Teenage motivation struggles

We’re 4 years out from college for D25. I’m not a helicopter mom and have never bribed my kid to participate in activities. She’s jumped from activity to activity throughout elementary school and when she asked to stop, she stopped. She’s now 13 and has done dance intermittently for 5 years. She generally joins clubs in junior high that interest her and because her friends are participating, so no problem there. I’m sure she’ll find clubs in high school and participate. The problem is non-school activities. She has no interest and complains about dance.

On one hand, I hear her tell me, “You should’ve just forced me to stay in dance all those years I didn’t participate and I could’ve been a lot better.” She likes to dance but resents she’s not further along than she could be and hates that she has no friends in her class (she’s not outgoing and won’t talk or smile at people). On the other hand, I’m like, your life, kid. But at age 13, she doesn’t really understand the consequences . She would also not bathe or brush her hair unless I make it a condition on going to school. (Yes, please send help.)

Her friends are half and half: lots of activities or nothing. The ones with lots sometimes complain to her about lots. I’m really just doing moderation: you have to have one summer activity and one school year activity (dance, outside of school) and join one school club. That’s it. She will be completely non-competitive without these things because while she is above average, our state flagships are crazy competitive.

How much, if at all, did you require your kids to participate throughout high school, knowing that they need something on their college apps? I don’t think it is ruining our relationship, she tells me about friend drama, hot boys, and we watch t.v. shows together (that she picks). I don’t know if it is the pandemic coupled with me having to badger her about bathing that makes it feel like we are constantly at odds. I am trying to take emotion out of it, and just say “you can’t get into colleges without showing well roundedness, sorry, thems the brakes.” I’ve said “Life isn’t always doing exactly what you want all the time” but maybe that’s too harsh at 13? Suggestions? Been there, done that?

You will get various points of views on this. IMO, unless you are focused on only the most competitive schools, I think you are over emphasizing the importance of ECs. Yes the top schools care because they need a way to differentiate kids who all have stellar academics. But once you start getting away from the tippy tops, ECs become less important.

To answer your direct question, we never required our kids to do anything. My oldest naturally was involved in a lot so it never came up. My younger one lived and breathed basketball, but not at the level that was recruitable. He didn’t do anything else. We filled up four lines of activities on the common app with basketball by listing every activity and team on its own line. Guess what? They both ended up at the same college.


I’ve posted about my average excellent kid, a recent college grad, ad nauseum. However, I will share this from my post on my kid, who has a good job, good friends, and is happy:

‘If you’re worrying right now, “Is my child good enough to get into Stanford or Williams?”, know that your child will do what they need to do and what they WANT to do. They will do it, or not do it, regardless of your concerns.’

Your child is 13 and she should be trying all kinds of things, or not. Let her be a kid for as long as possible. She is going to grow, change, develop new interests, and become her own person. She’s very young. Give her time to figure out life.


The only thing that we forced our kids to do was summer swim team – not because we were concerned about having an EC for college, but because swimming is a survival skill (and there are the socialization skills that one develops on a neighborhood swim team also), plus they needed to be away from a screen during the summer. We also made them work part-time in the summer once they were able to drive – again, not really for EC purposes, but so they would have money to spend on whatever they might want to buy (and hopefully to develop some work ethic as well).


We required a sport for our D — any sport she liked. She paused competitive swimming in middle school so she could be on a team sport. She was MUCH better at swim, but she had a blast on the team. It was a good decision. In high school she was in a fall team sport so she started practicing in the summer. It was a great way to bond with students and she had a lot of new friends on the first day. For other ECs try to find something she’s truly interested in and encourage her to stick with it. Emphasize the merits of the activity, not the college application.


Maybe shift the focus away from clubs/EC’s and towards life skills (which I think parents often neglect in favor of a trendy “activity” with a coach).

Can she make a simple dinner? Start there. Menu planning, cooking, cleaning up. If that sparks an interest in culinary or baking or organic farming great but if not- she can make dinner.

