Let's put aside the rebellious variety of teenage difficulties for a moment and focus on a more subtle problem. What if your teenager appears to be doing everything right, but doesn't get the results they want or expect? No attitude or defiance, just straightforward effort that amounts to naught. How does this impact your teenager? How do you respond? (I have encountered this: endless hours of studying with only to get a disappointing grade, read to the end to see how it played out).
It's tempting to offer a heartfelt and sincere response such as, "Don't worry, there's always next time. Try harder and you'll get there." This may be well-meaning, but it's not helpful. They ARE worried, and they ARE trying.
Imagine trying to open a jar of jam but the lid just won't budge. How helpful is it to be told, "It's ok," (no it's not ok, I want to use the jam), and "Just try harder", (I'm already trying as hard as I can and it's not working). What would help? Focusing on the process and offering strategies that will result in a different outcome, such as running the jar under hot water, or using a dishcloth for extra grip.
Whether the context is academic success, sports, extra-curricular activities, social situations, or some other aspect of their life, use these reminders to help shift their mindset and approach for a better outcome:
Results are important, but the growth process is far more important. Interestingly, research shows that when teenagers focus on the process rather than the outcome, they achieve even better results. This might mean setting realistic and more achievable goals, focusing on time management and organization, or exploring different learning styles.
Self-worth is not based solely on performance. Feelings of self-worth can stem from a variety of other sources such as friendships, or from upholding personal values. Believing that one's self-worth is tied only to outcomes can be demotivating and can be psychologically damaging.
Focus on what you can control. Acknowledge the effort and attitude that your teenager demonstrates. This will encourage your teenager to concentrate on what he or she has control over – behavior and attitude – in reaching the desired outcome.
And, as always...
Encourage communication: Make sure your teenager feels comfortable talking honestly with you. This means: judgment free listening, making time, asking questions, being curious. Maybe there's something else going on that's affecting their outcomes.
It takes so much patience and so much understanding to work through situations with your teenager that you may feel you have no patience or understanding left to give. I get it. Simply letting them know that you are there for them, regardless of the outcomes, will go a long way.
As for me - those hours of study and disappointing grades? A lot of talking ensued, with an honest audit of what actually happens during those study hours, and what resources and study habits are/aren't being used. There was genuine effort, but peel back the layers and the scaffolding wasn't there, making the effort ineffective. It's a work in progress, but the key ingredients that haven't been lost are motivation and a positive outlook.
Now what if your teenager is NOT putting in any effort at all... well, that's a topic for another day!