Motivating Teens: Why Can’t We Just Give Them Gold Stars?

Have you ever wished you could motivate your teen by offering him a sucker or providing her with an opportunity to earn a desired toy after putting enough gold stars on the calendar? This may have worked when your child was younger, but life with a teenager is much more complicated!  In order to understand how to motivate teenagers, we have to develop a better idea of what motivation is and where it comes from.

So, what is motivation? In general, motivation is a set of reasons that affect our choice to engage and persist in a given act or behavior.  That means that motivation guides our decision-making. It guides both our initial decisions and the level of effort we choose to put forth once we have decided.  While people usually have a general tendency to be motivated at a certain level, they also have varying levels of motivation for different kinds of activities.

Where does it come from? Sometimes motivation is rooted in basic needs.  When we are hungry, we are motivated to find food; when we are cold, we seek warm clothing, shelter, or a toasty fire.  Motivation can also come from specific needs. These can take the form of desired objects, hobbies, or goals. One teen’s desire to have a cell phone might be the motivation to follow house rules around technology, while another teen’s goal of becoming a doctor might facilitate good grades in math and science.  Finally, motivation can come from less obvious reasons such as altruism, morality, or the need to prove something to oneself or someone else.  One teen may volunteer at a human society because of an unselfish desire to help animals. Another teen may keep a friend’s secret in order to honor a promise not to tell anyone.

You can probably imagine several ways in which motivation comes into play throughout a teenager’s day. Sometimes it is a small decision like the choice to wear a sweater on a cold day.  This teen is motivated to stay warm.  Other times, it is a bigger decision like choosing not to drink at a teen party.  This teen may be motivated to gain the respect of parents, maintain good health, or keep an athletic scholarship. As you can see, more serious decisions are guided by more personal motivations.

As parents, we can get stuck on the question, “How do I motivate my teen to….?” The problem with this approach is that we can loose sight of the personal nature of motivation.  A better approach may be “What motivates my teen to….?” This allows a parent to focus on the individual teen, paying close attention to the experiences, beliefs, and aspirations that facilitate decision-making.  Try doing a little experiment. Ask your teen about his or her day, with the goal of identifying some of the many choices made throughout the day. Then, think about what may have guided his or her decisions. Motivation is not just about what your teen did during the day, but why.  If you can’t figure it out, don’t be afraid to ask.   Adolescents love to talk about themselves, especially when someone they care about takes an interest in them.

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