Can she sew on a button, make a dentist appointment, understand the difference between her co-pay at the pediatrician’s office and the actual, billed cost of the appointment?

Does she read the newspaper, does she follow politics/sports/music, has she ever written an email to your congress-person about a topic she cares about?

I hated all HS “sponsored” activities but was pretty engaged in community life by the time I went to college. My kids had a few HS interests which they were really involved in, but not the bucketloads that some kids on CC have. My spouse did nothing in HS- he worked in a family business when he wasn’t at HS, but is now considered one of those “Civic types” who volunteer for everything, is on committees and commissions and does grunt work for anyone who asks.

Takes all kinds. Just get her involved in something!!!


I didn’t force my kids to do things for college apps but I do tell them they have to do something. They can’t just sit around at home moping and watching tv.
I will say that there were more options in high school than in middle school so that may result in increased participation.

She’s at an age where friends opinions are important. And you don’t want to cut off friends if they are limited. But I think you also need to have the conversation that she needs to find out what she likes and figure out what her goals are and not choose things simply based on who else is doing it.

My daughter loves to dance as well. She too went through a brief period where she didnt have friends in the class she took and it made her more negative. Shes the same age as your daughter now and she does complain that I too didnt force her to do more so she would get better (in our case, it was a legal custody issue that has since been remedied). I sat her down and asked if dance was truly what she wanted to do and that I was willing to pay for more classes if it made her happy and she would commit to it, so she got signed up for more. Shes improved a ton in the last year alone. She even practices at home every day.

Teens are difficult. :slight_smile:


We never required the kids to do any ECs specifically for college applications. Instead, we took a three-pronged approach and required some level of participation in the following activities: sports, school clubs, and community service. Our philosophy is that sports teach resiliency and teamwork; school clubs instill pride in and commitment to the school community; and community service challenges people to think beyond themselves and consider the impact of their actions on the greater community.

They’ve all been able to choose at least one activity they genuinely like which really helps when writing college essays. I did make them all do summer swim team because, like a previous poster pointed out, swimming is a survival skill.

Maybe changing dance studios or trying a different style of dance would re-energize your daughter. Or, perhaps she would be open to trying something else in the arts (e.g. musical theatre, show choir). There are colleges for every kind of kid. It usually all works out in the end.


I would not mention college at all. College admissions is not the best reason for doing things, honestly. Genuine interest should be the motivator.

I have read some about external versus intrinsic motivators (see Alfie Kahn’s books). As kids develop I think it is much better for the motivation to come from them, and not for an “external motivator” like college admissions. That’s my view anyway.

By saying she needs to do things for college admissions, are you in some ways saying the activities have no value in themselves?

I used to joke that my kids would need to beg to do things and then I would pay, and drive, and support. The reality is that it is a little like surfing: catch the wave of your kid’s own interest and encourage it.

If she wants to stop dance, let her. If she wants to do nothing and is not depressed, let her. Maybe she would like a job-? Maybe she will try something new.

As for bathing etc, I would leave that alone too. If she is depressed and not able to bathe properly, get her a therapist so the therapist can tell her. If she is not depressed, this problem will take care of itself without you at some point. What you are doing is not working.

Does she have any diagnoses like ADHD (flitting from interest to interest is pretty normal for that age). Make sure there are no medical or psych. issues and let her go.

My philosophy worked for my kids. It might not work for yours. You know best :slight_smile:


She’s 13. No college is going to care one bit about what she’s doing now unless she’s curing cancer. Let it go. She will find things she’s interested in when she gets to high school, or not. Do you have a plan for where she needs to go to college? If not then let it play out how it plays out. Contrary to the vibe of CollegeConfidential there is always a college for everyone whether they have good grades, tons of ECs, cured cancer or not.

