Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Counteract My Son’s Apathy and Inspire His Motivation?

How can I motivate a very bright teenager who seems incapable of getting started on tasks or projects that aren’t personally interesting? Here, our Dear Teen Parenting Coach explains how to spark motivation in the teen ADHD brain, how boosting your teen’s confidence in some areas transfers to others, and how to keep momentum going all the way to completion.

Q: “Hello, I am the mother of a very bright teen with ADHD who has NO motivation at all… and who says to me, ‘I have no idea how to get motivated when it is things I am not interested in.’ I have not found any strategies that help and my husband and many teachers think he is just “lazy.” I do not want to make excuses for him; I want to help him help himself and I don’t know how.” —YoYo Mom

Dear YoYo Mom:

You pose a thorny (and common) question: How can you encourage (or force) a teen with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) to learn things that don’t interest him? If you took a poll, I imagine at least one-third of students in every class in every high school in the country would tell you they could not care less about the subject being taught. Part of going to school is learning how to learn and do things that do not interest you. As Plato said, “Education is teaching children to desire the right things.”

Your situation is even more challenging because your longer full question suggests that your son is less invested in social relationships than are most teens. This trait will not deny him a satisfying life. However, he is not particularly motivated by pleasing others. Winning the approval of you or his teachers may not be enough to push your son over the hump of boredom and indifference.

This predicament is not of his own choosing. In addition to the aforementioned hurdles, your son is butting heads with what our society deems a proper education. According to Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, individual and societal success requires children to absorb the knowledge and skills that society deems necessary. As the child grows more independent, we hope he will integrate this body of truths and facts into his own goals and direction. Right now, however, your son realizes you can no longer force him to do his work, and he has an internal lack of motivation for what’s offered in school, so he is having trouble connecting that to his future.

[Free Resource: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

What to do? First, no matter how frustrated you might feel, don’t call him any four-letter words. That includes “lazy.” When you call a teen ‘lazy’ he feels hurt, unjustly criticized, and misunderstood. Of course, as a parent you have every right to feel frustrated, worried, and perplexed. But instead of motivating your son, criticism may backfire and cause him to shut down even more.

Second, be grateful he gave you the honest answer: “I have no idea how to get motivated when it is things I am not interested in.” This is a great opportunity to ask him how he envisions his future, keeping in mind that he may not even be able to imagine a future for himself. But your questions can help.

“If school does not interest you, what does?”


“Are there things you feel you are good at that are not taught or measured in school?”

[Why Teens Stop Trying]

“Can you see doing some of these things when you are older?”

“Have you ever thought of how you want your future to look? Where you want to live, what kind of job you might want? Family?”

Don’t worry if his answers are vague; you are getting him to start thinking. You can then begin to talk about the path he might walk to get there. Remain open-minded. There are many avenues to success in adulthood, and very few of them are straightforward,

Use these conversations to draw connections between his school work and what he actually wants to know. The author Daniel Pink has pointed out that relevance is as important to learning as are the other three Rs, however schools do not always draw the link between a teen’s curriculum and his life. If you ask more about what he is learning, you may be able to make that leap.

Third, your son may need help structuring his time better. This is done by setting some reasonable expectations for his grades. Then limiting the things he does beyond homework. Parents are often loath to cut off their kids from their phones or the Internet. In reality, there are ways to shut off his computer’s Internet access only until his grades improve.

[How to Motivate a Teenager with ADHD]

Finally, I have found that the thing holding back many kids from applying themselves in school is anxiety. They are under so much pressure to get into a “good college” that every homework assignment feels like it will decide their future. Underperforming students can also worry what will happen if they start trying and don’t succeed. So they do what we all do when something makes us anxious: They avoid it.

Talk to your son about the pressure he is under. Ask if he is worried that, if he applies himself and does not succeed, it will be prove he is not smart. Then try this: As he does his homework, have him log all of the anxious thoughts that run through his brain (“I will fail” “This is too hard” “How will I do something so boring.”) Review the log with him to see what patterns emerge. Use the log, also, like a bug zapper — to attract his noxious thoughts and to kill them.

