Motivating Teens: The Role of Independence

The need to feel as though our behavior is truly chosen, not imposed upon us, may be its strongest during adolescents.  During this time between childhood and adulthood, teens are striving for independence at the same time that they still need guidance from their parents.  As children move into adolescence, they are motivated by a strong desire to be seen as more mature, capable of making decisions, and worthy of being treated as though they are getting older.  Just the other day a 12 year old girl said to me, “I really don’t like Paul [a 20-something year old in her martial arts class] because he treats me like I am a little kid.  I know that I am not grown up, but I know things. I am certainly not a kid anymore! It would be great if he would stop talking to me like I a am 5 years old!” This statement just about sums up how young teens feel. They are motivated to act mature, but recognize they are not adults.  They don’t want the full responsibilities of being a “grown up”, but they definitely do not want to be treated like a kid!

To be independent is to act from a place of freedom from the control, influence, support, or aid of others.  Teenagers express this through their desire to individuate from their parents. This doesn’t happen over night. It is a gradual process that starts before adolescents. Letting go can be hard for parents, even though they  know that their children will eventually separate from them and learn to manage themselves in the world.  The process of letting go requires finding the appropriate balance between allowing them increased freedom to make decisions, while continuing to hold the scaffolding of support up around them. On the one hand, teens need to make choices about who they hang out with, what classes they take, whether they stay on the swim team, and what time they go to bed.  On the other hand, teens need their parents to be there to talk, share experience, and set boundaries.  It is common for people to compare teenagers to 2-year olds because both are searching for independence. Let’s look at a couple scenarios.

Scenario 1: A 2-year old little girl walks up to her mom and says, “Mommy, milk please”.  Like most mothers, this mother is engaged in several activities at the same time. She is helping the older brother make a peanut butter sandwich, unloading the dishwasher, and telling the dog to get off the counter….all while trying to respond to the 2-year old quickly.   The two-year old waits about 3 minutes before walking over to the refrigerator, grabbing the milk and a sippy cup, and taking the milk and sippy cup to the mom. Again, the 2-year old says, “Mommy, milk please”, but this time she hands the mom everything she needs to get the job done. The mom pours the milk and hands her daughter a full sippy cup and a milk carton. The 2-year old puts the milk away in the refrigerator and goes on her merry way.

Scenario 2: A 17 year old boy walks into his dads room while he is getting his stuff together for the day.  He says, “Hey dad,  I need the car tonight.” The dad says, “I will have to look over the schedule for the evening and make sure it is available. What do you need the car for anyway?” Son responds, “My friends and I want to hang out….”  Like many conversations with teens, you can see where this is going.  The father is going to have to be patient and ask a lot of questions to get to the bottom of the evening plans.  After lots of prompting, the dad learns that his son’s friend has an extra ticket to a rock concert that evening.  His friend has offered the son a free ticket to the concert in exchange for driving.  After confirming the car is available, the father let’s the son go to the concert. They talk about who else attending and when he has to be home.  Together, they go over the expectations for behavior, both in terms of driving and being out with his friends at a rock concert.

Both scenarios depict expressions of independence. Independence is tied to motivation because both are activated by a strong desire that comes from within the person.  The 2-year old is motivated to get a glass of milk and the 17 year old is motivated to spend time with friends at a concert.  The similarity lies in their need for increased freedom to explore the ever-changing world and expanding opportunities in front of them. Typically, we are most motivated by the things that we  choose to do for the pure enjoyment of doing it.  This form of motivation is an intrinsic or internal motivation. This is different then external motivation, or motivation to do something to gain praise or rewards.

Teens find what truly motivates them when parents foster independence. This involves allowing teens to do things for themselves.  In the process, teens will make good decisions and bad decisions. The important thing is that they own them and learn from them. Good decisions give them a better understanding of their abilities. Bad decisions teach them what doesn’t work. Both provide opportunities for parents to help teens learn about themselves. Parents can gain a lot of trust and respect from their teens by providing opportunities for them to make their own decisions and allowing them increased freedom to act upon the things that they truly enjoy.

  • Give teens opportunities to manage their own time. Teach them that  managing their time well results in more opportunities to do the things they want
  • Have teens get themselves up for school and make their own lunch
  • Ask teens to schedule their own appointments (doctor, driving school, etc.)
  • Put teens in charge of dinner 1 night a week
  • Have teens do their own laundry
  • Give teens space to decorate and organize their room
  • Allow teens to manage their own bank account
  • Support teens decisions around extracurricular activities
  • Help teens explore new interests
  • Express your trust in them and emphasize your willingness and openness to talk

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