Motivating your teen

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It is really painful to watch kids withdraw and miss the opportunities they have through a lack of motivation. Parents can do too much planning and problem-solving for their teens. If parents make all the decisions for them, it trains them to be passive and powerless. In the long term this shuts kids down from being proactive. “If mum or dad is doing all the worrying and thinking for me, why should I bother?” Instead, we should be presenting kids with problems to solve, and to refrain from giving our solutions too readily.

We should encourage them to use their imagination to think how their plans might work out, and to evaluate their plans and make better ones. Parents de-motivate their teens by rescuing them from the consequences of their poor actions and choices. “Why should I rush to catch a bus if mum will run me to school? Why bother returning my videos – my parents just pay the fines. Why bother earning or saving – I can just nag my parents to buy me what I want.” They fail to learn the valuable lessons – choices have consequences, and good results require effort and struggle.

If they create a problem, it should remain their problem. For example, if they habitually stay in bed after their alarm goes off, then they should have to handle the problems that creates rather than making it your problem to rescue them. Rather than nagging them to get up and hurrying them along and writing a note to excuse their lateness to school, you should allow them to experience the penalty of being late.

Consequences can be a great motivator

As well as allowing them to experience the consequences of their poor actions, they should also experience the positive consequences of their good choices. Compliment them for doing the right thing or doing something well, but it is important that they be rescued from the immature stage of only doing things to please others and to receive praise. As they get older, point out to them the internal rewards of doing good things.

“You must feel really good to have done that so well”. Some gifted children get so much praise when they are young that they get terribly discouraged later on when they find themselves ‘streamed’ into classes with other kids of similar ability, and no longer get the high dosage of praise.

Sometimes encouragement is better than praise

The difference is that praise is seeing what they do, and encouragement is seeing what they could do. “I see you’ve made a start, and what you’ve done is just great. But I know that if come back in five minutes you could do a whole lot more. I’m sure you can do it.”

Rewards, like praise, can motivate young people to work harder but, in the same way, the motivation can work in reverse when the rewards are withdrawn. If you start paying your children for chores, you will have to keep doing so!

Dreams and goals can motivate teens

When a young person has a clear dream in mind – like getting into the Air Force or owning a go-kart or winning a scholarship – then they will work really hard to achieve it. But sometimes goals can de-motivate, for example when the goal seems too remote and too big. The trick is to have lots of intermediate, easier goals (preferably with some reward) stepping towards the major goal. If a child is depressed, goals can be especially dispiriting – they have to be only tiny steps in the right direction.

Another way that goals can de-motivate is when it is not their own goal but one that has been thrust upon them. You may dream that your child is going to follow you into the family business or become a ballet dancer or a doctor – but, if it is not a dream they share, then it becomes a ball and chain rather than a motivating vision.

Boys in particular become motivated by seeing adults who are passionate about what they do. Educator Ian Lillico recalls a high school maths teacher he had who would get tears in his eyes if he was teaching a particularly ‘beautiful’ equation. They all thought he was nuts, but three boys in his class became maths teachers! Kids can become really interested in a school subject if they are inspired by someone in a profession or trade that needs that knowledge.

Adult mentors can really lift the motivation in young people

As parents we can mentor them – taking an interest in them, listening to their ideas and problems, encouraging them along. But, especially in adolescence, an adult mentor from outside the family can be especially valuable.

Don’t worry if they don’t know what they will do when they leave school

It is one of the most common questions adults ask teenagers. There is nothing wrong with not knowing! Instead, encourage them with the idea that there are so many fascinating careers out there, that there will be jobs coming up in the future that we haven’t even dreamed of yet, and that they will probably have a number of careers in their lifetime.

Help young people to discover their gifts and talents

No one is talented in every area of their life, but they will have something in which they can excel. Motivation really lifts when you are ‘working with the grain’ of your own talents.

Depression robs people of the energy to progress

Nearly all of us will have episodes of ‘the blahs’, and usually they pass and we re-engage with our usual vigour. But for some people, including a lot of young people, the depression can hang around for a long time. If your child’s lack of progress and achievement is accompanied by a persistent low mood, poor eating and sleeping, poor self-care etc. consider talking to your doctor or a counsellor about strategies to treat both the depression and the lack of motivation.

Some teens run out of steam just because they are poor managers of their time and energy. They are not doing much because they are already doing too much – too much computer, too much going out, too much TV. And we all need to be vigilant about drugs. A lack of motivation is one of the key signs that your young person is using marijuana or some other drugs.


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