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Help Your Teen Find Motivation

If you have a teenager, chances are you have had a conflict over motivation in the last 24 hours. Whether it is warring over YouTube or video games, or asking 12 times before a chore gets done, you are not alone! These conflicts are frustrating, and leave many parents asking, “Why do I have to push so hard to get them to do things I know they can do?” The answer may lie in your teen’s developing brain; specifically, their brain’s reward pathways and their prefrontal cortex.

As your child transitions out of late childhood and into early adolescence (ages 12-13), a dramatic change happens in their brain’s reward system. Increases in brain activity within dopaminergic (releasing dopamine) pathways super-charge your teen’s experience of excitement and engagement with risky and rewarding activities. These changes make activities that are designed to be highly rewarding (like TV and video games) and risky or thrilling activities (like skateboarding or rock climbing) even more exciting and difficult for teens to resist.

At the same time, your teen’s prefrontal cortex is slowly starting to develop skills like impulse control, delayed gratification, planning, and goal setting. However, your teen’s growing prefrontal cortex can’t develop fast enough to keep up with their new surge of motivation for reward.

↑ Michelle Kuhn is a member of the UpLift therapist team. This video is an excerpt from our recent webinar on navigating these uncertain times together.

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The combination of high motivation to seek out reward, and little ability to think about future consequences leads to teen’s tendency to “do what feels good now.”

This unique period of brain development has important implications for motivation. Generally, when parents think about building motivation for their teens they are hoping for intrinsic motivation, which refers to actions fueled by long-term goals and inner fulfillment. Intrinsic motivation is difficult for teens, as their prefrontal cortexes, which support long term goals and understanding of complex morality, aren’t fully developed yet! However, external motivation, which is key for teens, isn’t a bad runner up. External motivators include recognition and appreciation of our work or actions, such as grades, a paycheck, and privileges, which we all work for every day!

During COVID-19, many of these external motivators have disappeared. For example, teens no longer have their teacher call out their good work in front of the class, their teammates don’t have the opportunity to see the result of their hard work on the soccer field, and they aren’t motivated to get up and out of the house by the promise of getting to see their friends.

So, what can we do to build motivation under these circumstances? Here are a few ideas:

Rewards:

Often rewards are thought of as something you physically give to your children in exchange for them doing a task, but they are so much more! Below are examples of free, easily accessible rewards that your teens are far less likely to grow tired of.

  • Frequent, specific, and genuine praise and recognition provided as soon as you notice something positive increases the chances that that positive behavior will happen again. You can even praise motivation and initiative, for example, “I noticed you went out for a walk this morning, that was a fantastic idea! I should get out there too!”
  • Privileges are another great way to reward behavior we want to see more of, and they tend to be free! Your teen might earn screen time or access to the Wifi password, ability to choose where the family gets take out, or what movie the family is watching. Ask your teen what they think are fair rewards for doing tasks they don't like. For example, “I know you don’t like loading the dishwasher every morning. What is something I could do to make sure you feel appreciated for doing that? I was thinking maybe getting 30 minutes of uninterrupted TV time right after. Or is there something else you would want to earn?” Make sure you and your teen are working together to come up with rewards that you can agree on!
  • Bigger, expensive rewards that take days or weeks to earn can be less effective for teens that have a hard time delaying gratification. If you or your teens want to use this kind of reward, a visual that tracks progress towards the reward can be a helpful motivator.

Schedules:

Creating a daily schedule is an activity best done with, and not for, your teen. Sit down together and chat about activities that are important to them, and to you. Once you have a list of each of your goals, you can create a schedule that represents a step in the right direction. To build motivation to follow through on the schedule:

  • Try to front load the day with a pleasurable, scheduled, (bonus points for social) event. Your teen is more likely to get out of bed for something they like, and even more so if it is with a friend or family member who might call them out if they don’t show! Even if this is a video game with a friend at 9 am, at least they are up!
  • Build a ‘sandwiched’ schedule. Make sure that less interesting tasks are sandwiched between something rewarding. For example, your teen might get up and go for a walk while talking to a friend on the phone, come home and make their bed and straighten their room, have breakfast, then do online homework, then gain access to YouTube.
April 24, 2020

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Michelle Kuhn, PhD

Michelle Kuhn, PhD

Michelle Kuhn, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from The George Washington University and her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Kuhn provides services to children, adolescents, and their families, utilizing evidence-based behavioral and cognitive-behavioral approaches. She has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, suicidality and self-injury, attention and behavior problems, and trauma.   Dr. Kuhn also researches new treatments for children and their families in the field of neurodevelopment disorders.