Motivating Adolescents: Helping your teen toward responsible choices

by Gary Gilles

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your teenager was naturally motivated to do well in school, make socially responsible decisions, and clean their room without you having to nag or remind them? Sure it would. It would also be wonderful to win the lottery, which has equal odds of happening, you might say.

Ah, the well-worn skepticism of parents who know that teens are sometimes difficult to motivate for even the simplest tasks. If we push too hard we get rebellion, if too little we fear growing couch potatoes in our living room that might root and never leave.

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

Extrinsic motivation

Let’s say you are trying to motivate your teen to earn better grades. You’ve tried gentle encouragement, pleading, threats and even ignoring their lack of interest in academics, 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 weeknight television for the rest of the term.

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 not so much on determining the behavior of the child as much as 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 motivation have their place, intrinsic motivation gives you a far better return on your parenting investment of time and energy.

Control vs. choices

You may have noticed that your teen doesn’t like to be told what to do. They are under the impression that their vast life experience is wiser and more sensible than yours. As infuriating as this can be for you, rest assured that this irrational thought process is completely normal and healthy. Your teenager is experimenting with their desire to be autonomous. They are suspended between the dependency of childhood and the complete independence of adulthood. They have a distorted view of what they are capable of. The familiar bravado they exhibit is really their way of trying on independence while they still have the security of your relationship to fall back on.

Unfortunately many well-meaning parents see this rehearsal of independent living by their teen as a threat to their authority and exert more control over them to keep them in line. This usually means using extrinsic motivational methods of punishment and reward to steer the teen’s behavior. The typical result is resistance at best, rebellion at worst.

The punishment of losing television privileges or the reward of concert tickets acts as merely a behavioral hoop to jump through. It does nothing to instill an ongoing sense of discovery, learning, or true motivation. The goal is to move from hoop jumping to allowing your teen to be part of the decision-making process.

Think about this way: if your teen is struggling for autonomy and you impose stricter controls, their resistance or even rebellion would make sense. Maybe they are not fighting you as much as they are fighting for their chance to grow up. Instead of more control or ultimatums, your teen probably needs the freedom to make some of their own choices.

So how do you instill intrinsic motivation in a teenager? While there is no magic formula, there are three sound principles that will enhance responsibility and motivation if used consistently over time.

Encourage choice

Choice gives your teen the ability to change their world to some degree and gives them a sense of power that is not only healthy for future development but necessary for intrinsic motivation to grow. The more 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.

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 and see it through as well.

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, overwhelm occurs
  • When skills are low but the challenge is too easy, apathy results

But when skills match the challenge, competency results. The challenge should be just out of reach but attainable if they apply their current level of knowledge and skill.

If you apply the principles of choice and challenge to our scenario of earning better grades for instance, you might start by asking your teen what they consider attainable grades for their potential (encouraging choice). This would give you some important information about how they view their skills. If they set the bar too low suggest a slightly higher standard, one that would stretch them, but be within their capabilities (matching skills with the challenge). Keep talking until you can agree on a standard that you and your teen can work toward.

Taking it one step further, you could help your teen envision how they must plan their time around other activities such as sports, home responsibilities, and social life to achieve the grades they want. You could even go as far as making the connection between their goal of particular grades and their eventual job/career. This dialogue opens the opportunity for your teen to make additional choices about:

  • How to divide their time on a given day/week to accomplish their goal
  • Choosing courses that relate to their interests
  • Thinking about how to improve their study skills, among others.

Your prime motive is not to solve your teen’s problems but to elicit their participation in solving the problem, which creates ownership for the goal. By taking this approach you convey that you value their opinion, believe in their potential, and trust their judgement enough to ask for it. These are takeaways that never occur when you simply tell your teen “do this or else.”

Of course small differences of opinion will be easier to resolve than large ones like earning better grades. And there are many reasons for parents and teens to face off over any given issue. But if you treat your teen as a partner in the process instead of an employee you are much more likely to get what you want and what works to intrinsically motivate them.

Relationship is the glue

The final principle that holds it all together is your relationship with your teenager. The most powerful factor in determining the welfare of your teen is your presence both physically and emotionally as they carry on this experiment with independence. Too often parents mistake their adolescent’s quest for autonomy as a message to leave them alone. But in reality they need us more than ever. They need an emotional anchor to weather the storms of adolescence that in many ways seem fiercer than at any time previous.

If you look at the big picture, you and your teen both want the same thing for their life: to grow up to be responsible, autonomous adults. This will not happen if you step out of the way and let them do it alone. Nor will it happen if you retain control over things that they should be having a hand in determining. Give them choices and help them envision a challenge. Help shape the course of the challenge through your ongoing presence and support. And through it all, you will not only be giving them skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives, but greater clarity on what their passions are. And because you gave them the freedom and the guidance to reach for those passions, they will be intrinsically motivated to develop those passions throughout their life.

© Gary Gilles, 2012

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