1. Specific correction of where they are off-track. Giving them generalized or vague feedback about how they are “screwing up,” “disappointing you,” “missing the mark,” etc. is not helpful to your daughter or son. It is unclear, and may even further discourage your teen. Instead, be very clear about where you see them missing the mark and where you are concerned, disappointed, or upset with them. Be specific. And focus on the behavior in concern – not making character attacks on them.
2. Clear expectations of what you want to see improved. This means going beyond telling them where they are off track, and helping them understand what getting back on track will actually look like. Don’t assume they understand this contrast, and are just being difficult or obtuse. At times, teens can be exceptionally bright in some areas while totally missing the point somewhere else. If you want them to make clear improvements, give them clear expectations and instructions. This is part of what I call “setting them up to succeed.”
3. Personal motivation to make improvements. This is where things get really tough for us parents. We can’t surgically implant motivation in them. The motivation to change and improve must come from within them, if they are going to be truly successful in moving forward on the right track. And what motivates one of our kids may not motivate another. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: while rewards can be a sufficient motivator at times, most often it is suffering that motivates all of us to make the real lasting life changes. Do your best to help shift the dynamics so that your teen is the one suffering as a result of their poor choices, until those choices begin to shape up. For example, my son frequently forgets to take his important medicine. My son LOVES playing on his Xbox, especially with his friends. My wife and I were growing weary of constantly reminding, checking, fussing with him regarding taking his pills. New policy: You forgot to take pill either last night or this morning, you don’t get any Xbox after school today/tonight. The Lad has suddenly become very conscientious (thanks to his setting phone reminders) about taking his pills twice a day. Hmmm…
4. Loving encouragement of the good you appreciate in them. Don’t let your frustration with one or more areas of trouble in your teen’s life draw you away from sharing words of encouragement and appreciation with them. They need to hear how much we love them, as well as what we see in them that is admirable and good. If you can’t think of what those things are off the top of your head, you need to spend some time thinking on this. Because your son or daughter NEEDS to hear from you about the good and respectable things you see in him or her. Even during times of needing improvement. Especially during times of needing improvement!
5. An adequate toolbox for the job. Even if you have eagerly followed all the preceding guidelines, your teen may still fall short of the expected improvements if you haven’t helped her/him acquire the right tools for the job. This may mean connecting your teen with professional resources such as tutoring, counseling, or classes for skills training. It may mean personally taking the time to give some demonstrations and lessons. It may mean actually buying some kind of new tools or devices of some kind to facilitate improvement. Maybe you need to have weekly check-in conversations to be both consultant and coach. You may need to point your teen toward more personal communication with their teacher, coach, or youth pastor. Just remember that having access to the right tools for the job can sometimes make all the difference in the world.
6. Recognition and celebration of progress. You may not be thrilled with your teen getting a C- on a test. That’s understandable. But if they’ve been bringing home low Ds or Fs, recognizing the improvement to a C- is actually really important. When you see your wayward teen making genuine effort in a new or more determined or more focused way, by all means… tell them you see it! Not all effort and progress warrants a party or whatever. Of course. But recognition? Yes! When you express that recognition of effort and progress along the way, you help your teen maintain the all-important motivation required to keep going. Have you ever run in a local race event? Whether a fun 5K event, or a bigger more competitive race that requires ongoing training, what difference does it make to have people cheering for you along the way? If you’ve ever run a race, you KNOW the answer to this. If you’ve never done it, maybe you should. It will help you understand why your words of encouragement and recognition mean the world to your teen who is struggling to keep running a race that has become more difficult in the last mile or two.