The 7 Secrets of Motivating Teenagers

by Chris

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There is a good reason that the stereotypical view of modern teenagers is they are lazy kids who just want to sleep in, play computer games, surf the net and hangout with their friends. The reason this view exists is because all around the world this is all parents see their teenagers doing.

The image of the lazy teenager has become so commonplace that many people simply assume that being lazy and unmotivated is a natural consequence of adolescence.  Such thinking, while understandable, is essentially misguided.

Once upon a time, teenagers where some of the most hardworking members of society. Long before shopping malls, computer games, and high schools, teenagers were expected to work with the adults, and work hard.

Many teenagers responded well to this invitation, did work hard, and were motivated to do so. They did this because what they were doing had a point, and it matched their natural desire to be treated and considered as adults.

Teenagers worked hard learning a trade, taking on responsibility around the farm, learning to cook and keep house, striving to prove themselves in adult company because they could see these tasks mattered. They understood how what they were being asked to do was preparing them for the future. The jobs themselves were real jobs that had to be done and hence provided a sense of significance and value.

A lot has changed you might say. And you are right a lot has changed. But despite all the changes, teenagers are essentially the same. What has changed the most is the context in which teens grow up and the significance of what they are expected to do.

Very few teenagers completely lack motivation.  What many teenagers lack is the motivation to do stuff that doesn’t matter, doesn’t seem important, or is about satisfying an agenda that doesn’t relate to them.

With this context in mind, here are my 7 Secrets to Motivating Teenagers

1. What is In It For Me?

This is the most important motivational ingredient of them all!

If your teen does not understand what the task has to do with them, or their well-being, then it will be a struggle for them to find the desire to carry it out.

Teenagers long to feel significant. They want to demonstrate to themselves and the world that they matter and are capable of making a difference.  Many of the problems teens encounter today is because their desire to be significant is ignored or diminished.

If your teenager understands the value to them of the task, you will have little problem motivating them to do it. At this point, I need to tell many parents that teenagers do not regard “making their parents life easier” as being something of high value to them.

If your teenager wants to wear clean clothes, they will be motivated to cooperate with requirements relating to laundry. If your teenager wants to eat they will find the motivation to cooperate with meal time chores. Some tasks don’t have consequences quite so obvious. Personally as a teenager I couldn’t see how vacuuming the carpet made any difference to life, so maybe this wasn’t the best chore for me to do. I did however notice when the rubbish bin was overflowing. Give your teen chores that they can see value in doing.

The other common task that is not meaningful to teenager is homework. Many an adolescent has failed to see the point of learning algebra or ancient history. Trying to explain possible practical uses of abstract learning can be an exercise in futility.

Youth expert Josh Shipp has a helpful way of dealing with these types of issues.  He talks about helping teens understand by using the statement:

You have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.”

This is a helpful statement because it is true in so many areas of life. Sometimes we all do work  for no other reason than it needs to be done. Helping teenagers see meaningless tasks as part of life’s greater goals is a valuable message to pass on.

Getting schoolwork done is necessary for a teen who wants to get into the university course of their choice, or be considered for their dream job one day.  Getting out and finding a part time job is needed if they want to have money to spend on going out, buying a car, or getting the latest piece of technology.

This axiom also applies to the chores your teen doesn’t see as important. By linking the completing of chores to privileges such as use of computers, cars, TV’s etc. your teenager learns that sometimes we do things we don’t want to do in order to enjoy the things we want to do. Regular practice is vital to being able to play well when it comes to the day of the game or the performance.

2. Let Them Have a Say

If your teenager feels like all they are being asked to do is to fit into your agenda, your timetable, and conform to your way of doing things they are not going to be terribly motivated.

When parents give the reason “Because I told you so,” they create a demotivating environment. Developmentally, teenagers are seeking to establish themselves as their own person, independent from their parents. Is it any wonder that being asked to conform to a parent’s agenda is demotivating?

