if you were just about to do something and your parent tells you to do it, you don’t want to do it anymore.”


·Roll with resistance: (This is a concept from Motivational Interviewing) If you and your teen are in a tug of war on some issue, let the rope go. (you: ”a “D” in Math is unacceptable”, him: “My math grade doesn’t matter”). Reframe it to understand that this is the way he sees the situation. “You think a D in math is not important,” see where this might take you. (I know, it’s hard, you want to freak out about the D). Once he stops putting his energy into fighting you, he may put it into realizing that a “D” is not the grade that he wants either. When the arguing stops, there is sometimes space for you to guide her to see the difference between her behavior and her values, goals, etc. “Well, I don’t want a D, I know it’s not great, but…” There’s your start.


Recognize their Ambivalence: Ambivalence is when they sort of want to change and sort of don’t want to. Accept that your teen’s ambivalence is a normal human thing, and help him understand it, “You want to stop smoking pot, but it is part of your social life and you love hanging out with your friends.” When you both understand the ambivalence, it reframes the issue as a problem you can collaborate on solving.


Recognize small efforts: You do not have to throw a party because your teen took out the trash, when you wanted them to also empty the dishwasher. BUT, you can say, “Thanks for taking out the trash, that was a big help.” Being recognized for small improvements can be a motivator towards larger change. REINFORCE the good stuff they do like crazy!


·Stay positive: I don’t mean a positive mood, although that helps too. I mean tell them what you want or how you feel in a positive way. “Come home by 11:00” rather than, “Don’t be late again” It cuts out some of the defensiveness.


Offer help: If there is something you really want them to do, and they are not doing it, offer help that you are comfortable offering. “It’s important that you wake up on time in the morning. I can see you’re having a hard time doing that. How can I help.” If they ask you to turn the hallway lights on and open their door ten minutes before, are you willing to do this? If they are breaking curfew, are you willing to text them a reminder 15 minutes before curfew? It’s not about exactly what you do, making the offer tells your teen that you are on their side, and gets them thinking about what is getting in their way.


Communication skills matter: How you communicate can make all of the difference in your teen’s motivation. If you find it hard to communicate with your teen, I recommend the 20 Minute Parent Guide as a resource for learning and improving communication skills. “Good communication is crucial in creating space for change to take place, and it can effectively tip the motivational seesaw towards it.”


Motivation has incredible potential and power as a parenting tool. .

Make the expectations clear, set the limits, and give the consequences when you feel they are needed. But for long term results, it’s worth some effort and practice to learn how to amp up your teen’s internal motivation!


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