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Why Your Teen Struggles with Motivation

Helping your teen become more motivated.

You want your son to become more proactive in following through with his chores around the home and completing his school assignments on a timely basis. But there is a dance you both engage in, which involves you periodically allowing some time to elapse before his lethargy becomes intolerable. At which time you initiate an intervention. You seize his gaming console, restrict his time on his computer, and in some cases suspend his driving privileges.

In most cases when parents resort to the suspension of privileges, there is a radical shift in their teen’s behavior. Grades come up and he becomes more cooperative around the home. Then after some time has passed, his privileges are restored one at a time. In most cases the improvement lasts for a significant amount of time even after privileges have been fully restored.

Then, slowly but surely, your teen starts to resort to his old ways of procrastinating to outright lethargy. A common question most parents find themselves asking, are: “Why isn’t the change we have been witnessing, lasting?”

The reason for this cycle is because you and your teen are reliant on external factors to motivate him. External factors are typically reliable as sources of motivation for children, but after 12, the factors, such as the desire for parental and social approval, start to diminish as core sources of motivation. Most children are often eager to please their parents and will often follow through with assigned tasks and duties in the school and home. While most teens still have a desire for parental approval, it becomes a lower priority as the teen transitions through a state of turmoil in his efforts to make sense of life and assign to it, his own meaning. It is from this meaning through which he becomes motivated.

This is not to say that the teen is not at all motivated by a desire to please his parents, but regardless of where he is in making sense of his life, he becomes more motivated by his inner desires. Specifically, he finds himself motivated by the things that bring him pleasure and joy. Therefore, parents will often find immediate improvement when certain privileges are suspended. However, this has its limits, as some parents have learned, that even when all privileges are seized, the teen continues in his reluctance to participate fully in his activities of daily living.

External factors which influence motivation have their limits, even desirable activities like video games will reach the point of diminishing returns. This is because in the absence of an internal narrative that drives the teen’s behavior, his daily activities have no meaning and even the activities he typically enjoys are becoming bland to him.

So, what does internal motivation look like? It looks like a narrative which the teen uses to make sense of his daily experiences in the world around him. A common theme for such a narrative would be mastery, in which the teen seeks to become the best or as good as he can become in whatever he is doing. I have found that when teens have created a vision of a goal they would like to achieve, and strive towards, that it becomes easier to sell them the importance of the activities of daily living, they are not so fond of doing.

So, what can parents do with this information? When running an intervention with your teen, regarding his lack of cooperation around the household or his reluctance to engage in activities that benefit in the long run, have a conversation with him about what his goals for the future might look like. It is not unusual for parents to receive the answer, of “I don’t know.” In situations like this, your teen might benefit from the services of a professional to help guide him towards creating a healthy narrative that motivates him.