No one has an easy time changing. We see people all around us making the same mistakes repeatedly. We experience this at work, at home, in our relationships and in ourselves. Regardless of where the change needs to happen, the process of change is difficult and easy for most people to avoid.

Teens resist change as much, if not more, than we do. Researchers have found that rather than criticizing teens for repeatedly making the same mistakes, parents are more effective when they ask questions that stimulate a teen’s ability to increase self-awareness. When a teen recognizes there is a problem and owns the problem, he or she is more open to using strategies that will help stop those mistakes from being made.

This process of asking questions in the interest of change is referred to as motivational interviewing. For example, when you ask an alcoholic parent how he or she wants to be viewed by a child, that parent will say the same thing we all do. He or she wants to be viewed as a good, upstanding person. Next, when you ask that alcoholic parent how he or she is actually viewed by a child, that parent will have a difficult time responding, recognizing the discrepancy between how he or she wants to be viewed and how he or she is actually viewed.

The process of asking questions that leads to a person recognizing the discrepancies between his or her ideal self and his or her actual self is called cognitive dissonance. Asking questions about a repeated pattern of mistakes creates discomfort within a person that then stimulates the change process to occur. People only change when they are uncomfortable.

When people are asked questions that result in cognitive dissonance and internal discomfort, they often will answer in a manner that affirms their ideal self, and this increases their intention to change.

Take, for example, an unhealthy eater who is asked, “Are you eating healthier?” The person may want to eat healthier, and if he or she is not, the answer is unlikely to be a simple “no.” It is more likely that the person will answer with an explanation, such as “not yet, because I haven’t had time to prepare healthy meals,” or “not yet, because I’m too focused on work.” These excuses tell the person of the intention to change, increasing the likelihood that change will occur. In addition, voicing intentions out loud to another person holds an individual more accountable and can stimulate the beginning of the change cycle.

Here are some examples of how to help teens think in a way that allows them to recognize their need to change:

If your teen is having trouble coming in on time for a curfew, ask, “Are you going to make your curfew tonight?” When the response is “yes,” it increases the likelihood that the teen will make curfew, as it highlights an intention to do the right thing.

If your teen is chronically overspending, ask, “Are you planning on sticking to the budget this month?” Pursue an affirmative answer with a question about what the action plan is and how much money he or she intends to save.

When asking questions, use these techniques:

Express empathy by using reflective listening. For example, your teen says, “I’m having trouble focusing in my classes,” and you respond, “So, you are struggling to pay attention in class.”

Illustrate the discrepancy between the teen’s goals or values and current behavior.

Avoid confrontation during questioning by using “The Columbo Approach,” based on the nonconfrontational manner of the detective in the television series “Columbo.”

Expect some resistance, and react positively and without judgment.

Encourage and empower teens to use new strategies to help them change and close the gap between their ideal selves and their real selves.

Change is never easy. Using motivational interviewing techniques will help teens gain insight into how close or far they are from their ideal selves.

Dr. Kate Roberts is a licensed child and school psychologist and family therapist on the North Shore. Ask a question or make a comment at

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