Give your teenager a say in what and how things are done. If your teenager has had a say in setting the agenda and the timetable they will be much more motivated to participate.

  • Discuss with them what chores they would prefer to do around the house.
  • Set deadlines, but give them the freedom to choose when and how a task is completed
  • Discuss with them what they think is a reasonable expectation and then share your expectations. Try to work to a compromise position you can both live with.
  • Give your teenager responsibility for whole tasks. For instance if they have to cook one night a week, let them set the menu and arrange for the shopping to be done. Or if their job is to clean the bathroom let them be responsible for decorating it as well.

3. Let Them Learn From Failure

When parents constantly step and rescue their teen’s from failing they undermine their teenager’s ability to grow up. No parent wants to see their kids fail, but it is through failure that we grow and learn to improve.

What gives a task significance is the consequences or what is at stake if it doesn’t get done.  When parents prevent teens from experiencing the consequences of failure they rob a task of it’s significance, and hence their teenager’s motivation to do better next time.

If your teen is responsible for taking the rubbish out every week and they don’t get it done, then they become responsible for managing the mess and overflowing bins for the following week. They will learn more from this than by a parent repeatedly nagging them at 11pm the night before, or doing it for them.

Similarly, if your teen chooses not to study for an exam and fails they are more likely to be motivated next time. Parents can maximize these opportunities by asking questions rather than giving lectures. Discuss with your teen how they feel about the outcome, what they might do different next time, and ask if there is anything they need from you to help them.

(If your teen doesn’t study and passes anyway then there is no issue – except the sense of perceived injustice parents are inclined to feel.)

4. Help Them to Remember

It is not always the case that teenagers don’t do things because they are not motivated, often they fail to follow through simply because they forget. The reality is teenagers, particularly younger ones, are hardwired to forget. Their brains are reforming and haven’t yet got all the bits joined up.

With all the stuff going on in their life it is very easy for teenagers to get distracted and forget. They need help to remember what they committed to do and to get organized.

It is important to point out that constant verbal reminders from parents, also referred to as nagging, is not the solution. If you nag your teenager, you make it about your agenda and about keeping you happy. This does not help your teenager’s motivation; in fact nagging is a great demotivator.

Teaching your teens to be organized and remember is part of what parent’s need to do. Work with your teen to develop methods of remembering that don’t require you to be involved.

  • Use visual aids such as charts, colour coded rosters or timetables, and place them in obvious places.
  • Help your teen create routines in their weeks that help them to establish patterns.
  • Leave little hints around the house about a task that needs to be completed
  • Get them to use an App or program on their computer, phone, or ipod as part of the reminding process.

5. Make It Achievable

Sometimes it is the size of the task that teenagers find hard. It isn’t that they don’t want to do it, but rather they don’t know where to start and it all looks to hard.

If your teen is putting off getting started, it can sometimes be helpful to sit down with them to find out how they are feeling about getting it done. Do they know where to start? Do they feel like they will never be able to do it so can’t be bothered starting? Maybe they feel scared about failing?

Whatever the reason, offering to help your teen think through a process for getting the job done could be just the thing they need.

Break the task up into a series of smaller achievable tasks with shorter deadlines.  Teenagers often struggle with long term planning, but respond well to more immediate time horizons. By helping your teen come up with a series of small steps, you empower them to work their way through the task.

Sometimes it might be worth getting your teen to think of little rewards they could give themselves after each mini milestone is reached.

This method can be applied to school projects, sporting or artistic goals, jobs around the home, fixing relationships, future careers or even moving out of home.

6. Provide Incentives

This is a more specific example of point 1 “What is in it for me?”  But it is worth spelling out separately.

As mentioned earlier not all tasks have an obvious intrinsic consequence that can be used as motivation. Some school assignments are just there to be done, and some chores don’t seem to make a great deal of difference to the immediate quality of life.