I had two who were in dance since they were 4 and 2.5 yrs old. I was never a “dance mom”. I was a tomboy growing up and going to dance class would have been my idea of hell, but I just followed their leads. They loved the tutus and and the dance class paraphernalia when they were little and then they got kind of swept up in the momentum of dance classes culminating in a recital and then signing up for class next year, but they started to not really enjoy it as much. My oldest had a really hard time in high school and I thought dance was a thing that was good outside of school but one day they were just done. I was a little dismayed and surprised since it had been part of our life for so long, but I let them drop it and that worked out for the best. They never looked back or anything.

They both were very involved in theater in high school. That might be something your daughter likes or maybe she will find something else entirely.

Don’t stress on dance or other ECs. I would say keep reminding on the bathing. I think a lot of young teens need reminders about that.


How about volunteering? Does she like animals, babies, etc? Have her pick a charity of interest and volunteer.


My S was very quiet when he started HS and I did push him to join an activity at school. He found one club that he ended up loving – he became heavily involved in the club and made a lot of his HS friends there. And as a bonus he joined a second HS club that required much less time. So yes, I’m glad I pushed him to look for something that was a good fit. I wasn’t thinking of college applications at that time…but was more pushing him to seek out his place, be active etc. in the school.

FWIW he also pursued a community service activity with a fairly large time commitment outside of school.


My son who is a junior this year has pretty anemic ECs - he has run x-country for 2 years and played soccer for a year, but that is it in terms of school-related activities. He has been doing community service since the 7th grade which he really enjoys. On the other hand he taught himself piano during the pandemic - sometimes practicing several hours a day - and also does sports writing and blogging. He puts much more effort into things he chooses for himself than the stuff I have pushed him to do.


Even Isaiah Thomas would be 3" taller…

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Thanks for the feedback and suggestions. I do not think there is anything wrong with her mental or physical health other than 13 months of no school and only going back to dance for the past 6 months. She’s an introvert/hermit by nature and 13 months of staying home has become too comfortable for her. She gravitates towards keeping herself occupied with interests but she refuses to join anything and complains about dance, which I think because it is a very competitive studio that her close friends were rejected from. But she’s not in the competitive dance track if that makes sense, she’s takes one class and is not in the performance team. I think her feelings are being influenced by her friends bad-mouthing the studio and most of the kids there go to another school. And because she is a hermit, no friends in the class. For 60 minutes a week with 5 years of experience, I’m not letting her quit unless she finds another physical activity to replace it with. It isn’t just about college, sitting at home doing nothing isn’t an option.

I like the points about not making it about college, and really, this is very recent. Like, the past two months since we signed up for high school classes. And it was only done so with the thought that telling her why I was asking about activities would help her understand, but obviously college is some nebulous concept for her that isn’t valuable to her, which I thought it would. (She wanted to go visit a large uni. So we went to Cal; she thought it was too big.) I thought she would be excited about the prospect of college, but I see it is too early. Speaking of…I have no grandiose plans for college. No uber LACs or Stanford for us. But I’ve taught at a few different colleges and I think quality is better at some state schools than UCs and vice versa. We will be focused on majors and fit.

As far as life skills, she can cook and bake. She gets an allowance with a debit card that she uses for recreation (clothes I won’t buy, movie tickets, Starbucks.) She has no interest in doing anything that takes away time from FRIENDS–texting, talking on the phone, riding bikes, meeting up at the park, etc. She’s also just getting back into the routine of going to school 5x a week, so this is an adjustment period. In general, she loves animals and will talk about them, but asking her to do anything that will keep her from texting friends is: No thanks.

I make her do lots things like set the table, clear her plates, do her own laundry, clean the bathroom, pick up the dog poop, etc. that she would prefer not to. My kid is the embodiment of Bartleby. I have signed her up for a cool Kpop class that she liked (to try to see if she would want to replace the local dance studio), but did not want to do again unless it would be 100% virtual. She just wants to avoid interacting with anyone other than us and BFFs, it seems. Maybe I’m a monster, but I’m not on board. I don’t want to encourage my kid to retreat into being in front of a computer when that kid needs more practice socializing.

