Motivating a teenager

Suren | January 07, 2021

Helping with Motivation

Parents of teenagers would be able to relate to the scene in which their adolescent ward is staring into their homework, with their thoughts lightyears away. Occasional funk is nothing to be worried about – after all which of us does not need an occasional external motivator to get out of ennui? A teenager on the other hand, may need a bit more motivation for studies and school than younger children and adults and what is construed as “laziness” may indeed be a lack of motivation to study. How does one motivate a teenager to study? How do you motivate a teenager at school?  These are some questions that most parents of teenage children ask in varying levels of desperation. 

Why do teenagers need motivation at school?

A poll conducted in 2015 found that only half of adolescents feel engaged in school, and a fifth are actively disengaged.  It has been speculated that older students feel less cared for by adults and see less value in their own work, which leads to disenchantment with school and academic activities. 

From a psychiatric viewpoint, much of the disengagement occurs because for most of childhood, motivation is caused by external factors such as rewards, parental approval, grades, awards etc. As the child becomes an adolescent, many of the external motivators, such as the desire for parental and social approval, start to diminish in importance. The teen is often caught between the need to make sense and meaning of her life and the need for external drivers, and this tussle can demotivate her.

But there could be serious underlying reasons for disengagement of the adolescent from studies and school.  Is she being bullied in school?  Is her self-esteem taking a beating because of low grades or intense competition? Does she not understand her subjects?  Is she nutritionally deficient?  Is she sleep-deprived?  Is she addicted to bad habits – digital addiction, substance abuse? Is she worried about her future? Or is it simply teenage rebellion? These are some questions that the parent must explore to understand the true cause of demotivation.

Helping child with motivation

How to motivate a teenager to study?

  • The first step is to understand the reason for the languor.  Open and empathetic communication is the key here. We have all been through adolescence, and while the physical world may have changed, the mental turmoil associated with the hormonal storm has not.  Empathy will help us understand them better and them to open out to us.

  • “Because I said so”, is not the parental answer to a teenager’s “Why must I study?”. Legitimate answer – “good grades will make you feel better”, “daily homework will prevent last minute rush ”– may make them see reason.  

  • Sometimes self-doubt arises from not knowing the use of doing something. Daniel Pink, author of many motivational books, calls relevance "the fourth R." We or teachers can help students see the relevance of their studies to motivate them. 

  • It is important to let the kid know that it is ok to dislike some activities, but she’d have to do it anyway, and all of us do a little of what we don’t like in order to do a lot of what we like.  For example, doing math now and getting a good grade, will help in getting into the college with a good humanities program that she eventually wants – short term sacrifice is needed for long term gains.

  • Talk about what the child wants and likes, at least once a week, so that you are not always nagging, and are involved in all aspects of her life. When my teenage daughter salutes and says “YES SIR” to something I said, I take it that I have commanded her enough for the day, laugh, and listen to her monologue about the latest youtuber.  It is ok to goof off now and then.  All work and no play certainly did not help Jack.

  • Do not do your child’s work to bail her out.  If she panics the night before her project report is due and she has not even started, she needs to face the consequence of her procrastination. There’s no motivator like being called out in class by the teacher.

  • Set deadlines for your child to do her chores, homework, and studies.  Make sure she meets the deadlines.   Set the penalty as withdrawal of activities that she likes to do.  As much as it may sound like a boot-camp, your job is to make her accountable to herself.

  • It is ok to avail of professional help to counsel the child if she will not listen to you, or if there is an underlying psychosomatic reason that you are unable to figure out. 

  • Lead by example.  Our children behave as we behave not as we ask them to.  It hit me between my eyes one day when, in the middle of my lecture to her about how she cannot grumble about homework – after all what else does she have to do, she said “but you always grumble about cooking”.  I stopped complaining about cooking (at least to her), that day.

  • Are you over-reacting to the teenager’s transient behavior?  Pause and ask yourself if you have never taken a day off work, just to get out of the monotony of it all.  Perhaps that is just what the child needs – a break.  

  • Ensure that the child is not nutritionally deficient and sleep deprived, and gets her daily round of exercise and social interaction outside of the digital realm.  Research has shown that the circadian rhythms of teenagers is different, which could lead to sleep deprivation, and associated psychological problems, including lethargy. Human contact has been shown to help with brain health and exercise can help release the feel-good brain chemicals which in turn improve cognition, mood and motivation.  

Motivation is an intrinsic factor and we cannot motivate someone else, even if they are our own flesh and blood.  We can, however, help them motivate themselves.


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