That is the hallmark of ambivalence.
Indecisiveness is a natural part of the change process and something that often drives parents crazy when they are trying to move their teenager in a certain direction that may seem like the obvious better decision to them.
It is natural however to be ambivalent about change, to be hesitant and unsure if the change is worth making.
For example, while doing better in school may allow for a teen to have more freedom at home, get better grades and improve their chances of going to college, the extra time spent studying may come at the cost of less time available to spend with friends, for after school activities or with a boyfriend and that may determine if the cost outweigh the benefits in the teen’s mind.
That’s why it’s important to know that teens may both want to do better and at the same time, not want to do better and are probably unaware of this ambivalence. The indecisiveness has to be resolved in order for the teen to see the value in the change, or little to no improvement is likely to happen.
Helping your child resolve the ambivalence may be all that is needed. By having a relationship with your child that allows open, non-judgmental communication and acceptance, the indecisiveness may be resolved on it’s own which may be all that’s needed to get the teenager to reflect on their situations and decisions.
The Stages of Change
When change happens it’s not usually on motion, instead it usually happens in five stages, identified in Motivational Interviewing through research done by James Prochaska as pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance.
In pre-contemplation, the teen hasn’t given any consideration to change. They see no reason to change. They don’t see a downside to their current situation, so the thought of changing hasn’t even entered into their head.
Trying to force change when your teen is in the pre-contemplation is a battle you are not likely to win, and may even sabotage motivation and the possibilities of change.
Dennis Bumgarner, ACSW, LCSW finds it helpful to ask “what if” questions when your teen is in the pre-contemplation stage, such as, “What if your grades improved?”, “What wouldn’t be different?”, “What will happen if things continue in their current direction?”, “What would be different if you did improve?”
During pre-contemplation, you want to ask questions that don’t take a particular position, but questions that get your teen to think and this thinking is what is going to move them to the contemplation phase.
When your child starts considering making a change, remember that they are still considering making the change, so fight the urge to push them too hard or start making plans for their future or they are likely to pull back.
At this phase, your teenager is considering the pros and cons of changing. They are thinking, “Maybe I should do something about my current situation.” It’s easy for parents to get overly excited at this point and start helping the teenager make plans for what they need to do to make the changes. This push may be too much and cause your teen to not move forward.
Instead, ask questions that continue to get them thinking and reminds them that you are not the expert. You are here to listen to them, hear what they are thinking and not to offer or force your opinions. You are merely being an agent of change.
Ask questions instead of making statements. Try to avoid offering advice, but instead listen as your teen contemplates making a change.
You do not want to tell your teenager how to change or try to try to make them change at this point, but what you are doing is sparking their intrinsic desire for change. Remember, intrinsic motivation is more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivation, so this is what you want to elicit in your teen by guiding them to and allowing them to find their own motivations for change.
At this phase, thanks to your guidance, your teenager has worked through much of the ambivalence. He or she has decided to start making some changes. Perhaps they have met a study buddy, signed up for the ACT or asked a teacher for extra help. They are literally preparing to make a change.
Once again, it’s easy at this stage to get overly excited and pushy, but don’t. Instead, allow your child to make the preparations and resist the urge to help unless asked, and even then don’t over do it. Show interest and ask questions that are genuine, but not questions that appear to be to intruding and critical.
The contemplation and preparation phases are considered to be the most important part of the change process and it’s easy to sabotage your teen’s motivation at this point by going back to old ways of dealing with their unapproved behavior.
It’s natural for people to go back and forth between preparation and contemplation, and so it’s easy for parents to see this as a sign that their teen is unmotivated or unwilling to change.
Instead of looking at this as a negative, understand that it’s a natural part of the change process as what may appear to be a simple change to you may be worth considerable contemplation by your teenager.
Don’t be frustrated or judgemental, but allow your teenager space to prepare for the change at hand. Continue to support them through genuine questions and as always, listening to their thoughts.
At this stage, your teen is actually making the change. They are actually studying, doing homework, going to all their classes, whatever the change may be. They may from time to time revert back to one of the earlier stages, but for the most part, they are making steady change and progress.
At this stage, parents are thrilled that their teen is making better choices and that’s natural, but refuse the urge to become a cheerleader. Remember, this change is not about you, but about your teenager. It’s okay to ask them what has this successful change been like for them, and that simple question is saying a lot.
Your teen may stumble as they continue to find their way through this change and that’s okay. Don’t jump in to redirect them unless they ask for it.
It’s very important that they do this on their own so at the end of the day they will know that they were responsible for making a positive change in their life and they can do it again and again.
Helping them build self-efficacy is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child.
When your child has maintained the change for six months, they are in the maintenance stage. You are very proud of the changes your teenager has made. There is likely less arguing going on and more peace in the house as you have made successful efforts in motivating your teenager!
Next post we will discuss key concepts of motivation including goals and empathy.