Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 4: The Power of Empathy

mom_talking_teen_By now you should be fully aware that motivating your teenager is not about trying to trick, manipulate, threaten or punish them into change.

Motivation comes from having an authentic relationship with your teenager that plants the seeds for change.

What you want is cooperation instead of conflict.

You don’t want a relationship that says “I’m right and you’re wrong” as that sets the stage for conflict, but instead, you want a relationship that is about acceptance, not persuasion.

The reason is, when you are arguing, yelling and fighting with your child, you’re probably not doing much that is actually motivating them, but instead, pushing them in the opposite direction.


You also want to elicit your child’s own motivation, not try to force it into them.

It’s easy to try to dictate and educate your child into motivation and change by pointing out their faults and weaknesses. This rarely works and more often is actually counterproductive. Giving advice, especially when it isn’t solicited, just makes teens turn a deaf ear. When you are dictating, you are not listening which as we talked about in previous posts, is extremely important in helping your teen find their motivation for change.

Instead of thinking, what is my teenager motivated by, try to start thinking, what is my teenager motivated for.

Remember, we have to stop looking for external sources of motivation and start helping your teenager find internal sources of motivation. Your goal is to help your teenager find intrinsic motivation so that the motivation and change will be self-directed instead of other-directed. Other-directed change typically isn’t long lasting.

How do you do that? You do that by listening to your child, discovering and tapping into their values, goals and beliefs. You also do that by being supportive and acknowledging that your child is the person who will ultimately dictate and make the changes needed.

The Importance of Empathy

One of the ways you tap into your child’s goals, values and beliefs is by being empathetic. I’m not talking affective empathy which is all about feelings and is synonymous with sympathy, but cognitive empathy.

What is the difference?

Affective empathy sounds like this: “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry. It must have felt horrible to have failed that math test. It hurts me to see you upset like this.”

Affective empathy doesn’t usually work when it comes to motivating teenagers. It’s great in helping them feel as if you understand their feelings, but not so much their situation or for getting them to actually do something about it.

Cognitive empathy however is all about the facts. It sounds more like: “So this is your current experience, this is how you see the problem.”

Cognitive empathy is much more about listening and when you do talk, you keep it simple and just summarize what you have just heard to make sure you understood it correctly. It’s not about adding your thoughts, opinions, advice or point of view.

This type of empathy can be change-producing by itself because it helps your child realize that they have a parent that understands their situation without judging or criticizing them and at the same time, they are not being directed by you (other-directed) which is probably different than what they have experienced in the past. It allows them to become self-directed.

In cognitive empathy, you have to suspend judgement, even when your teenager is showing their immaturity, and not show that you are agreeing with or disagreeing with their perspective. You are simple listening and attempting to understand.

For instance, if your son said:  “My science teacher is always picking on me which is why I am failing.” You may think this is unlikely true or why he is failing and could say, “I don’t think your teacher is picking on you, but even if that’s the case, it’s probably because you goof off in class so much.”

That statement is very unlikely to elicit any type of motivation or change in your son and is more likely to close the door of communication.

In cognitive empathy, you would take that same statement from your son and reply with something like:

“Why do you think your teacher is picking on you?” In this statement you are not taking sides, but you are letting your son know that you are listening, that you are following along with him and that you want to understand his point of view.

You can ask him how he feels and what he thinks about the situation, but don’t affectively empathize or try to tell him how he should feel about the situation.

Once again, it’s about listening. For teens to listen to you, they have to first feel as if they are being heard. None of your great, amazing, useful advice will be heard by your child if they feel like they are not being heard.

This ends our four part series on motivating your teenager. This is by no means a complete source of motivation as the topic of motivation is so vast, but if you do and work on the things outlined in this four part series, you should be well on your way to better understanding your teen and knowing how to help guide them to discovering what motivates them without you driving yourself crazy trying to motivate them yourself.

For more information I recommend Motivational Interviewing, Preparing People for Change by William R. Miller Phd and Stephen Rollnick Phd, and

2 thoughts on “Motivating Your Unmotivated Teen Part 4: The Power of Empathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s