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.

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