Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Motivating Your Adolescent to Perform

Getting adolescents motivated to perform can be hard to do.

Except in cases of depression, I have never seen an unmotivated adolescent.

Teenagers may lack the motivation a parent wants — to try harder, to achieve better, to be a self-starter, to care about doing well, to be more ambitious — but they definitely have the motivation to do what they want (like pleasure) and to avoid what they don't (like work).

So in counseling, the ‘unmotivated adolescent' problem is usually the ‘dissatisfied parent' problem. And this parental dissatisfaction is raised in two ways. There is extrinsic motivation question: "How can we get our teenager to want to do better for us?" And there is the intrinsic motivation question: "How can we get our teenager to want to do better for herself?"

To apply extrinsic motivation, parents usually start by putting faith in power of persuasion — explaining, urging, and even pleading their case. Appealing to adolescent understanding, explanation sometimes works, and sometimes not.

If the adolescent is in a resistant place, this reasonable approach can be more irritating than encouraging since it communicates continuing dissatisfaction with how he is performing in life: "Stop lecturing! You've told me all of this before!"

This is when parents often increase extrinsic motivation by offering rewards for improved performance or vowing punishment if behavior doesn't change. The risk here is that both rewards and punishment can be counterproductive. Rewards can be negative when perceived as threats that benefits will be denied if improvement is not forthcoming. The young person can rebel against being pushed around. And punishment, in the form of criticism or anger or sanctions, can arouse resentment and hurt that energizes more active or passive resistance.

A contractual way to state extrinsic motivation might be, EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION = CONDITION + PROMISE. "I will give you what you want if you do what I want," or "I will give you what you don't want if you fail to do what I want." Sometimes an adolescent will yield and consent to these hard bargaining tactics, sometimes not.

A more empathetic way to state extrinsic motivation might be, EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION = CONCERN + COMMUNICATION. "I wish you would help me understand how you feel about this so we can discuss it and see what we can work out." Sometimes an adolescent will feel more inclined to cooperate when feeling less the object of parental control and more the focus of their concern, and sometimes not.

The main thing to remember about extrinsic motivation is that influence is exerted from the outside in, making adolescent effort dependent on external pressure. This is different from intrinsic motivation that works from the inside out, influence generated independently from desire within. Of the two kinds of motivation, the intrinsic is the more powerful because the adolescent is the source of influence and direction. "I take care of getting homework done because it's my business, not my parents'."

A way to state intrinsic motivation might be, INTRINSIC MOTIVATION = SELF-INTEREST + OWNERSHIP. "I want to take charge of what matters to me and be the one who decides to get it done. I want to do it for my sake, not for anyone else." This sounds like pride speaking.

Parents cannot reward, push, or punish an adolescent into becoming intrinsically motivated, but sometimes they can encourage self-motivation by opening up an exposure or creating a circumstance that stimulates self-interest. Then they must refrain from taking any ownership of its development.

Consider the example of lagging schoolwork in high school: After battling with their teenager over completing homework and studying for tests freshman year, parents take her on a visit to a college of possible interest. There, with parents getting out of the way, she meets with an admissions person who tells her the GPA and course work she needs to get in.

Now the matter of schoolwork suddenly shifts from being a source of conflict between her and her parents (a matter of extrinsic motivation) to being an issue between her and her future (a matter of intrinsic motivation.) By deciding she wants to try for admission, she gives herself an incentive — a future goal with the power of motivating and organizing present behavior. "We'll provide some financial support for you to go," agree her parents, letting ownership go, "but doing the work to get in is entirely up to you."

Or consider the example of the "full time" college student who receives a failing grade and an incomplete grade almost every semester and so is taking forever to finish his degree, receiving full financial support from parents while taking his time. In this case, parents make him an offer. "Starting the next semester in which you enroll, if you want to continue college you will need to pay that tuition yourself, and then we will reimburse you at the end for any of the full load of classes you pass and complete. This way earning a college degree will be more up to you." Sometimes shifting responsibility to the adolescent can stimulate intrinsic motivation, and sometimes not.

Highly intrinsically motivated adolescents, who want to take care of all their obligations and do, can create an unexpected problem for some parents. "She's put us out of business," the parents of a high school junior lament. "She's totally in control of her life, takes care of everything very well, and wants to keep managing herself this way. Of course, we want that too, but it comes at a price. Except for food and shelter, she really doesn't have much need for us anymore. It's kind of lonely when your teenager achieves independence while she still lives at home. Now we have virtually no useful role in helping run her life."

When it comes to performance, there are reasons that parents strive to motivate their adolescent and want the adolescent to motivate herself. Consider just a few: to develop operating capacity, to build confidence, to increase discipline, to create a record of accomplishment, to invest in personal growth, to create future options, and to get a sense of potential that can be fulfilled.
This is why parents consider adolescent apathy the enemy of ambition and step in when they see motivation lacking. "It's like seeing him give up on himself. If he doesn't try and try hard he'll never find out what he's capable of."

What parents often fail to understand, however, is the protective role that apathy can sometimes play in an adolescent's life. Protect against what? The answer is, protect against the risks of caring and commitment. One young person stated his ambivalence about ambition well: "Suppose I give it my all and don't do that good? Do I really want to discover that? It feels safer just to get by."

"I can't answer those questions for you," I replied, "but I'll give you another question to consider. For safety's sake, would you rather make a minimal effort and avoid disappointment, or exert yourself and gain self-respect from knowing that at least you tried your best?"

For more, visit

More from Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today