My Child is not motivated… How can I help?

One of the most common complaints parents may express regarding their teens is the lack of motivation. Often, it is about lack of academic motivation or lack of motivation for behavioral improvement. For other teens, it may refer to lacking motivation for social interactions, for hobbies, for sports, or even complete and total lack of motivation. We know how important it is to be “driven” – motivated in a way that gets you to pursue your goals despite any obstacles put forth. Parents and educators worry because without strong motivation it is hard to achieve anything at all, let alone anything worthwhile.

P60128-113425When dealing with no motivation, there are two questions at hand. The first question concentrates on the origin, or reasons behind the lack of motivation of teens. Why does that happen? Did something go wrong? Is it innate and are they born or wired that way?

The second question focuses more on the solution. While it is important to understand how our teens became so unmotivated, it may be more relevant to figure how we can help them to become more motivated.

The developmental and psychological literature offers many models and theories for motivation. One very helpful model is Self Determination Theory, developed in Rochester, NY by Rich Ryan and Ed Deci. Self Determination Theory (SDT) established three major human needs that, when met, result in ideal and positive development. These include Relatedness – feeling related and like you belong; Competency – feeling that you can achieve what you are trying to achieve; and Autonomy – feeling that you are the master of youth own fate. Lately, another factor was found to be significant, namely, the sense of meaning and positive influence we have on others. From SDT we learn that two important factors  influence motivation. The first is the feeling of incompetence. When we feel unable to achieve whatever our goals are, we stop trying. This can be task specific, like math homework or making friends, but it can also be more generalized to life. The second factor is thefree spirit נפש חופשיתsource of motivation – researchers have found that while we are born curious and driven to explore, when outside controls are introduced, we lose our intrinsic motivation. A classic study demonstrating this effect was done with kindergarten children: While children draw for fun, when their teachers rewarded them for drawing with smiley stickers, within two weeks they stopped drawing spontaneously and only drew for stickers. This important finding suggests that internal motivation is highly susceptible to controls, and once we try to control behavior, by rewarding or punishing it, we take away the internal motivation for learning or any other activity.

It is not difficult to imagine how criticizing or punishing children for their school work or other positive behaviors can diminish their sense of competency and internal motivation. Furthermore, research shows that even rewarding children for something they do spontaneously (i.e. paying kids for their school grades or other chores) can take away their intrinsic motivation.

Here are some very simple things parents can work on:

  1. Encourage and appreciate your child and their efforts. Don’t criticize them and the products of %d7%91%d7%99%d7%a9%d7%95%d7%9ctheir labor. More than anything notice and note the joy they experience when engaged. It is always important to encourage to give your child the sense of being loved regardless of her or his achievements.
  2. Let your child cope and experience things even if they are challenging – be it emotional distress, a difficult task, etc. When you jump in, your message becomes “you can’t and I have to help you”. Be there, encouraging from the sidelines, rather than running the ball for them. It is okay to manipulate the task’s difficulty level to enable success – without taking away the challenge and without taking away their sense of self-efficacy.
  3. Try to allow your child to experience and experiment without stepping in to take over – doing school work, sports, etc. When you step in and take over, they understand that you want it more than they do, and automatically step back and start to lose interest.
  4. Try to give a soft message of not giving up on things. It is okay to take a break and rest for a while, but we want to complete our tasks.

Teens in trouble are a prime example of such issues. They have received much criticism and punishment or bribing that ensures that they lose any bit of motivation or sense of competency that would allow them to be driven to succeed. By their teenage years, whenever they try and fail or falter, they themselves criticize their own ability to be consistent and successful. All these lead to a low sense of competency in achieving long term goals, which in turn leads to lack of motivation – they simply gave up on trying.

How can we help? Re-establishing teens’ sense of competency and motivation is a difficult task since we are almost forced to force them to do something, which we have just learned how counterproductive it can be. Instead, if we focus on small instances of motivation, we can start to build some sense of success, with very short term goals. This is often called “catch them doing well” and is known to be a powerful intervention. For a child and for parents who are used to interacting on negative terms, experiencing real and consistent positive praise can be very significant in jumpstarting their sense of competence and motivation.

