Motivate Your Teen: Why Your Motives May Be the Problem

Motivate Your Teen“My daughter isn’t responsible enough to keep her own room clean. How will she ever manage to take care of her own apartment?”

“My son has yet to show himself dependable enough to consistently keep his curfew. How will he be able to maintain a job?”

Have you ever struggled with concerns like these?

As a caring parent, surely you want the best for your child. You know from experience how important it is for them to develop abilities that help them manage their life. The thing that seems to be lacking, though, is motivation.

Is it? Or is it simply that they lack the motivation you want them to have?

Could the problem instead be your own motives?

A Change in Motivating Forces

When your child was younger, they thrived on knowing that you felt proud of them. Instead of simply saying “would you do this?” you most likely asked, “would you do this for me?” Their eyes would light up at the opportunity to make you happy. And, in turn, when you praised them for it or expressed how proud you were, it made them happy.

Now your child has grown into a teenager. Do they suddenly not care about the praise you give them? Do they not feel happy anymore when you express how proud you are of them? No. That’s not it at all. Of course, they still love it when you show approval.

What has changed is the source of their motivation — their point of view about why their accomplishments matter. The need for extrinsic (external) motivation has been replaced by the need for intrinsic (internal) motivation. They not only need to feel that you will be proud of them but, even more so, that they will be proud of themselves.

Extrinsic Motivation — A Problematic Approach

The motivating influence of the extrinsic approach comes from the outside. There are two main approaches to extrinsic motivation — pragmatic and compassionate.

The Pragmatic Approach to Extrinsic Motivation:

To appeal to your teen’s understanding, you may explain the matter, urge them, or even plead. Then, you may set a condition and promise a reward or a penalty, depending if they comply or not. However, both rewards and penalties can be unproductive. Why?

  • If your teen is already resistant to your efforts, this method can make them even more irritated. Especially when penalties are involved, it can cause resentment and even stronger resistance.
  • Your teen may see your urging and pleading as a lecture and a constant reminder that you’re unsatisfied and unhappy with them.
  • Even rewards can make your teen feel manipulated and controlled.

The Compassionate Approach to Extrinsic Motivation:

You may approach certain matters in your teen’s life through open communication. After asking them how they feel about these things, you may tell them that you would like to talk to them and discuss their options. This method often works, but not always. Why?

  • Despite you expressing your concern for them and assuring them that you don’t want to control their life, your teen may still see this as meddling.
  • Your teen may also feel that your need to discuss the matters with them shows a lack of trust in their abilities to handle the situation themselves or to even care about the facts at hand.

Both approaches to extrinsic motivation can work, at times. Yet, the overall problem with both is that they make your teen’s efforts dependent only on external forces.

Intrinsic Motivation — A More Powerful Approach

The motivating influence of the intrinsic approach comes from within. It develops through self-interest and ownership of the situation. In other words, your teen takes charge of what matters to them and decides in what direction to go. Subsequently, they can take pride in their accomplishment — for their own sake, nobody else’s.

The most difficult aspect of intrinsic motivation is that you can neither reward, push, nor punish your teen to become internally motivated.

Of course, you still want your teen to be happy, successful, and live up to their potential. So, do you just have to yield to sitting on the sidelines and not being able to do anything? Not exactly.

What Parents Can Do:

  • You can still help – some – by creating situations that can stimulate self-interest. But you must refrain from taking ownership of how the matter will develop. It has to be completely up to your teen to make the situation work for them.
  • You can allow your teen to see the natural consequences of their actions. For example, not doing homework isn’t just creating a conflict between you and them, but it also hinders their dreams for the future. Perhaps a counselor at school can show them the difference of options for continuous education between those with high and low academic performances.
  • You can give your teen praise and positive feedback for true accomplishments, perhaps improving the chance for intrinsic motivation.

While you may feel that your teen’s apparent lack of motivation is unnerving and that you need to step in and do something, don’t rush to come to their rescue and exert too much external motivation. Rather keep your cool, apply the suggestions for generating internal motivation, and watch your teen take ownership of their own life. Something both you and they can be proud of.