Getting a Teen to Do Something They Don’t Like

Recently, I wanted to identify some sticky areas of a parent’s life to make sure we had posts on areas that parents needed help with. So, I asked a mom I know, “As a parent, what do you find yourself dreading most in your day to day life with teens?” She thought for a few moments and said, “English essays.” I’m not sure what I was expecting—curfews, allowance, boyfriends, but essays was not on the list. She lamented, “Whenever he gets an English essay I just cringe. It means fighting about the assignment. Getting him to sit down and write it and then trying to edit it for him—because he asks me to, but not saying anything that will cause him to explode in anger. It’s terrible.”

This got me remembering about the fights that also arose in my house when my brother had a homework assignment or when I had to clean out the garage. I realized there is a pattern to getting teens to do anything they do not like, whether that is a chore or school project. You might recognize this path. Here is what happens:

Step One: Information Gathering

In step one, your teenager is trying to gather the facts on the activity they do not like to do. How long will it take? Does my sister have to do it? Just how dirty is the garage? How many pages is the essay? No emotions have ignited yet, but you can see feelings of annoyance brewing just under the surface.

Step Two: Negotiation

Once a teen has what they think is an accurate picture in their mind about the unfavorable task at hand they begin negotiations. This can be with themselves, their teachers or parents. This is when a teenager tries to minimize the unpleasantness and risk of boredom that might arise from having to do the activity they do not like. It sounds like: “But I did this last time, it’s not my turn.” “If I dictate, will you type?” “I’ll do it, but I am NOT washing the dishes later.”

Step Three: Overestimation

Once a teen feels like they have minimized the amount of risk associated with the awful task at hand, they have to field warnings from their fellow negotiator: “You better start early or it will be as bad as last time.” Or “Don’t cut corners, I can tell when the dishes aren’t fully clean.” These, of course, are met with sighs, eye rolls and general statements of reassurance. In fact, this usually pumps teens up. “I just didn’t put my mind to it last time, if I really try I can do well.” “You always doubt me, maybe I don’t do it because you are always telling me how bad I am at it.”

Step Four: Strong (however hesitant) Start

Step four is when the task finally gets started. Often times this is put off, but reaches a strong start—after all, they just convinced their parent/friend/teacher that they can do it really well, unlike last time. Parent/friend/teacher also sighs with relief that there is a good start.

Step Five: Resistance ‘Breaks’

After the first part of the task is completed, teens move into resistance, also known as ‘breaks.’ Breaks can last anywhere from twenty minutes, to twenty hours, to twenty days (taking down the Holiday lights at my house). Adults typically try to ignore resistance, and tell themselves their teens will get back eventually—sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.

Repeat Step Five

Repeat Step Five

Step Six: (Semi) Completion

After a few repeats of step five, the task is completed, perhaps not with the gusto originally promised, or the polish desired. Completion is often met with grunts, promises and pleas to never have that task again.

Often times teenagers fear boredom. Therefore, for them a monotonous or silly task is almost unbearable. However, doing things we do not like is a necessary part of life. So, parents need to remind themselves that although these five steps can be tedious you are teaching your teenagers an important life skill.

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4 Responses to “Getting a Teen to Do Something They Don’t Like”

  1. Chelsea
    November 8, 2010 at 6:49 am #

    I had to laugh at the 20 days to take down X-mas lights! Truthfully, that list could be taught to people who are long past their teen years, too, which makes it that much more important to help younger people learn it now. Learning how to avoid bargaining with your teenager when that’s not in the best interest of either of you is important, as discussed in this article:

  2. Adil Gandhy
    November 16, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    I am a parent living in Mumbai, India and have a son & daughter who both work & live in the US. My Son Riyad is now 33, and not really a teenager, but we have been having problems in the sense of total non communication with him. He lives & works in Columbus, Ohio, seems to be enjoying his work as he works with horses, but once away he just does not communicate. Not a single e mail or phone call or any other kind of communication with us parents! And when he is with us like he was this summer when we visited the US, he seemed just fine & perfectly normal. But once he left back to work his total in incommunicado ways continue. Even when we call, our phone goes immediately into voice mail or many a time it says voice mail is full, so there is no chance of us getting through. He never calls us for any occasion like birthdays or anniversaries etc, although we do so on his birthday & leave messages. He is totally aloof from everyone in the family including his sister. I dont think he even has a girl friend inspite of being 33 years old. We have tried talking to him asking if there is something bothering him, but he insists that there is nothing atall. We have not raised any issues & continue now not to keep nagging him & keep quite, but then this total silence continues ! Is this something to worry about or just ignore it & continue life as is?
    It almost feels like we have no child at all? It hurts deep down, but we are not making a big issue about it. Can we have your views, it may help us to resolve this issue or atleast make us feel better.
    Regards. Adil


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