Even more importantly, some tasks can’t be linked to larger outcomes in a way that motivates a teenager. For teenager’s who lack confidence and/or natural ability, the motivation to do better in certain subjects at school can be very hard to find. Likewise, for the teen is not naturally coordinated or athletic the motivation to participate in physical activity can be hard to find.

For these type of instances providing an additional incentive can help generate motivation where otherwise there would be none. By offering rewards for effort, improvement, or participation, you reinforce in your teenager the values of trying and perseverance, rather than rewarding the act of giving up or resigning.

Learning what your teenagers ‘love language’ is can be a great help in this regard. Does your teen respond well to encouraging words, gifts, quality time, physical affection or some other form of affirmation?  Knowing what type of incentive your teen will respond best to will increase their motivation and responsiveness.

7. Make It Fun

This motivational principle applies to people of all ages, not just teens. Most people are more motivated to do something fun rather than something boring.

Fun is the key ingredient to getting teens active and motivated to participate in social activities. If you want your teen to get out of the house, get active, and make new friends, then explore with them what activities it is they enjoy doing and encourage them to do it. Remember what you enjoy may not be what your teen enjoys. Be sure to show interest and value whatever it is that your teen considers interesting and fun.

Teenager’s, particularly boys, respond to competition. No matter how menial the task, any job can be transformed into a passion filled activity if there is a competitive aspect involved. Competition doesn’t always require having others to compete against, sometimes young people respond to the challenge to better their own previous efforts.

If your teenager can learn something by playing games, watching a movie, or searching the Internet then encourage them to do it. Using technology as part of any task makes it instantly more appealing to young people today.

So there you have 7 methods for building teenage motivation. As usual if you have some more to add please share with us all in the comments section below.

  • Hick

    Our 13yo girl is very intelligent so completes most of her school work in class, so very little homework. She then spends most of her nights & weekends on a screen or reading. She does one sport which she loves but this is happens during the week. When asked to get off a screen, she asks what else is there to do. There is very few youth activities on offer in our town, especially on weekends. I am at a loss to help her become more active & I don’t want it to turn into a power struggle. Any suggestions?

    • lauraB

      Take away the screen and book and leave it up to her!! You are unhappy about the status quo- is don’t put up with it. Where are her friends? Don’t you have housework she can help with? What did you do at this age?

    • jessica

      If she’s completing her school work and homework and plays a sport during the week which she loves, why do you have an issue with her taking some alone time to read and use the computer? School is 8 hours a day of being social (even if she’s not talking, she’s in a social environment). Many introverts become drained and exhausted from social interactions and need time to relax and be alone to de-stress. Try reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, as it might help you understand her perspective a bit better. But she sounds like a perfectly motivated teen if she’s completing homework at school and playing a sport that she loves.

  • Rd

    My 13year old son never completes his school work. Is completely disinterested in any sports or hobbies. He spends his time watching TV and playing games. No amount of punishments or corrections have any effect on him. Please help.

    • SN

      SN Rd I just saw your comments and do acknowledge very similar to mine. I guess your son has also less friends and might be the only son in your house. I am trying to do following, – going for jogging with him at least thrice a week. Engaging him in playing outdoor games in turn helping him to mix up with others. Once they learn the fun, positive energy will come in him and slowly he will find interest. He may be completely lost out from his study hence not able to follow what teacher says, since he is not understanding, probably losing interest. He may regain once he starts understanding what Is been taught.

  • M

    My 13 1/2 yr old daughter is not interested in any sports or anything, I ask her what she would like to do, I was going to enroll her in a hip hop class she said no, she was in dance a couple yrs ago, everything she has been in has been me forcing her..I am at my wits end…

    • martin6673

      “…has been me forcing her…”
      as is mentioned somewhere on this site: spend time with her, value her as she is, learn to know her activities and positively value them. As positive as the effects of physical activities are: there is no need to implement negative self-esteem in her, if she doesn’t want to.
      Having a positive emotional relationship is imho 100 times more important than any other values we might have.
      Your post is from long ago, and maybe it won’t reach you, but I felt I had to answer.
      I hope it is ok that I did so. If not please tell me so Chris!

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  • Aliyah Walsh

    I myself being a teenager completely agree with this article we do find our selves wanting to work towards a goal that has a reward or incentive promised. I have a plea of help. I guess you could say i’m the smart-lazy kid,so my grades are very mediocre although my school has placed me in the gifted program. I don’t believe that i have gotten lazy because I feel like I have accomplished everything already I just simply don’t feel like doing in other words i’m not motivated. I have very prestigious goals in life meaning they are going to take a lot of work and so far i’m not where I want to be. last year I was a straight a student now well I can just say i’m not anymore. Some suggestions on how I could change my ways in school would be great!

    • much2learn

      Aliyah, what about finding a mentor in an area of interest that can help you be motivated? I find that sometimes if kids goals are ‘far away’, they do not have clear steps and payoffs for working towards them. If you are bright, you need engagement. Ask a teacher, administrator, parent or the parents of a friend to help you draft a letter of mentor request, or connect you with some people if you are intimidated to do so on your own. If you want to do it on your own, find some areas of interest, reach out to Human Resources of some companies, twitter, or LinkdIn, and ask if anyone would be willing to mentor. You will make great connections of your future, find purpose and get great experiences.

  • mary had a little lamb

    I disagree with this article, my brother wants to only play call of duty and watch youtube. He dropped out of lacrosse and does every chore assigned to him half assed, and his grades are mediocre. I want to see him strive, so my family and I tried stuff like the article said and more, but nothing worked.He wants to join the navy, but with his laziness he will receive a dishonorable or get killed. Is there any other option to help him be someone more active and valuable in society?

    • martin6673

      maybe there is something deeper in his soul that needs love and healing…maybe then a mentor or counselor OF HIS TRUST can help.
      But otherwise: As I read your post, I get the feeling that you are worried about the well-being of your brother and of his social status. But I also read, that you don’t see him as a valuable person. Do your parents feel the same? Because this is a tricky situation: he has to feel valuable to act the like. And there is this thing with computer-games: your value is definded and honor comes immediately after action…
      Hope this helps!

  • martin6673

    I very much agree with this.
    But it will work best if the relationship is good, as described in the articles about trust I had the pleasure to read. From my experience as a father (boy 17, girl 14) and as a youth-worker I would say the relationship is the basis for everything. Loving and valuing the child as he/she is. From there you can trust, that what you do and say will be of importance to your teen. Even if he/she does act different.
    Chris, I love your site, very inspiring!
    P.S.: I hope my English isn’t to bad to read and understandable

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  • jenteal

    I was reading the comment you posted from mary had a little lamb. I believe my son has terrible self esteem issues. I’m constantly telling him he is capable and smart but just tells me things like “you just say that because your my mom” Any ideas on how to make him feel valuable without saying it because he just shoots me down. Thanks

    • Christine Kelly MacInnis

      Self-esteem comes from successes, NOT being told you are smart or capable. Anyone can be told those things about themselves and yes, as his mom, you could just be saying that. He needs to FEEL that he is successful and important. Find areas where he can shine and have talents- every teen needs to see one area that they can achieve well. For most kids that happens at school or in sports. But those don’t have to be the only two outlets. Help him find his area of expertise and I promise you will see his self esteem rise.

    • Masha Makhlyagina

      Never praise a kid just because. Always praise a good effort and him trying new things. When we praise kids as “smart” and “capable” just because they exist, they do not see how their worth is tied to their passion, effort, or interest. Get him to try a new food, a new sport, a new game, a new hobby– say ‘just try it once, if you hate it we don’t have to do it again.” Then praise him for trying something new. Baby steps.
      (Special Education teacher)

  • Bongi Gomba

    I agree with this,because this teaches us how to stay motivated as teen and to have high self esteem to believe in our selfs. That is the teen power!!!!!!!!!