Motivating Teens: What Does Self-Control Have To Do With It?

Think back to when you were 4 years old.  What would you do if someone put you in a room with a marshmallow and asked you not to eat it?  What if the person said you could have two marshmallows if you could wait 15 minutes to eat it? Would it be easier to hold off then? In the short video below, Dr. David Walsh suggests that the ability to resist the marshmallow is linked to happiness, school success, popularity, and overall adjustment, all the way up to 18 years of age.

The message is clear. Saying no to our children and teaching them to say no to themselves could be a great benefit to them.  Why?  Because the ability to withhold immediate gratification of the small pleasures in life could help them achieve bigger goals. Being able to resist immediate gratification requires self-control and achieving goals requires motivation. So, let’s look at how motivation and self-control work together.

Motivation is the mechanism through which our goals are met. Sometimes, these goals are very simple, or even reflexes that we act upon, such as “I need to eat so that I am not hungry,” or “I need to eat that marshmallow because I know it is going to be delicious!” We know that people are more motivated to do the things they enjoy.  Since most kids enjoy the taste of marshmallows, they were probably highly motivated to eat one! If that is true, why did some of them wait?  The answer is self-control.

Self-control is one’s ability to postpone immediate gratification and control one’s impulses.  It is a set of barriers that keep a person from letting one goal override a larger or more important goal.  In this example, the larger goal was the promise of receiving two marshmallows instead of one.  Of course, this looks different for teens.  A teenage girl may skip a  football game in order to study for the next day’s science test.  She is still motivated to go to the football game.  But, she is not allowing that motivation to override her desire to boost her science grade.  Similarly, a teenage boy may choose not to go to the movies with a friend, so that he can attend a wrestling meet .  His motivation to make the varsity team next year may override his desire to be social and see a movie.

Teens will not always have self-control. Sometimes they have the self-discipline to earn something, and other times they simply feel entitled.  A parent can teach their teen a lot by not giving them everything they want.  Just saying “no” is usually not enough.  Teens need parents to talk to them about their goals and help them brainstorm options when they have competing goals.  The teenage girl may tell you, “I know that I have a science test, but everyone that is everyone will be at the football game.” A parent can remind her, “I thought you said it was really important to do well on that science test?” or suggest, “Could you host a post-game party at the house afterward?” The teenage boy may say, “This movie just came out, and I really want to see it!  Plus, Julia is going to be there and I really like her.” A parent can remind him that making varsity next year requires consistent attendance.  The parent could suggest, “Why don’t you ask one of your friends to see the movie tomorrow. If nobody wants to wait, see if someone would be willing to see it twice. Maybe Julia would go again?”

Teens may not be able to see all of their options….or at least the range of options that they think of are probably different from those of an adult.   Start by having regular conversations about what is important to your teen and then help your teen set realistic goals.   When your teen has competing motivations, help him or her to think beyond the obvious. Parents can start these conversation by:

  • Talking to their teens about what is important to them,
  • Helping them identify the little steps required to meet larger goals,
  • Teaching them to take care of themselves and balance competing motivations to spend time with  friends, perform well in school, and engage in other extracurricular activities like sports, arts, or even work,
  • Saying “no” and sharing that “no” is a reality for all of us. Resisting things that are immediately gratifying is part of being a kid, a teen, and an adult,
  • Encouraging them to seek help and support from parents and trusted adults. These people have experience and a different perspective, both of which can influence how your teen thinks about things,
  • Understanding that they will make mistakes. It is important to talk through them, and help your teen learn from them.

2 thoughts on “Motivating Teens: What Does Self-Control Have To Do With It?

  1. We as parents and teachers have a responsibility to today’s teenagers to teach age old ethics, habits and principles that make for success; – Self Control, hard work, focus, right company, tenacity.

    ID Offokansi
Author of: Can Do – a Collection of Inspirational Quotes for Teens and Young Adults- //

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