As far as her natural interests, that’s all I push. Dance and languages. She will practice Duolingo for 4 hours over the weekend and tells me practicing characters is relaxing. And then when I have her write 250 words for a summer language class application, she complains. Shrug.

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Well I can relate to the effects of COVID. She sounds like a middle-schooler :slight_smile:
Not sure how she can be a hermit but also entirely focus on communcating with and seeing friends!

The screen is the enemy, honestly. Most parents I know push activities to get kids away from screens. Then again, guess where we all are right now!!

If she hates the dance studio, and it is a competitive one in which she is not competing, chances are she will be happier leaving that studio.

I really believe kids find what they need but 13 is a tough age and they can get into some trouble. So I sympathize. Maybe you could give her a list of possible things to do and ask her to choose one. That way she still has control.

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I think you have found your answer. Her motivation is friends so have her change studios to be with her friends.

My daughter got stuck in her sport in middle school and was miserable. We ended up switching her to something entirely different and then to a less competitive team in her sport and she started having fun again. And then, she dramatically improved. Your daughter needs to have fun.

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Well here this goes… At 13 you should not be focusing on college. At all.

If she is not smiling or making contact even for an introvert there can be something underlining and I agree with adhd in some mild form (we are all experts from reading 3 paragraphs), but girls tend to show like this…girls tend to be quieter, introverted per se, not wanting to bath (some of that is also normal 13 year old).

If talking about boys maybe a “boys don’t like stinky girls, you know”…

Dance… Hmm… I treat dancers of all ages 2-70…Competitive like national championships to Juilliard to your local community center. I have girls doing 20 hours a week at this age, easily . Even though she has gone for 5 years it’s tough to improve with 1 hour a week. Especially if she is not practicing at home. Maybe give her some time off. Injuries occur when these young bodies aren’t into it. They don’t use proper form or even care and get injured. I have to have some long talks with the moms… I also kick the moms out so I can talk with the dancers (of course I ask nicely… Lol), some girls really just don’t want to go on. But… Lots of dance girls go on to Cheer. (usually competitive).

She also is feeling the competition of the competitive girls. Trust me it’s there. She sees what their capable of doing. No matter what she says she knows their level.

It might help her understand that dance can just be a self goal to learn a beautiful art form. Doesn’t have to be keeping up with the Joneses. But some of the best ballerinas currently started at 16… Just saying… My point is if she wants to dance to learn the art form she will improve. Or take her to a place just for lessons and no competitive teams around her. Then she can concentrate on improving herself.

If you stop for a few weeks and she really wants to do it you will know.

So… What does she like to do? I would focus on that.

Totally agree with life skills. Amazing how many college kids just can’t do anything.

I’m not a parent but I’ll offer my own experience and trajectory. I didn’t start investing much energy into ECs until I was 15 or even 16. The highlight ended up being sustained participation in homelessness outreach and advocacy. I campaigned extensively for suicide prevention among gay youth + a host of other LGBT issues through my youth council. Broadly, I had a lot to show for social justice engagement and made sure to complement this with my other identities as a writer and artist. All this from the age of 15 onwards.

Throughout much of high school, I struggled with depression & anxiety, and spent far too much time hanging out with friends and getting into all sorts of trouble. My dad was extremely demanding and harsh, pushing me to be more diligent etc., and this greatly strained our relationship. Of course I am not implying that this is what you are doing, but it is always important to be wary - you can influence your teenager a lot more if you get along.

I obviously don’t recommend she keeps her foot off the gas, but I hope this comes to show every student is different and there is no defined blueprint. As long as she is starting to invest time and energy into things she is passionate about, she is on the right track. Guide and encourage her and be sure to call her out if she is slacking, but don’t worry too much. She sounds like a great kid.

For context, I ended up getting into both Oxbridge and the Ivy League.


