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How Can I Motivate Teenagers?

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified

Teenagers have many obligations, such as school attendance and assignments, chores, hygiene practices, social activities, and family events. Teens will usually lack the motivation to meet their obligations if they feel alienated from them for one reason or another; they may struggle to take an interest in certain tasks because they are unable to perceive their importance, or perhaps simply because they feel overwhelmed by them. Thus, teens often avoid completing tasks or satisfying obligations that are important to their well-being. Motivating teens can help them to manage and complete their obligations.

How can you motivate the teens in your life? Try these suggestions. 

Express Curiosity

Are you sure that motivation is the issue? There are many reasons why teens avoid fulfilling their obligations. They could be experiencing anxiety, depression, peer pressure, difficulties with sleeping at night, or even medical issues. If you attempt to motivate a teen when motivation is not the issue, you’re going to miss the mark. In order to identify whether a teen struggles with motivation, express curiosity. Try to avoid lecturing or giving advice, as the purpose of curiosity is to acquire information, not to give it.

Here’s a few examples of questions that express curiosity. 

  •     I notice that you’ve been missing school assignments, is everything ok?
  •     I suspect that something is making it difficult for you to complete your assignments on time. Do you know what it is?
  •     What happens when you try to complete an assignment or think about completing an assignment?
  •     How do you feel about this class?

Give Them Options

There are many obligations that teens cannot avoid, but they might be able to have some latitude within these obligations. You can give teens a sense of agency by providing them with options. First, you need to decide which options you are comfortable with the teen choosing. You should only present options that you can approve of so that you do not have to backpedal your advice should the teen decide to take a course of action of which you disapprove. You can also allow the teen to propose their own ideas of options to discuss with you. 

Here are a few suggestions of options:

  •     Would you like to complete your assignments at the beginning or the end of the school day?
  •     Which assignment would you like to complete first?
  •     Would like help from a tutor, a fellow student, or myself?

Express Vulnerability

You know what it’s like to feel unmotivated. You know how difficult it can be to try to motivate yourself. Sharing your experiences with a teen can help to normalize and validate their experiences. It may also create an opportunity for you to express understanding and empathy. It’s best to share a recent experience as opposed to one prefaced by “When I was your age…” You can say, “I know what it’s like not to feel unmotivated. There are days when I have no motivation to do anything after work. I don’t want to cook, clean, or do anything productive. I just want to zone out.”

Provide Praise for Effort

You can support a teenager’s motivation by proving praise. Dr. Lisa Damour wrote an article titled “How to Do School When Motivation Has Gone.” She wrote that praise promotes intrinsic motivation when the praise is sincere and focused on effort as opposed to talent.

Here are examples of praise focused on effort as opposed to talent.

Praise to avoid:                                                Say this instead:

  • You’re smart                                               – You worked really hard in this class
  • You’re athletic                                            – You’re so persistent when it comes to practice
  • You’re talented                                          – The time and effort that you’ve devoted is paying off

Dr. Damour wrote that praise should also communicate encouragement as opposed to applying pressure. Here examples of praise that focus on encouragement.

Praise to avoid:                                                                    Say this instead:

  • You’re doing great, just as I hoped                            – You’re doing great
  • Awesome! Now keep it up                                           – Awesome!          
  • You’re all caught up, now let’s keep it that way      – You got all caught up. That’s amazing!

Teenagers, like adults, struggle with motivation. If you need help relating to the teens in your life, consider participating in individual or family therapy. Contact Symmetry Counseling to make an appointment.

Domour, L. (2020, October 29). How to Do School When Motivation Has Gone. The New York Times.

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