Here is one last thought: make sure he is engaged in some after-school activities. It does not matter what he does, but the more he is engaged after school, the greater the chance he will be engaged in school. More importantly, you may find that these extracurricular activities are what give him enjoyment, help him develop important skills, and allow him to think about a future that he desires.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I was your child when I was young. I am now 48 and successful. You might see something in my story that will help you.

    When I was young, I had my own interests and I delved into them with passion. I loved science and electronics and spent my time in my room making electronic circuits and also reading encyclopedias about any science. I read about the human eye, the brain, physics, planets, and space. I read my brothers science experiments book he got from who knows where. My mother praised me and told me I could do anything. Now about school…

    Unlike the average family no one ever told me to do well in school. I was never punished nor praised for any grades. I made the minimal grades in History and English (a D, sometimes F in history) but A’s or B’s in science. My grades were a reflection of my interest and my only fear was not moving to the next grade. Even though I made A’s and B’s in science – I learned nothing at all that I can remember from school, nothing, zero. The things I know and remember to this day about science is what I read in our family encyclopedias. School meant nothing at all to me, only my interests. I did get 4th place across the entire school (grades 8 through 12) to get into the Math and Science team. I was in the 9th grade at the time. I was able to answer the questions on the test from what I had learned on my own at home – not school.

    Today I am 48 years old, and own my own business. Looking back, I think it would have hurt my future if I was forced to do well in school. It would have kept me from learning what I needed to learn.

    Based on my own experience and my experience with my own son, I have a few ideas regarding your son.

    First about my son, then my ideas.

    I have a very smart child, everyone says so not just me. He is smarter than me, he is the only child where I have to give my full attention to follow him. He says weird things, but once I figure out what he is talking about I see that he is brilliant. He is now 8 and can out-think his 17 year old sister.

    Regarding school, I think school does him harm. School is not about learning, it is about making a grade. If you can guess an answer, then your ok, no one cares if you know anything. This creates a really ignorant foundation for a child.

    Here are things I have done with my son to help him grow mentally.

    My sons interests can be narrow, and he is not aware of other things that he might be interested in. My job is to expose him to new things. He may not know at first how some new thing can be interesting, so what I do is I just start doing it myself next to him and invite him to see. For example, one day I bought myself a dremel and this little drill press for it that had to be assembled. I knew on his own he would not be interested, so I took out all the parts and started working on it and then called him over and showed him what it was. I then tried to engage him by asking questions like “where does this part go”, “maybe it goes there?”. My son got very interested and put the whole thing together (7 years old). However not all things turn out with him being interested, and in that case its my job to stop, repeat “STOP”. There is no benefit whatsoever to force my son to do something he could care less about because in the end I just wasted his time. For example, I bought a microscope for him for Christmas. I applied my usual technique of doing it first then inviting him to see what I was doing. He did not care, he looked at it but his interest faded pretty quickly. I was dissapointed, I had hoped he would have in interest in it but he did not. I accepted the fact that my son is his own person with his own interests and personality and thats the way it was, period. I knew that nothing but damage could come from pushing this on him. For example, I may create a conflict between us by forcing it on him.

    In summary, my job as a parent is to expose him to as much as possible so he can find his interest. That interest is his future. I need to remember my place, its his life and not mine, its his life to choose and its mine to help him but to respect his choice. As far as school is concerned, there has to be a reason to be interested in some subject and its his job to be interested and yours to show him something he is missing.

    1. How do you motivate a teen boy who is unmotivated about anything? His father has similar abilities and, like you, was not motivated by school. Luckily, he found computer programming and has enjoyed a career in that. He would like the boy to be interested in something and would be supportive of any interest. I would like him to be interested in passing high school and would be supportive of anything else.

      Our son enjoys reading about any subject, but doesn’t care about DOING anything. Rewards or punishments don’t matter. He is very smart, but in the long-term that doesn’t matter. It’s what one does with the smarts that counts. I have exposed him to all sorts of things.

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