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.

Final Thoughts…

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.


  • Timothy Augello

    Hey guys,

    I’m 21 & still living with my parents. I just wanted to say that the “asking questions” advice is bullshit & will not work. If you have a kid being destructive either by drinking, bullying, etc we’re more than likely avoiding a problem in our own life. We don’t want parents involved in our problems, don’t be nosy. There are other ways to provide help. Personally I’d be mad at my parents for trying to use an open ended question into tricking me into a position like that, it would be an insult to my intelligence. You have to understand that teenagers are rebellious b/c they’re struggling with their place/independence in the world, don’t belittle them by using questions like they asked you to. Be honest, open, & available. Provide support & condemn some actions. Have clear rules w/clean punishment that,as tough but reasonable. We’re talking teens, not proper kids. Even if you see them as kids, they don’t see themselves as kids & it’ll only make the situation worse treating them like some.

    Hope you stupid ass parents learned something. Maybe you won’t screw up as mine. They didn’t punish me at all. They should’ve. But they did do stupid shit like this.

    • You are an adult now. You can only ride this “mommy and daddy didn’t raise me right” wave for so long. Stop it. The majority of parents are just doing the absolute best they can. I’m sure this is what your parents did as well.

      You speak as a child, but you are a grown man. It is time to stop pointing the finger and accept some responsibility. If you don’t like who you’ve become, work on fixing it. If you like how you turned out, well, I guess mom and dad didn’t do so bad after all, right??

  • This post brought up a lot of memories of my oldest son making terrible, self-destructive decisions for many years. He rejected our offer to totally support him in college, instead taking drugs and becoming homeless. Those were horrible years which almost ruined our marriage. We finally gave up on the many ways we were trying (unsuccessfully) to help him have a good life, walked away, and saved our marriage. Turns out that self-destructive young men stop messing up when they are sick of leading a messed-up life. And not a moment before!

  • I have a teen that has a history of running away and having sex with random men I have had four cps cases to prove that I’m a good mother she’s been to ten hospitals nothing is helping ….pls help me

  • This is a very good article. I have a 12 years old daughter and she is so difficult to deal with. She has a terrible attitude, she talks back, she makes sounds when I talk to her, she rolls her eyes, she has no respect for no one, her teachers are always complaining about her behavior since she was in kindergarten. She was born this way people don’t understand when I say this but, she always had this attitude since she was born. She didn’t smile until she was 2 years old. I’ve tried everything mentioned in this article the positive and also the negative but nothing gets to her, I don’t know what to do! Now she wants to dress like a 20 years old and she is talking to boys about oral sex and more. She is going to destroy herself and I don’t know how to help her realize what she is doing is wrong. And she is only 12, she’s not even a teenager yet. I also have a 16 years daughter and a 20 years old son and they are very well behave and so respectful.

  • My daughter is still in her toddler years but I’m currently taking care of my husbands younger sister and when I first noticed her promiscuous behavior I was both shocked and scared feeling incredibly inadequate on how to handle this situation. This article has given me so many good tips to approaching my sister-in-law and helping her get back on a good track and also help me prepare for my daughters future. Thank you!

  • my wife and I are divorced and she has the custody of our 17 year old daughter…basically a good kid while we were toghether but since our split 3 years ago she has basically dropped out of shcool, hardly stays at home with her mom, lies about going to what she is doing and basically has no respect for herself, her belongings or her mom and home…very sad as she is in grade 12 and wonderully talented…her mom continues to pay her in advance for chores that dont get done, lend her money that will never be repaid, replace phones that get broken or lost…no lessons at all in responsiblity and becuase I dont have control, I have suggested stopping support of phone access, her art lessons, money….until she changes and becomes at the very least, somewhat respectful and responsible.
    in conversations, she seems committed to shcool but is either lying or very easily swayed to makeing bad decieions…sex, drugs alchohol skipping shcool….her mom is ready to kick her out…and has suggested she come to my house…but I have some rules and have more energy to enforce so there is no way she will live with me…


    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. We did not mean, in any way, that parents should sit back and watch while their teen makes poor choices. So, thank you for pointing out that perspective so that we can be more clear! The article was meant to provide parents with helpful advice on how to approach communicating with their teen. The article was suggesting that parents avoid yelling or criticizing, but rather ask open-ended, non-judgmental questions to best determine how to motivate their children to different, more positive behaviors. We are strong advocates of counseling, and so, if a teen is engaging in risky behaviors, we recommend they receive professional help. But whether a teen is in counseling or not, we still stand by our recommendation that calm, non-judgmental conversation will help change a teen faster than angry criticism. We can only hope that many parents will be – like you – very involved with their children and actively protect them from the many destructive choices our current culture seems to offer. Best of luck to you and your family!

  • Thank you for sharing, you make perfect sense this information was relivant and encouraging.

    • I am working as a principal at 10+2 higher secondary school since one year.In 27 years of service as a JL and as a principal in girls institutions I was cool handling girls.But since one year faced lot of problems of destruction in boys school. In the beginning I used to react and this enhanced destruction. I started responding which helped in decreasing distruction. I used different strategies quoted here unknowingly from psychology of B.Ed and able to handle students and distruction activities decreased. It’s not stopped completely as new joinings in this residential pattern and new entry of students into adolescent age new problems arose every week or fortnight.But patience and Changing to positive strategies made me move forward with hope.
      In this search I came across this article which is very useful .By using or dealing with adolescent children we should not disclose or propogate about our work out to anyone was my observation. If children loose confidence on us they will never disclose their problem and never can we help them in sketching into a positive attitude. only helping them out of this teenage problems by moving along with them is only the solution I found.
      Thank u for good article.

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