Here’s the main thing about motivating teenagers: Our primary goal should be supporting teens to become self-propelled – or driven by their own internal motivation. This means helping them figure out what is important to them, what kind of life they want, what they want to accomplish, and how they can get themselves to do what they perceive to be in their own best interest.
Maintain a Positive, Empathic and Respectful Relationship
One of the most important things parents can do to support their teens’ motivational development is maintain a positive, empathic, and respectful relationship – even when kids are not highly motivated to do what we think is most important (e.g., work hard in school). In many families I see, an adolescent’s lack of academic motivation causes tremendous stress and friction in the parent-child relationship, often because parents feel obligated to stay on their teen’s back until he or she starts doing better. In my experience, this never works. Ideally, our homes should be safe havens from the stresses of the world, and by nurturing a respectful, supportive relationship; parents can help their kids discover motivation within themselves.
Promote a Sense of Autonomy to Motivate Your Teen
Another way parents can help their teens develop internal motivation is to promote a strong sense of autonomy. The key is to guide teens to make their own decisions and to learn from their mistakes. It can also be accomplished by not working harder to help a teen solve his or her problems than the kid works. Every year I see many students with low academic motivation whose parents, teachers, and tutors are expending 80 units of energy trying to solve the kid’s academic problems – while the kid is expending 20. This also never works, largely because the adults are reinforcing the mistaken idea that someone other than the teen is responsible for solving his or her problems. Being clear about who is responsible for what is one of the best ways of promoting a strong sense of autonomy in young people.
Surprisingly, one of the most powerful ways of promoting autonomy is supporting teens in their pursuit of their non-academic interests. In fact, research suggests that passionate pursuit of pastimes may be the best way for young people to develop into self-motivated adults. This is presumably because passionate involvement in music, sports, drama, art, etc. helps adolescents “sculpt” brains that get used to being highly focused, determined, and not unduly stressed – all at the same time – which is the kind of brain state we want to be in most of the time when we do our work as adults. This makes sense to me, as I graduated from high school with a C+ average because I spent almost all of my energy on sports and my rock and roll band – but then was able to “go pedal to the metal” in college when school became more important to me. I have never regretted not having worked harder in high school, and I am grateful to my parents for not telling me constantly that what was important to me was wrong.
Offer Help Without Forcing It
I’m not saying parents should just sit back and let unmotivated kids “fail.” We should always offer our teenagers whatever support we can, whether it is in the form of professional or peer tutoring, counseling, or stimulant medication if the teen has ADHD. However, unless teens are seriously depressed or using drugs on a regular basis, in which case we must strong-arm them into treatment if necessary, we will be most effective if we offer help without trying to force it.
I am also not at all saying that school is unimportant. We should talk to our kids about the value of a good education and the benefits of being a good student. However, with students who have low academic motivation, it is most helpful if we (a) don’t over-sell the importance of academic performance (“Do you want to work at McDonalds the rest of your life?”) and (b) let kids know that life in America offers many “second chances.” I recently told a markedly underachieving 17-year-old that he could become well educated even if he flunked all his high school classes. I explained that if he decided when he was a little older that he wanted an education, he could earn 30 credits at an open enrollment community college and then apply to virtually any university without having to submit his high school transcript. Within three months this boy’s GPA went from 2.1 to 3.7, because knowing that his underachievement hadn’t caused him to “blow” his whole future motivated him to work hard to develop himself. Like treating kids respectfully, treating them honestly is one of the most important ways we can help our teens grow into completely self-propelled young adults.