Learning how to motivate a teenager requires understanding how motivation develops and how the teen brain operates…
Motivation Is An Inside Job
One of the most important lessons a parent can learn is you cannot externally motivate your teenager. Not only will your efforts create more resentment and disappointment, it’ll leave your teen ill-equipped for adult life.
When they’re grown, they won’t have you to stand over their shoulder and tell them when to brush their teeth, shower, or clean their room. And what about when they’re away at college, or in a serious relationship? Continuing to manage your teen’s life isn’t sustainable.
Research has shown us that long term motivation isn’t created by external factors like punishment, shaming or even carrot and stick rewards. Your teen motivates themself as they learn to leverage their internal drive and create habits to support action.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
Scientific research has shown us that a certain amount of pressure helps the adult brain produce motivation to complete a task—this concept is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law. However, in the teen brain, it takes significantly longer to reach an optimal level of stimuli in order to move into action (ADD/ADHD take even longer).
In other words, if something is a priority on your time, it’s probably not yet a priority on your teenager’s time. That wet towel sitting on the bathroom floor is irritating you, creating a stimulus to pick it up, but your teen hasn’t even felt it yet.
It can be difficult to remember this when you’re frustrated and fresh out of patience with them. Their brain is literally operating in a different way from yours. Shaming or condemn them for something they have no control over only makes this situation worse.
Stop Rescuing Them From Natural Consequences
Your job as a parent is not to provide external motivation, but rather to help them develop their own internal motivation. So the answer to how to motivate a teen becomes less of a quick fix and more of a long-term project.
The next time your teen leaves the wet towel on the floor, say to them, “Hey, I’m pretty sure we talked about this, will you please pick up the towel?” I know you may be annoyed or frustrated, so take a deep breath first to get regulated. Remember, your teen’s brain is operating on an emotional level, not a logical one. So be patient with them!
When they do get around to picking it up, make sure to thank them! Not with a bitter tone—just a simple and sincere thank you. They’re human just like you are, and humans make mistakes and forget things especially when they’re developing new habits. Have patience and be consistent.
Over time your teen will learn to pick up the towel, but only from experiencing the natural consequences of not picking it up in order to actually develop this awareness and habit. This is why when you pick up the towel yourself, you’re training your teen to tune out your requests.
This is what understanding how to motivate a teenager comes down to: patience, consistency, compassion, and more patience!
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