father and daughter using laptop

In recent months, many teenagers have found focusing on their studies difficult without the regularity of their normal school schedule. For some young people, the lockdown measures have worsened existing issues they have with school, such as social anxiety or motivation. On top of this, with so much uncertainty, many teenagers are thinking ‘What’s the point?’ when faced with assignments, exams and changing routines. That's why, in these uncertain times, you might be wondering how to motivate your teen.

‘[My teenager is] anxious, confused [and] fearful … of the unknown, [of] what lies ahead.’ (Single mum, VIC Metro)

Here is our guide to supporting your teenager to get motivated again for school.

Have a conversation about the issue

Having an open and honest conversation about this topic can often bring up new and important feelings. You might want to start by asking your teen if it’s a good time to chat. If it’s not, schedule a time to talk later. Ask them lots of open-ended questions, like ‘Why do you think that is?’ or ‘How can I/we and your teachers help you with that?’ to encourage them to open up.

Here are a few things your teen might be feeling:

  • A sense of ‘doom and gloom’ around COVID-19 and fear that their family might become sick.
  • Fear that there will be another lockdown, making school, home and work challenging for even longer.
  • A sense that ‘school doesn’t feel important’, especially when the world feels so chaotic and unpredictable.
  • If they felt some of the pressure to work being lifted recently, they might fear that it will return.
  • Social anxiety around school and returning to it, especially when the lockdown period felt like a relief from this.
  • Stress and pressure at home if there have been family issues going on in recent months.

‘I’m doing the assigned work, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.’ (Male, 17, Regional NSW)

Talk about the positives

It’s easy to get bogged down in talking about problems. One of the best ways to re-engage your teenager with school is to talk about the parts they enjoy and find meaningful. These might be:

  • their favourite subjects
  • the teacher they connect with best
  • certain spaces at school where they feel comfortable
  • activities, sports or extracurricular activities they enjoy.

Get in contact with someone at school

It can be a good idea to have a chat with the staff at your teenager’s school to explore whether they’re able to help. Start by explaining that your teen is finding it hard to get motivated to re-engage with school. It’s likely that this is an issue they’ve dealt with before, and they should be able to talk through some options with you.

Some examples might include:

  • an adjusted school schedule that emphasises subjects and teachers your teen enjoys
  • arranging for a teacher or staff member your teenager feels comfortable with to act as a ‘mentor’
  • identifying a special space for them to study and relax
  • one-on-one tutoring
  • counselling, or referrals to appropriate services
  • information on the legal requirements around school attendance.

Work out a plan and take small steps

Once you know why your teenager isn’t feeling motivated and you have some options around the help that’s available, try to work out a clear plan. Young people value and benefit from consistency and regularity in their lives. Over the past few months, this may have been lost. That’s why it’s often best to start small and give your teenager time to adjust before trying to solve the whole problem and getting them back to ‘normal’.

Some examples include:

  • If your teenager hasn’t finished an assignment that’s due, you could suggest they start by writing just 100 words a day.
  • If they’re attending school but can’t get motivated to complete their homework, choose one simple task that they can do quickly as soon as they get home.
  • If they’ve been taking a lot of sick days, see if you can arrange for them to have shortened days for a week or two.

‘Me time’ and balance are both important

Although many young people around the country are loving the opportunity to return to school, where they can see their teachers and friends, others feel differently. For many teens, the lockdown might have been their first experience of learning independently and at their own pace. Others might have enjoyed heaps of free time, in lieu of busy schedules and extracurricular activities.

If your teenager was able to discover new things about themselves and how they learn, that’s probably a good thing. Think about how you might be able to help your child work some of these learnings into their schedule.

If social anxiety is a problem

After a long period of not being in regular social situations, your teenager may have some anxiety around seeing people again. If they are avoiding school because of this, here are a few ways you can support them:

  • You might want to remind them that we often overestimate how much other people think about us. Even if people notice that we’re anxious, they might not think that’s a bad thing.
  • Teenagers often find it difficult to talk about social issues with their parents, so don’t be afraid to suggest that they talk with another adult they trust.
  • If you think they might benefit from professional help, do some research with them and help them book their first appointment.

Cultivating healthy media habits

With a recent overload of time at home and on the computer, many teens have formed unhealthy relationships with digital media. Constant exposure to news and information about the pandemic might have led to a sense of doom and gloom about the world and their future, so some balance might be healthy.

‘Screen time has always been a battle and I have always tried to control it, but it seems that I am more flexible with the COVID situation because the options are limited at home. They cannot go across the road to the park anymore.’ (Single mum, VIC Metro)

Here are some tips if you’re finding it hard to get your teenager into healthy digital habits:

  • Take regular breaks from social media each day.
  • Focus on an example of something positive each day when you check-in with them.
  • Many phones now have ‘digital wellbeing’ features that allow the user to monitor their own app usage, give them reminders when they exceed certain time limits, or restrain their app usage entirely. Read more about those features on iPhones here and on Android phones here.

Remember that building a better and more engaged relationship with school is something that takes time. Progress, not perfection, is the key.

Did you find what you needed?