Years ago, I received a toolbox as a Christmas gift. Inside was a complete set of tools, including a variety of wrenches, screwdrivers, an exacto knife, and numerous screws and bolts of various sizes. I don’t remember who exactly gave me the toolbox, but I clearly remember that it was almost never used; whenever a minor repair to something became necessary, I either allowed a friend or family member to provide the fix, or I simply left it to neglect until someone else saw the need and attended to the repair. Though that toolbox could have been one of the most valuable gifts I ever received, it lay dormant in a storage room for a very long time, providing a sad reminder of its unrealized potential each time I went in the room.

It is more than common to meet with parents, either in school, in passing at a mall, or even within the walls of my practice, who remind me of that toolbox with the following observation:

“My son (or daughter) has really been struggling lately and really doesn’t seem to be doing well in school. On top of that, he/she just won’t get up and call on friends anymore – he wants to sit in his room and shut out the rest of the world. He just needs someone to give him some tools to deal with all this, and things will be so much better!”

For the record I would agree. It could well be that this young man really doesn’t have any idea how to improve his grades and create more meaningful friendships. Indeed, in life I believe we are all lifelong teachers and learners; we never stop teaching others about ourselves and the way we see the world, but we also never stop learning about our world, including new ways to live and be successful on our own terms. Being on sports teams, reading good books, and listening to the wisdom of others can all contain valuable information that benefits us for decades, as we incorporate new ideas into our lives.

However, there is often an implicit assumption buried under the idea of tools that can absolutely prevent a young person from moving into a healthier place. Did you catch it? It is the assumption that the presence of new and valuable tools are the entire solution, and a panacea for anxiety with our children and teens. In other words, we can easily assume that a given young person will willingly and eagerly open this wondrous new toolbox, and immediately start to implement the knowledge it brings into everyday life, without ever considering that he or she may not even be interested in solutions yet. The problem, then, becomes a question of motivation. We as parents are usually highly motivated to see our children and teens become healthier and stronger, but do those children share that same degree of motivation? If they don’t, regardless of the reason, the toolbox can remain unopened for years in some cases, with the frustration of parents building all the while.

Without motivation, nothing worthwhile is ever likely to be accomplished. This is just as true for your “lazy” teenager as it is for an Olympic athlete, or that great family doctor that everyone seems to recommend highly. We need to understand the degree of personal importance we place upon moving past obstacles we face in life, and how much energy we are prepared to invest in moving forward in a healthy way. When I sit down with a teen for example, once initial greetings and some quick chatter have taken place, I am fond of asking one of my favourite questions to help gauge levels of motivation to create change. The question is only four words long – “Why are we here?”

Parents can ask their own version of this too, such as “what do you need right now”, or “I’m noticing you spend much more time in your room than you used to, and less with your friends. Are you seeing the same thing?” The answer can be very revealing. It can help us to start to understand why someone appears to be stuck or even regressing in their life, and why they do not appear to our eyes to be getting unstuck. Only then can a toolbox truly be put to work, and by the person most qualified to use them. By the way, my real toolbox now gets used quite often, and I take pride in making all kinds of household repairs in a way that never would have occurred before. Once I realized the impracticality of asking others to do repair work for me, and the pride I can feel from doing a great job myself, the box was seldom ever closed for long!