In many cases, your child is already trying to make progress and put forth the effort. It may be a little like trying to quit smoking – you can do that for a while and then you slip. What happens when your child falters makes all the difference. If your message essentially comes down to – “You never finish what you started… we knew you would eventually go back to your old self”, your child will learn that there is very little chance for success because her or his true self is the negative failing one. If, on the other hand, your message is closer to “you made amazing progress, it is natural to slip and fall back on the way, just pick up and get back on the horse”, than your child will realize that change is possible and it is already happening.

img_2048Another great, but more difficult to implement, intervention comes from the world of outdoor therapy. As it turns out, when it is practically impossible to “bailout” from a task or a situation, as often happens midway on a wilderness trek, teens learn that they are capable of more than they first imagined. The ultimate outcome from such an experience is that they start dreaming about more things they didn’t think they could accomplish and are possibly within reach. They are more willing to try and not give up as quickly. Slowly, working from short term to long term goals, they become more motivated because they believe that they can. This is particularly true when the goals are truly their own.

img_2070We are all born curious and motivated to feel competence and be successful. As adults, often all we need to do is be supportive, stay out of the way, and allow for natural growth to occur. However, with some teens who have experienced too much negative feedback, it takes much more dedicated conditions to allow for stunned motivation to grow back and prosper. These conditions are very difficult to implement at home. Those teens who need these conditions typically require a dedicated environment for that purpose, in the form of many programs that are available for teens, where giving up or “bailing out” is not an easy option. When done right, these programs can revive a person’s sense of competence and motivation, while reconnecting them with their own goals and dreams.


The author of this article has a doctorate in clinical psychology and is the “Director of Change” at Free Spirit experience in Israel, a nonprofit outdoor experiential program for teens from all over the world.

Happy holidays… in the Israeli desert

Just returned from our winter-break/ holiday expedition. A short 5 day hike through the Israeli Arava region, amidst the mild Mediterranean winter. The group I led was compact and tight, with three staff and three teens. We love the one-on-one ratio and intensity, as we weave in and out of involvement, allowing our teens some independent time together as a team. In such small groups, there are fewer chances to fall back and not contribute to the food and shelter preparations. Aaron, our youngest, at the age of 14, was allowed a little more leeway by his peers as they carried some of his share of weight. It seemed that with his learning disabilities and baby-face look, he was able to get away with a lot in his life and needed a serious boost to his sense of competence and endurance. Tim, on the other hand, was very independent and competent, only one year older than Aaron, he seemed ions ahead. Not a lot of what we physically did in the desert seemed new or difficult to him. He wasn’t tough by any means, just very self-reliant and seemingly lonely. He barely talked at first. Lastly, there was Guy, a high school graduate who is figuring out his next step in life, with much difficulty following through on decisions and goals.  Definitely my kind of a group  – small and diverse.

My colleagues and friends for this journey were Nili and Yasmin, a psychologist who graduated from Neropa, Bolder, Colorado, and an educator with years of experience working with various youth groups in Israel.



By the fourth day, we had already coped with some rain, day and night, building night shelters or simply sitting in a makeshift cover for lunch, Mediterranean cold nights at approximately 38 degrees, navigating through some lost paths and shortcuts, and very impressive food preparation. Aaron, while nearing a breaking point on the second day, seemed stronger and more determined than ever. He made a conscious decision to stop shortchanging himself. On the third night he insisted on building his own shelter and woke up surprisingly warm and appropriately happy. Tim and Guy connected on many levels. Somehow Tim found out that his vast interests and stored information can help him connect to many people. He discussed the intricacies of video games with Guy, Aaron, and even Yasmin, Yoga with Nili, desert wildlife with me, and star constellations with all of us. His help making fire and shelters was greatly appreciated by his peers. Guy simply and steadily was present with everything that transpired. While resistant, he managed to prepare an amazing meal for everyone on the third night, start to finish, and unintentionally he discovered the power he had by just being with someone. His effect on Tim was very noticeable and empowering for Tim, and once pointed out to Guy, it became empowering to him as well. While he had always claimed not to like “children” or bother to do something for others, his entire journey with us was filled with caring gestures and positive feedback.

The fourth day itself was special to all of us. As the trip was nearing its end, we slowly made our final and toughest physical climb up and trough a ridge. Guy picked a challenging course and pummeled through it all the way to the top, not stopping for a second. He had to wait for us for quite some time. Aaron seemed to hop from one rock to the next with no effort, despite the heavy backpack and blistered toe. Tim took the time to help whoever needed in figuring out the right path and making it to the top in one piece. The shouts of relief were quite audible once someone reached the top! We found a beautiful location for lunch and took out our rewards – tuna cans and beef jerkey we had saved for 4 days. It was a short hike from there to our final night camp. On the way there we played lead-the-blind and noticed the amount of trust and responsibility that was built in our group. Then we finally arrived to a dry but green mid-desert waterfall. Talk was halted as we descended to the bottom and picked out sleeping spot. After dinner and our day-close talk we separated and let the group be. For us the staff, it was a sweet sorrow, as this experience was nearing its end, having been so meaningful and full with wonders. We spent a couple more hours processing our thoughts and feelings before going to sleep for one more night under the open sky.

Thank you for reading our blog. Our stories are not always complete or picture perfect. They are real – both events and our own need to put it into writing. Please feel free to comment or ask questions. We love your feedback!

Short and Sweet… our desert trip


We just came back after a short 3 day hike in the Dead Sea area. The Dead Sea, as you may know, is the lowest point on earth. Metaphorically, it is a good starting point for our program: You can only go up from here and see how far you are able to reach. You learn that you can deal with various situations. You can help yourself and also help other people in the group. You can get help from others as well. The point is that you can!

This is a firsthand account of a two-on-one trip with one of our boys. A 17 year old (let’s call him Jer). Jer is very bright and pretty competent – he loves to ride mountain bikes, but prefers the computer screen. Jer also presents with Spectrum like behaviors and difficulties, though he was never really diagnosed. According to his parents, no psychologist or psychiatrist ever “survived” him long enough for a diagnosis or a recommendation, thus he was left alone at school by staff and peers. Eventually, his behavior was too disruptive and the school asked the family to look for an alternative placement.

To get to our hiking destination, we started on a two hour drive with a view that changes from the northern green to the typical Jerusalem golden brown and then the almighty desert-yellow. Then, within the desert you suddenly see the “big blue” with those bright white spots: The Dead Sea. When you finally get out of the car you can feel how warm it is. This is the perfect time in the year for these trips – it is nice and warm out despite the winter. In your backpack you have all you need for the next few days: All the water, food, warm clothes for the colder nights, your sleeping bag and, of course, your notebook. Shortly after heading out, we found ourselves facing the first serious uphill. A quick thought crept in about the car with the AC we had left behind 5 minutes ago. We started climbing together. It was not easy. You are quickly reminded how important team work is and how enriching it is for someone like Jer to experience us as humans and individuals. All for one for all. Jer did really well. When we finally made it to the top, the feeling was amazing. We started not long ago and already you say to yourself “Yes! I did it!”

photo-02-04-2016-9-51-24-amWe walked about 6 miles today, mostly uphill, and are already getting to know each other better. We talked a lot… something about the walk elicits so much conversation, compared to a face-to-face session.  We helped each other a lot. Giving and receiving help seemed so natural here. How different it was from Jer’s everyday conduct: He is typically quick to jump in and help but not as willing to ask or receive help when needed. Here in the desert he appreciated the need to cope on your own, thus checking if the other person needs help, together with the need to rely on each other, thus accepting help and even asking for it when he couldn’t climb one of the rocks. The best part, however, was listening to the silence that surrounded us. There were no phones. No screens. Just you, the people near you and the powerful desert.


When we finally arrived where we could camp for the night, we took off our backpacks and shoes. You can really feel your feet and back when that weight is off! After a short rest, we started work again. The weather is comfortable, thus shelter is not an issue. Our efforts focused on building a fire and preparing food. With such a small group, no one can rest, especially when the next person is working. Soon enough we were eating red rice and tahini for carbs and protein, and all we had left to do was our day-summary talk and hit the sac. It is always interesting to listen to each other summarizing the day, expressing thanks and regrets and pointing high and low points. Hearing your own voice amidst the dark, silent desert is just as curious.

img_2029The following days had new high and low points. After the first 24 hours your body starts to adjust better to the climate and hard work. Each day we started by writing our thoughts in a personal notebook. Jer had some amazing insights… a few he was willing to share – with us and with his parents back home, who immensely enjoyed reading them, along with some amazing pictures we sent when we could. It was the first time in months that they saw him content, smiling, and talking about future plans. There’s a long road ahead of us still, but moments like that are a real sign that we are heading in the right direction.

On the way back to the Kibbutz we were too tired to notice the view changing back to green. While we adjusted and became comfortable with all the dust and dirt, we couldn’t wait for the nice warm shower in the room, and the freshly made food variety in the dining hall.

What do you see in these two picture? A blog entry by one of our young adults

What do you see in these two pictures?

When I first arrived at my new room at Free Spirit’s facilities a week after the New Year all I wanted to do was unpack my bags. Everything was going swell, the staff members were all coming by to introduce themselves and I was feeling very welcome, when I made a dire realization and slowly clenched my jaw and fist in frustration. I hadn’t brought any sandals. I didn’t bring sandals to Israel. The first thing anybody should pack for Israel is sandals, and I hadn’t brought any.

After the initial wave of frustration passed over, I resolved to purchase a pair at the next available moment. After a trip to Tel Aviv and my wallet becoming 80 shekels lighter, I had my sandals. Problem solved and feet finally comfortable, I thought no more about my sandal conundrum until the furniture you see in these two pictures.

In America, it often feels as if we have been conditioned to pass off repairs only to experts. People are afraid to break what they already own even more or just downright don’t want to be bothered with the handiwork. When something is broken or lost, we go to the store and buy a new one. If we are missing a key ingredient for a recipe, we run off to the nearest grocery store.

Instant gratification and convenience make us worship the finished product. If it doesn’t look pretty, why even bother. There is little to no appreciation for “the process.” We get a beautiful mahogany cabinet, but have no clue how to polish wood or where to hammer nails to reinforce the shelves.  The finished product is praised, but the assembly and components alone are ugly and unappreciated.  We praise the furniture as beautiful for being aesthetically pleasing, but there is much more to appreciate then how much the rug ties the room together.

What do I see in these two pictures?

Both of these tables were made as group projects with members of Free Spirit out of entirely recycled wood and nails from around the Kibbutz. The first table pictured has become a massive space saver for us in our kitchen and was assembled during my first week on the Kibbutz. I had never worked with wood and power tools before, but fondly reminisced about my love of Legos as I acclimated. It was also a wonderful opportunity to get to know Uri and the history of Hazorea. The table pictured on the right is where we put our recycling bins. It was the first major group project I finished with Free Spirit and I am so proud of the teamwork and effort we all put into it.

Also, they are both ugly.

They are the kind of furniture that you pick up locally for free after finding a listing on CraigsList. Maybe you even get paid to take it away. You would never see them inside a Crate & Barrel or Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

But they are beautiful.

I’m glad we didn’t go to the store and buy 2 tables. I built those tables. My friends built those tables. I grew and became stronger by making those tables. I love those ugly tables.

Those tables are beautiful.

An amazing summer ahead!

An update from California, by Tamir Rotman

Finishing my visit across the US, I’ve had the pleasure and honor to meet some of our soon-to-be participants and their families. Truthfully, I am so thrilled, I had to put it down as an update!

Having visited New York and New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, and now California, I have the exciting privilege of a glimpse into our forming (and almost full!) group for the summer. I can hardly wait!

At times, it reminds me of Fields of Dreams… “Build it and they will come”. One by one, with a bag-full of hopes and aspirations, they all seem to look forward to a summer of growth, fun, and exploration. It is not a simple matter, to allow yourself these hopes. We are truly humbled and are grateful, and take it upon ourselves to provide a “good enough” field for them to sow, water, weed out, grow, and reap the fruits of their labor.

On a side note, I made it a point to visit some of our alumni, and was so excited to see them and their amazing new fields of new and greater hopes and achievements. It makes it all so worthwhile!

Thank you to all the education consultants, therapists, parents, and of course youth and young adults, who put their trust in Free Spirit.

A little bit about our family visits

It’s exciting to host families with us here at Free Spirit. Holidays or not, we try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate families who make their way to Israel to visit their son or daughter. Some families come to this experience all tense and worried: Teens worried that old habits will prevail, while parents anxious that they’ll encounter nothing but anger and resentment.

The family visit actually starts a couple of weeks prior to the parents’ arrival, as preparations on both ends focus on creating the right atmosphere. For teens, accepting parental involvement and defining some goals can be a challenge. On the parents’ end we focus on goals for the visit, and together set up the right expectations.

And then the parents arrive! We first focus on creating a positive and strength based experience for the family as a unit, while allowing their teen to show off some of the skills and progress he or she had worked on. After an emotioanl and exctinig meeting, either at the airport or in the Kibbutz, we sit together and review the past few seeks, with photos, videos and stories. This “honeymoon” period can include a tour to our facilities, a short city tour in Acko, and invariably ends driving to a remote location where we spend the night in a semi-outdoor conditions (i.e., forestry immersed huts with very basic facilities). The

 best part is cooking dinner together: Dad and mom may peel tomatoes and cut vegetables, while their son or daughter may light the fire. We make a stew with some unlikely ingredients and it all comes together as we eat, after a couple of hours.

Following dinner we sit together for a more formal session, talking about the strengths we had observed and listing some of the topics and issues different family members would like to address. Our focal message at this stage is that we’ve experience the family as something positive, worth working and being flexible for.

                                                          We typically devote two staff members to the visit, as parents tour the Kibbutz and teens show them around. Each family typically comes at a different time, allowing us to give full attention to the family process.  Two staff members allow for some parallel work and appropriate breaks when the whole family process becomes intense.

On the second day, we venture on a 5 mile walk together. We stop periodically for breaks, snacks, and more focused sessions. This unique experience can be chellenging at times, but is always filled with incredible magical moments: A son helps his father as they pass through the water stream; a family session amidst a natural pool of spring water; Simply walking silently together, and above all – spend some time as a family outside of the known comfort zone.

The day ends with a more formal and structured session, when each person addresses the other family members and staff. It’s a great time to be thankful for the experience, address some thoughts or worries regarding the return back home, or to talk about the ‘here and now’ experience. It is usually a very moving session, as many things are expressed verbally

 for the first time. The positive vibe allows the family to enjoy a few more days touring Israel. During the rest of the family visit to Israel we are available for phone and in person consultations, and eventually have another wrap-up session before the parents depart back home.






When magic happens

We wanted to share with you what magic looks like here at Free Spirit…

One of our favorite moments here at FSE is when a participant picks her or his project. It often coincides with a significant breakthrough in taking charge of one’s process. How does it happen? True to form, we try not to push, nor do we set a target date or time. We wait, while trying to spread various invitations like teasers, role modeling, and opportunities. We sometimes eagerly jump on some expression of interest, but other times we sit quietly and hold our tongues, not to interfere. Sometimes we even harbor doubts… will he connect? Will she have motivation? Do we need to provide more guidance or push harder?

But then, occasionally when we least expect it, it happens… A request gets thrown at us. It may be accompanied with a smile or even a frown, as if we are destined to shoot it down. We love those challenging ideas! We love thinking “no way” and instead asking “how?”

The magic truly starts when all of a sudden there aren’t enough hours in a day. The transformation happens when seemingly lazy and unhappy become energetic, motivated, and proud. When parents get these “can I stay longer?” questions. When the excitement sweeps others over to give a helping hand and work harder than before. When things simply become easier, be it school work, cleanup, relationships…  when we truly become collaborators on a grander scale… Magic!

In the last few months, some of our newer projects included great landscaping upgrades with herb gardens, pavement, and grass; outdoor gyms across the Kibbutz; a major kitchen overhaul; bike repairs; and incredible chef-style meals. Here are some more pictures:

Graduating and… how dishwashing changed my life

One of our participants is getting ready to graduate Free Spirit next week. He’s gone through tremendous change and growth. Recently he started talking about the one major thing he learned here. It first came up during a conversation with his mother – the value of generosity. He’s truly became generous in many ways: chores and projects he’s been working on for others, gestures of good will and true care toward peers and staff, and more. We love it, and can’t wait for him to come back as a mentor later in his life.