First, stop even thinking about what colleges she will attend. Everything now should be about doing well in high school for the sake of doing well in high school.

My daughter at 13 was a radically different person than she was at 17, when she graduated HS. Nothing ended up the way we thought it would when she was 13.

Graduating middle school, she was a dancer, and had a fairly good list of math and robotics awards (local and state level), those being her major ECs. Her GPA was 3.98.

She started high school, did not join any math or robotics clubs, focused on social issues (mostly LGBTQ issues and gun control), took a partial art track, was heavily into creative writing, kept dancing, did a internship at a neuroscience lab. She spent a year navel gazing, and her grades suffered somewhat. Her main awards were around her social action activity. Except for dance, she did not continue any EC which she started in middle school or earlier.

She is now at a great LAC on a full tuition scholarship which was the result of her her social action ECs, and she’s majoring in neuroscience, and plans to do her PhD. She is doing amazingly well, she is an amazing woman, and it is great when she comes home for vacations, even the 7 months of COVID.

Those four years though…

So forget about planning her classes and ECs, forget about some strategic plan and definitely forget about planning which college she will attend. Or plan in the knowledge that it won’t make much of a difference.

The years between 13 and 18 area crazy ride for the teens, and for parents they can be even crazier. Her brain is reorganizing itself, and all bets are off.

Your kid will disappoint you bitterly and make you more proud than you imagine. She will flip between extreme self-centeredness and radical generosity and caring. She will be mean and she will be extremely kind. She will act brilliantly, and behave so stupidly that you will wonder whether she has a brain at all. She will be extremely lazy, but also will have so much energy that you will be exhausted just looking at her

The most important thing you can do to help her academics and other activities is to try and keep her on track. Not “you need to do X for college”, but “do X because you will feel pride in yourself”. Don’t tell her “dance because colleges like seeing such activities”, tell her “dance, because it will make you feel good, and make you feel good about yourself”.

Aside: non-competitive dance, including the high school’s dance troupe, is a great way to engage in physical activity, as well as create great social connections. Not a fan of competitive dance.

Push her, but know when to ease off. Make sure that she knows that her race is her own, and she is not trying to beat anybody. So long as her grades are the best that she could achieve in that class, they excellent grades.

If she is slacking off and not doing anything, or if she is not keeping up with her school work, or not doing her job for her clubs, do push her to do so, but also keep you ear to the ground to see if these are typical teen laziness, or something else. Down time is good, but she should also try and engage in time management.

Motivations is easier when she is engaging in activities in which she is interested, and for which she has passion. This is often easier in high school, since she has choice in classes, and choice in activities.

Yes, there are teens who take extra classes, maintaining a 4.0, spend hours on ECs, and win multiple awards. Most kids aren’t like that, and trying to be like that would destroy most kids.

Keep an eye on her online activity. Privacy is good, but you should see what she is doing online, especially those things which she tries to hide. Most are relatively harmless (as in, not an immediate threat to her health and safety), but others aren’t. She is a teen and teens get into all sorts of messes, especially online. Make sure that you have access to her accounts, and that she is not hiding any. It can save her health or even her life. Make sure that you understand the technology she uses as well as or better than she does

When time comes to start looking at colleges, remember that admissions to college are not a prize for hard work and achievements, they are the stage in her journey after high school. The best way to select colleges is to see what her high school achievements and interests tell you and her. The best colleges for her will likely not be the highest ranked college which will accept her. So her high school choices and actions should not be part of a plan to be accepted to such a college. College choice should not determine high school, but rather, high school should determine college choice

When she looks at colleges, keep her from focusing on “dream” colleges. For any kid there are many colleges at which they can succeed and thrive. There isn’t “the One College” for anybody, so don’t let her obsess over any one college. That is a recipe for disappointment and bitterness.

Mostly make sure that she knows that you love her, no matter what, and that you will be on her side, no matter what.

Also, stock up on booze. Bottle and bottles of booze.