5 Ways to Motivate Your Teen

by Gary Gilles

motivating teens

Why does it seem so difficult to motivate your teen to do noble things, such as excel in school, make socially responsible decisions and clean their room? This question of motivation is an ongoing dilemma for many parents. But, it is not as difficult a problem to solve as you might think.

What seems to some parents as irresponsibility and lack of motivation in their teen is really misplaced motivation. Most adolescents want to be successful and responsible in their behavior but get caught in a cycle of confusion that undermines their desire. To understand your teen’s developmental need to succeed and feel good about what they do, let’s first examine the different types of motivation.

Extrinsic motivation

Let’s say you’re trying to motivate your teen to earn better grades. You’ve tried gentle encouragement, pleading and threats with no improvement. Finally, you decide that a B average is a realistic standard and impose an ultimatum: anything lower than a B on the next report card means the loss of some privilege.

Or perhaps you take the positive approach. If your teen achieves a B average on the next report card, you promise them concert tickets to their favorite music group.

Both strategies are designed to motivate your teen to achieve better grades. One uses the avoidance of punishment, the other a reward. Both are forms of extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is based upon internal factors such as self-determination, curiosity, challenge, and effort. The focus of intrinsic motivation is creating an environment for self-motivation to occur.

The reality is that you can’t force anyone, especially a teen, to be motivated for a task or responsibility. But you can create an environment that encourages them to explore, be challenged, learn and achieve to their potential. This type of environment is where intrinsic motivation breeds. Although both extrinsic and intrinsic types of motivation are valid, intrinsic motivation gives you a far better return on your parenting investment of time and energy.

So, here are 5 ways to build intrinsic motivation in your teen.

  1. Encourage choice

The more age-appropriate choices your teen can make, the more ownership she will have for the tasks and responsibilities she engages in, and the more intrinsically motivated she will be to do her best and see those tasks to completion.

Allowing and encouraging choice in your teen doesn’t mean you let them do anything they want. You still provide guidance and determine what is appropriate but within a framework of collaboration instead of control. When you allow your teen to be part of the decision-making process, their motivation to engage in and complete the task will be higher.

  1. Create an optimum challenge

But choices need a target to aim for. That target is an optimum challenge. Adolescents need to be challenged toward a goal they can accomplish. As one challenge is met, confidence builds and leads them to believe they can take on another challenge.

An optimum challenge is one that is not too difficult, nor too easy. To create the optimum challenge for your teen you must first correctly assess their particular skill level and then match the challenge appropriately. When the skill level is mismatched to the challenge these scenarios result:

  • When skills are high but the challenge is low, boredom results
  • When skills are low but the challenge is too high, you feel overwhelmed and want to quit

But, when your teen’s skills match the challenge, the result is a feeling of accomplishment. Both confidence and competence are increased. The challenge should force your teen to stretch beyond their current comfort level but also be attainable if they apply their current level of knowledge and skill.

  1. Tune in to their needs and concerns

Too often parents mistake their adolescent’s quest for independence as a message to leave them alone. But in reality they need you more than ever. They need an emotional anchor to weather the storms of adolescence that have potentially life-altering consequences.

You can be than anchor by making a deliberate effort to tune in to what they are going through. The focus of their lives revolves around peers, dating, self-image, and other age-appropriate interests. For example, say your son comes home talking about the latest video game all of his friends are getting. Instead of rolling your eyes or asking how he intends to pay for that new game, try asking (with sincerity) what he likes most about the game, what he finds challenging or exciting about how the game is played. You might even go as far as to ask him to show you how he plays it. When teens know you care about them and not just their behavior, they are more intrinsically motivated to live out the values you’ve taught them.

  1. Allow them to learn through failure

No parent wants to see their child fail, but there is an important growth process that all teens need to learn through experiencing failure. When you protect your teen from these inevitable falls along their developmental pathway you rob them of the opportunity to grow and build resilience. Allow your teen to try new things and risk failure. Provide a supportive relationship without criticism or shame and they will be more intrinsically motivated to get up and try again. This is the heart of mastering any task: repeatedly practicing something until you become competent. No highly skilled athlete, musician, business owner or actor ever achieved success in the first few attempts. Nor will your teen. Help your teen reframe their perceived “failure” as merely “practicing to get better.”

  1. Encourage them to identify and pursue their interests

Research has shown that youth who have clearly defined interests early in their life tend to be more purposeful and motivated to achieve meaningful goals later in life. To cultivate a purposeful attitude in your teen, do the following:

  • Help them set clear goals and make realistic plans to accomplish them
  • Encourage an optimistic, can-do-attitude
  • Model persistence in the face of obstacles and difficulties
  • Support risk-taking to learn new skills

Finally, keep in mind that you can’t make your children feel motivated. Your job as parent is to create a positive relationship that is supportive of your child’s interests. In doing this you create an environment where intrinsic motivation is most likely to grow.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: