Motivating Your Teen to Change Destructive Behaviors
Sometimes our children seem so incredibly vulnerable. The world they live in bombards them with so many opportunities for poor choices, it’s a wonder that any teen comes out on the other side of adolescence intact. As their hormones rage, teens must continually decide whether they will drink alcohol, take drugs, have sex, join a gang, become a vandal, be a bully, steal, lie, cheat… the list goes on and on!
A couple of weeks ago, we wrote a blog called “Encouraging Teens to Dream.” In that article, we talked about how teens were less likely to adopt risky behaviors if they believed their future is attractive. Having bright, exciting opportunities ahead motivated teens to take the straight and narrow path.
But what about those teens who are already fighting with a destructive behavior? Parents of a child who is making poor choices want desperately to help their teen make better decisions. They want their child to change.
Clearly, parents have lots of ways to influence their child. You can inspire your teen with your own good example and role modeling. You can provide your teen with information to make more informed choices. You can support your teen when they are having a hard time.
You cannot force your child to change; you cannot persuade your teen with your brilliant logic; you cannot find that one perfect reason your teen will latch onto; you cannot bribe, threaten, nag your teen into rational thought; and you cannot scare them with your predictions of disaster. Until your child wants to do something about his or her situation for his or her own reasons, anything you say or do will fall on deaf ears and likely damage your relationship. Inherently, people tend to only really listen to one person – themselves. So, the real trick to motivate someone is to get them to convince themselves to make a change for their own reasons.
When trying to convince someone to want to change, there are two things to keep in mind. First, remember that what motivates you doesn’t motivate your child. Motivation is driven by unmet needs, and what one person needs isn’t what drives another person. One size does not fit all, so do not assume that what motivated your first child will have any impact on your second child. Second, although it doesn’t seem right, more than likely, your teen is receiving a “benefit” from their destructive actions. They are filling an unmet need in an inappropriate way, but until they feel they are going to have that need met in a more healthy way, they will not be motivated to change. For example, the sexually promiscuous teen girl may be trying to get the attention she is not receiving elsewhere. Until she knows that she can fill that void in a new way, she will not be very interested in simply changing because she might get pregnant… teen pregnancy might be mom’s motivator to get her daughter to stop, but that is not a motivator for the daughter.
Here are some specific guidelines for parents to remember as they work with their children to change their destructive habits:
Express your anger.
When you see your child engaging in a destructive behavior, it clearly will make you mad. But, expressing that anger will not help motivate your child. Although your anger is understandable, yelling at your teen will not stir up your child’s own reasons to change their behavior, and it might actually reinforce those behaviors.
A natural reaction when we are scared of something is to blame someone for the mess. When your child is making poor choices, it becomes so easy to attack their friend who is ‘weird’ or their father who isn’t available. Finding the ‘responsible’ party will not encourage your child to change, nor will it solve the problem. So, don’t point fingers, unless you are pointing forward to a new direction and plan.
Your child knows that you want him or her to stop whatever destructive behavior they have. They already know! Telling your teen over and over isn’t helpful, and could in fact be demotivating. You may have some excellent reasons he or she should stop, but since only his or her own reasons will ultimately influence them to take actual steps toward stopping the behavior, your reasons will likely create more resistance.
Assume fear will last.
Inevitably, whatever destructive behavior your teen has found will produce a fearful moment. The drinker might get a DUI or land in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. The shoplifter might get caught. The gang member’s friend might get shot. The sexually promiscuous teen might think she is pregnant. Your child will seem scared at the time and this may produce a temporary reduction in the behavior, but more than likely it will not last. First, the fear invoked by the incident doesn’t address the child’s personal reasons for the behavior, which is the true motivator for change. Additionally, it is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to feel invulnerable, so it’s pretty hard to truly scare them.
Acknowledge your child’s autonomy.
By admitting a teen’s independence, it defuses their defensiveness, which makes them more open to a conversation and answering questions from you. You might say something like, “While I am very concerned about your drinking, I know that it’s ultimately your decision whether you choose to accept help. I can’t watch you 24-7 or force you not to drink, so you’re in control. But can I ask you a few questions?”
Ask questions that naturally evoke your child’s desire to change.
The fact of the matter is that your child is the only one who can make a change possible, so as parents, we need to encourage them to want to change. The best way to do that is to ask questions that “trick” them into saying something positive about stopping the behavior or saying something negative about what the behavior has done in their lives already. For example, a parent might ask, “Why might you decide to get help for your drinking?” This question basically traps the teen into saying something positive about getting help. If he or she responds, “I don’t want to get help,” then you say, “I didn’t ask IF you’re going to get help, but why you might ever decide to get help?” Another question might be, “Have you ever done something you regretted while drinking?” Recounting an embarrassing or scary story helps a child come up with a motive for getting help, such as, “Well, I might get help so that I don’t do that again.” It’s important that you use active listening with your child during this conversation and hear his or her own true reasons for change. Their reasons may seem really silly or unimportant to you, but if they are the reasons your child would consider changing, those are the ones that will be most motivating.
Reiterate your child’s own reasons.
After you have this open-ended conversation with your teen, summarize the good answers he or she gave, and ignore the bad. For example, you might say, “It looks like you might want to look into treatment so that you can get back on the soccer team and so that you don’t keep getting into big fights with your best friend.” Although these are not the reasons you, as a parent, think are most important, they are still going to be the most motivating, because they have come from within your child.
Find ways to change your child’s self-concept.
Everybody has a way that they view themselves. Whether it’s true or not, we have our own self-image, and many times destructive behaviors are started to deal with a low self-concept. Therefore, criticism – though understandable when someone is making poor choices – only solidifies a teen’s poor self-image and actually pushes them to the destructive behavior as a way to cope. In order to change someone you love, try praising them in order to help them form a new self concept. Once this happens the person will do his best to change on his own without doing any extra effort. For example, if you keep telling your son that he is strong, and that a strong person like him should never let such a bad habit as smoking control him, he will eventually build a new self concept and break the habit.
When you see someone you love choosing behaviors that will negatively impact their life, you just want to shake the sense into them. Try to stay calm. Be patient and work with your teen to find those motivations that speak to them. Your reasoning to stop a behavior don’t matter in this instance. Take the time to understand your teen’s unmet needs and use their own rationale to encourage them to make more positive choices.