Motivating Adolescents Toward Responsible Choices – Part I

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

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

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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. We will cover those three important principles in part 2.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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