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Don’t shove activities or sports down teen's throat

Contributing writer

Don’t shove activities or sports down teen's throat

Miriam Wollesen, a therapist at CBT California/DBT California, with offices in Newport Beach, Beverly Hills and Long Beach, cautions not to push the interests you had as a teen on your own kids. “No one likes to feel like they are someone else's idea,” Wollesen says. (Thinkstock)

Karate? Check.

Baseball? Tried that.

Ballet? Yep, went through that stage for a while.

Before my two children became teens, getting them involved in sports and other activities was easy.

As if they had a real choice.

I had the car, after all, and I felt compelled as a parent to have my kids sample, smorgasbord-style, everything from Indian Princesses to beachcombing to art classes and beyond.

I was driven to see what would click with them – anything to keep them away from zoning out in front of a TV or videogame console.

Some things clicked; some didn’t. But when they were young, getting them pumped up to try new activities wasn’t difficult.

The teen years, however, were a different story.

Many times, I found myself struggling to motivate my kids to get involved in something outside of schoolwork. I wondered how much I should push them to join a club or engage in sports or (perish the thought) volunteer.

As a high-energy teen, staying active was second nature to me.

But my kids aren’t me, so I more or less let them discover their own interests.

Guess I didn’t screw up too badly.

Miriam Wollesen, a therapist at CBT California/DBT California, with offices in Newport Beach, Beverly Hills and Long Beach, cautions not to push the interests you had as a teen on your own kids. 

“No one likes to feel like they are someone else’s idea,” Wollesen says.

She says attempting to push or force your teen to engage in activities can backfire and shut down conversations about why your teen may lack interests or is hesitant to engage in activities.

OK, so what’s the correct approach?

“It’s important to have conversations with teens and ask why they may be resistant to exploring their interests,” Wollesen says. “There could be different reasons behind why your teen is not engaging in activities, such as being unsure of what to choose, anxiety around putting oneself in a new situation or fear of not being good enough.”

Wollesen has had clients who have expressed wanting to try a new sport, but felt worried that they may be made fun of by others if they are not successful.

“Being ‘good’ at something,” Wollesen says, “may trump the value of enjoying activities and put unnecessary pressure on teens to choose something where they are sure they will succeed rather than choosing an activity for the purpose of enjoyment and growth.”

Once again, Wollesen emphasizes the importance of asking your teenager why he may be hesitant to explore interests, rather than forcing him to join something. 

“Try modeling for your teen how you found your interests and share why you enjoy the interests you have,” Wollesen says. “It may be worth talking with your teen about the value of trying.”

Trying new activities, Wollesen says, can spark growth and a sense of self even if it ends up being an interest that your kid decides is not something they want to continue.

“This is similar to trying new foods, in which you learn what you do and don’t like,” she says.

The important thing, Wollesen says, is to expose your teen to opportunities in which they can find what may interest them without making judgments about what they may choose. 

Growing up, I loved playing baseball and got pretty good at it before discovering girls (and other activities, like the drama club) that took me away from the sport.

Naturally, I signed my son up for Little League.

He tried it for a couple of years, but it became obvious to me he wasn’t into it. So I didn’t press him to continue.

“Forcing your teen to do something may lead your teen to dig in his or her heels and potentially shut down paths to discovering future interests,” Wollesen cautions.

Julie Orris specializes in dialectical behavior therapy and cognitive behavior therapy for adolescents and adults in Newport Beach. Orris suggests that parents, when faced with an apathetic teen, first make sure there is no serious underlying cause that is preventing their teen from wanting to engage in activities – for example, depression. 

A primary symptom of depression, Orris notes, is a loss of interest in things one used to find enjoyable. Other symptoms include lack of motivation, social isolation and a decrease in energy level. If your teen is exhibiting such symptoms, Orris says, a diagnostic assessment with a psychologist may be worthwhile.

“If depression is ruled out, I think it is a more personal decision,” Orris says of how far to push your teen into sports and activities.

“As a parent, I think my focus would be on exposure to potential interests rather than creating a battle around mandatory activities,” Orris says. “In other words, I would create opportunities for my children to experience things they may decide they want to continue rather than simply saying, ‘You have to play a sport’ or ‘You have to get a job.’ ”

So sign your teen up for sports camps or art classes. Buy them some horseback riding or music lessons, or expose them to volunteer activities. Garden with them and take them to the bookstore.

Just don’t expect everything to stick.

As Orris puts it, “I think it’s important to get unstuck from our own ideas about what kids ‘should’ be doing or what we want them to like, and instead introduce them to things that they may find meaningful.” 

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