Do you have an unmotivated teenager, who won’t do anything you ask?
Are they resistant to doing their chores, and have difficulty completing tasks?

It’s typical for a teenager to get labelled as ‘lazy’ and unmotivated. You may feel that they fail to appreciate and care for the home environment you’ve created. But I want you to pause and think for a moment…is this fair?

In other words, is your teen intentionally resisting completing their tasks, or are their other possible factors limiting their ability or competence? This is something to really think about as a parent.

lazy teenager won't do homework chores

As parents, you want to bring up your children with good values. Often these values include qualities such as diligence, organisation, care for others and demonstrating a good work ethic. And though you strive to instill these values in your teen, it is rare that a teen is able to initiate the completion of household and homework tasks independently.

So what am I doing wrong, you ask?

It is only fair that you have reasonable and realistic expectations of your teenager, and to do this we need to understand how their (and our own) brain works. As humans, we all have a limbic part of our brain, which manages our impulses and emotions – let’s call this the ‘emotional brain’.

Now, we also all have a pre-frontal cortex, which helps us to problem-solve, make mature and sensible decisions, and consider the consequences of our actions – we can call this our ‘thinking brain’.

However, the difference between your teenager’s brain and your own adult brain, is that their ‘thinking brain’ is not yet fully developed. In fact, a child’s pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed until they are around 25 years old. So, as an adult, both your thinking and emotional brain are well balanced.

But for a teenager, their emotional brain is much stronger than their thinking brain, which might mean they –

  • Make more irrational, impulsive, immediate or emotional decisions (such as playing games or going on their phone instead of doing their homework)
  • Have difficulty initiating helpful, productive and thoughtful behaviours (such as helping set the table, despite being asked numerous times)

Essentially, their emotions are directing their behaviours. This means that we as the adult have to be their ‘thinking brain’ until they are 25. But how do you do this?

Be your teenager’s ‘thinking brain’ by –

  1. Talking through decisions together – ask about possible courses of action and then talk through potential consequences of each. Highlight the pros and cons of each with them, and together decide on an appropriate course of action. Overtime encourage your teen to complete these steps independently.
  2. Having set tasks or even a timetable for them – as your teens ‘thinking brain’ works less effectively, they rely heavily on routine. e.g. every day they complete their homework before dinner, and wash the dishes after. This structure means their behaviour becomes habitual, thus developing connections between the ‘emotional’ and their ‘thinking brain’.
  3. Offering clear, frequent and direct praise for desired behaviours – this helps to reinforce appropriate neural pathways in your teen’s brain, making the behaviour more likely to repeat in the future. Teens respond much better with reward (e.g. praise) rather than punishment.
  4. Explaining to them how their brain works – this will help them become more aware of when they use their ‘emotional brain’, and when using their ‘thinking brain’ is more helpful.

These steps will assist your teen to complete their tasks, in turn making your home environment a much calmer and pleasant place!

If despite your best efforts to assist your teenager, and their behaviour has still not improved, additional support and strategies from a professional would be beneficial. An adolescent psychologist can motivate your teen’s behavioural change and offer parents support and management strategies. Some teens who present with symptoms such as lacking motivation, ‘lazy’ or being lethargic, may be indicative of more significant challenges. In this case, a consultation with an adolescent psychologist such as Jennifer Hawken is appropriate. 

Written by Jennifer Hawken – Adolescent Psychologist –