Don’t Say These 10 Phrases to Your Teenager About Their Learning

Written by: Samantha Woods

As much as we think this will help, it doesn’t. As much as we want to CONTROL, we end up losing control. My favorite phrase from Dr. Phil when evaluating my parenting:  “How’s that working for ya’ll?”

Of course, our true intentions are to provide the help and support our teens clearly need as they tackle preparing for exams, but the WAY we deliver this message may backfire, resulting in our teenagers feeling disempowered, helpless, embarrassed and ultimately, demotivated. Trust me on this… over 500 teens have told me so and from a parent’s point of view, I often hear:  “My son/daughter just won’t do what I tell them.”

After all, we parents KNOW BETTER so why can’t they just take our advice? It would be so much better for them…RIGHT?

Motivating your teenager doesn’t mean you getting them to do what YOU want. Instead, it involves a discussion, collaborative problem solving and subtle involvement.

I am not saying to have your child ‘sink or swim’ or for parents to ‘abandon all plans for discipline’ but instead, continue your involvement by adjusting the words and tone you use to deliver your message.

Once teenagers feel understood and included in this process, you might be surprised at their willingness to tackle some studying and ask for help. No matter how small the achievement, celebrate it and your teen will take it to heart and begin to make good change happen.

They really do want your help… they just don’t want you to know it or own it.  

“If we handle kids with power and control, that’s what we get back. But what happens if we collaborate with them — as partners — instead?” (Dr. Ross Greene).

When speaking to your teen, remember to “Be Kind. Be Calm. Be Warm. Be Present. Be Firm“.


Here are the “Top 10 Phrases” I’ve Learned NOT to say to teenagers about their learning…


How I began to turn my ‘inside voice’ into a ‘coaching voice.’

INSTEAD OF:  “What you SHOULD do is…”

Teens often feel like you are imposing what YOU think without considering them. They want a stake in this.

TRY: “What have you tried so far? What are some other ways you could tackle this?”


INSTEAD OF: “If I were you…”

You aren’t them.

TRY: “Would you like me to offer some suggestions?”


INSTEAD OF: “If you would just try harder, you would do so much better.”

Be really careful here. Some teens are trying really hard and still struggling OR they are avoiding something because it is difficult. Telling them to try harder (as much as you think they should) will NOT  instill motivation in them. Remember, a behavior is simply an indicator of an unsolved problem or lagging skill. (Thanks for this Dr. Greene. Love this man!)

TRY: “I can see this is challenging for you. What do you find the most difficult?”


INSTEAD OF: “Your brother/sister didn’t find this so hard…”

TRY: Just don’t say this…

Kids are always listening. Also, avoid publicly saying to other family members or friends anything that resembles this:  “Her brother was so good in math but she’s failing” or “She must have got her terrible math skills from me. I was awful in math.” Your teen will feel humiliated and shamed.


INSTEAD OF: “School was way harder when I was your age. We used to have to…You kids have it way easier today.”

Your teen may think that they do not measure up to your expectations.

TRY: “I remember failing ______ (course, class, test). It was brutal. It stunk.”

Share a time when you FAILED. Flat out FAILED. This can be anything: a school test, driver’s test, a project at work, job application etc.


INSTEAD OF: “Can I help?”

Because…it’s too easy for your teen to answer ‘no’ to this question.

TRY: “How can I help?”

They may pause and think about the “HOW.” You may be surprised at what they come up with. If they say ‘you can’t help’…let it be…for now.


INSTEAD OF: “Have you studied enough?”

“Yup.” That’s what they will say and the conversation ends.

TRY: “How confident are you feeling about _____ (the topic/subject)?”


INSTEAD OF: “Practice Makes Perfect!”

We don’t want teens to get the message that perfection is the goal. They’ll give up because it’s impossible to achieve perfection.

TRY: “Practice Makes Permanent.”

Creating permanent pathways of learning in the brain through practice is a healthy approach to achieving any goal, academic or otherwise.


INSTEAD OF: “You’re so smart. You’ll be fine.”

This can sound like encouragement but can backfire. Praise your teen for their efforts (no matter how small the effort appears) and not their intelligence or abilities.

TRY: “What you’re doing is challenging. Good for you to make an effort when it’s difficult. Your practice is paying off.”  


INSTEAD OF: “I’m going to email your teacher about THIS…”

If your child is in high school, DO NOT email the teachers about something your child can and should do for themselves. You can support them in constructing the email (if they need help with formal email wording etc.), but please allow them to develop their own voice and advocacy skills.

TRY: “When are you planning to touch base with your teacher about….?

By grade 6, your child should absolutely begin taking control of email communications with their teacher. ENCOURAGE THIS even if their email is grammatically awful and spelling atrocious.

Ok, that was ten but I have one more…


INSTEAD OF: “You’re going to fail if you don’t study.”

TRY: “I see that you are avoiding studying. What’s up with that? I know it can be difficult and boring. Let’s brainstorm some ways together to help you get started. What do you think?”


Try out a few of these “TRY” phrases and let me know how it goes! Practice makes permanent, even for us older brains!

We are honored to be a part of your journey in education. As always, we are here to help.

Better and better,


How ADHD Impacts Executive Functioning Book Cover