At the same time, another participant who is graduating, had just completed her project of choice at Free Spirit. She designed and created, with the help of the group, a challenge course for the Kibbutz kindergarteners. It was amazing to see the joy of creativity and then the pride of seeing the Kibbutz kids enjoy it so much.

For me, this brought up memories from when I was 14. My family seemed to be in a constant state of conflict. My sister and I constantly fought about everything and my parents tried to step in and got into their own fights. We fought about using each other’s stuff, about pushing the elevator button, about taking out the trash, and, of course, who’s turn it was to wash the dishes. I also remember that my teacher used to sit with me and try to help me find out why I was mad or upset all the time. She actually tried to convince me to start washing dishes daily even when it wasn’t my turn. She also talked about making it a positive and even fun experience, enjoying the warm sink water and finding curious new ways to organize the task. At first, the idea sounded utterly insane. Maybe it was the trust I put in her conviction that went beyond the trust I put into my own instincts, but I after a while I agreed to try and went “all out” into my dishwashing experiment. Three weeks later, after my parents stopped saying “I wonder how long this is going to last,” the entire house seemed to shift to a new order. My parents stopped asking me to do chores because it was obvious that I had already done enough. My sister didn’t like that I always had the upper hand, and so she started volunteering doing various chores herself. The entire family dynamic changed for the better and I felt incredibly empowered. For me it was the beginning of a lifelong journey…

Today I feel honored that someone else picked-up on that old “trick”. I wish them an amazing journey ahead!

Free Spirit free turtles – an awesome story from our last sailing expedition

A few weeks ago we came back from an amazing sailing to Cyprus with our summer program group. Uri, one of our counselors, recognized in the water something that looked like an animal trapped in a bag. Without hesitationwe turned back the boat, pulled the bag out of the water and found a turtle tangled between the strings.
We decided to take him to the Sea Turtles Rescue Center so they could help him recover, and so he made his way back to Israel with us. We also gavehim a name- Nissim- named after Sean Carmeli’s (who our program is in memory of) middle name.

Nissim is also the Hebrew word for miracles, and this sweet turtle definitely had a lot of luck being found.
Happy ending to the story- Nissim was released back to the middle of the sea this week, after recovering well and getting stronger. We wish him (or her, we don’t really know) a long and healthy life, and hopefully he will be back in the Israeli beaches in a few years.

Hindsight is always 20/20… but it isn’t too late to start that gap year!

Hurdled through life, we sometimes forget to take a deep breath and rethink about our roadmap. High School just ended, we are 18-19 years old, and we almost automatically gear up and head to a four-year college experience. Parents are afraid to steer off this mainstream highway, worrying that once off, it would be more difficult to “get back on track”. Teens play along, wanting to follow their friends and match expectations rather than appear “different” or like outsiders.

Unfortunately, young adults sometimes pay a heavy price when they are hurdled into college for the wrong reasons or when unprepared. From anxiety and depression, through social isolation or conflicts, and even self-medication and self-harming behaviors, many young college students struggle greatly and find themselves on the sidelines either barely hanging in or failing to manage the unrealistic expectations they are facing. Some are already home, trying to regroup and figure out their next move. Others may be experiencing an escalating crisis, ashamed and afraid to admit defeat.

What can be done to help?

Now, that most likely some trauma and disappointment were added to the mix, it is high time to take a break for some self-care. Being at home job hunting is not enough. Instead, turning this crisis into an opportunity and a blessing in disguise can offer true healing and a real sense of direction and growth. Here are some of the major tasks at hand:

1.      Learn more about yourself as a young adult: revisit your past, build your present

2.      Learn more coping skills – regain a sense of competency

3.      Find meaning – your meaning and possibly a sense of purpose

4.      Learn independent living skills with positive self-regulation

5.      Learn to function and live with others – collaborate, contribute, co-live

6.      Open your mind and heart to new experiences, new ideas, new   cultures..

7.      Develop a game plan for your next steps – have ownership