How to Motivate a Teenager

Working with adolescents and their families has brought to the forefront that affecting change relies heavily on understanding motivation.  This is not to say that this is the primary factor to consider when working to discover how to help create change, but it definitely is a significant factor in the overall treatment model that is used.  Working at New Haven, it has been my absolute pleasure to work within one of the most fantastic relationship models I have ever experienced.  That being said, I have had the unique opportunity to try to understand what about the relationship is very important and why it is so motivating to the young ladies and the families for whom we provide services.  This has left me to reflect on the nature of motivation and how a few different types of motivation work.

To begin, it seems to be provident to discuss the meaning of motivation from a clinical perspective.  Motivation in treatment has to do with an individual’s locus of control.  Understanding that a person will begin by being externally motivated, while working to have experiences that speak to their internal locus of control, thereby they will increase their internal motivation for change.  Looking at a few different motivations for change, there appears to be a trend developing that would identify a spectrum of motivation for change that begins with an external nature and moves towards a deeper, longer lasting internal nature.  Through that spectrum, four motivational factors seem to stand out above all of the rest.  The spectrum appears to run from external to internal or shortest lasting motivation to the longest lasting motivation.  The spectrum for discussion can be identified in order as follows: fear, guilt, duty and love.

Breaking down each of the identified motivators, we will examine fear which is at the lower end of the motivational spectrum.  Fear is the most common form of motivation because, for most, it seems to be the easiest to understand.  If we look at an example of not speeding when we drive, we understand that this is a situation where we are motivated not to break the rules or laws because we don’t want to get in trouble and have to pay a fine.  More practically, as we work with adolescent girls, we look at rules and boundaries set by parents.  One rule that comes up frequently is curfew.  The rule is often viewed as restricting, but will be followed because the result of not following the rule tends to be a greater restriction or not being allowed to go out at all. That being said, the motivation to follow the rule can be viewed as simply not wanting to miss out on time with friends.  The challenge that we often run into with following rules because we are afraid of the consequence is that the motivation is temporary and nearly completely external.  We find that eventually we are not as afraid of the consequence or are willing to accept the consequence so we can arrive at our destination faster or stay out with our friends for a longer period of time.  When viewing a curfew, the argument also comes up that it is not fair because it is simply a limit that has been placed without consulting.  Many new arguments can and do occur when motivation is fear based because of the feelings of powerlessness.

The next motivating factor on the spectrum is guilt.  Guilt may seem to be slightly confusing as it does not jump out as something that would be motivating.  During my tenure in the therapeutic world, the one phrase that causes me to cringe above all others is “if you love me, you would do this”.  The frustration that occurs when that phrase is uttered is based on the feeling that there does not seem to be a good argument to refute what is being said, especially when that person is still so externally motivated.  This form of motivation is also one that is temporary, although less temporary than fear, because the pressure that comes from living up to someone else’s expectation or maintaining the love of that person is exhausting.

Moving from an external motivation to a more internal motivation, the next factor on the spectrum to be considered is duty.  Duty is defined as something a person feels obligated to do based on moral or legal obligation.  In terms of motivation or, in more therapeutic terms, relationships, duty is adjusted or based on attachment to a values system.  Our values system comes close to our core meaning and is held precious, providing us a compass of sorts to guide the decisions we make.  Moving into an internal locus of control, the values that we allow to guide our lives become so deeply rooted and ingrained in our daily interactions that we begin to feel as though we owe ourselves to stay true to the beliefs we attach to our core meaning.  This sense of duty to self, or owing to ourselves to maintain the values that help to define our core meaning is the first step towards being emotionally independent and thus being motivated by our own beliefs as opposed to the anxieties we have about external people or things.

The final part of the spectrum, the most internally motivated place, is love.  This seems a nebulous topic, but the best way to describe it is as love for one’s self.  We move from not just a sense of owing it to one’s self to stick to their core meaning and values system, to a sense of loving one’s self enough to make choices that are based on the values system they have created through conscious effort and copious amounts of time spent examining themselves and learning who they truly are.  As one comes to love their true self, there is a significant value placed on loving and honoring the work they have done and being motivated by the love for self that has developed so much that there is an undeviating course projected towards self-actualization.  This process takes time and has unlimited potential.  The time is the hardest challenge, but given the effort, the cost is entirely worth the pay out.

As we work towards the ideal of self love or self-actualization, we must learn to be patient with ourselves.  We have to be willing to accept that results do not come overnight and the process is grueling.  Looking forward, the light at the end of the tunnel shows us many situations where we have control and can see ourselves in a manner that reflects the love we have towards ourselves and the love we wish to share with others.  Our needs are met first, while helping to provide for the needs of others, primarily on an emotional level.  This is the greatest gift we can give to others: learning to love one’s self to a point where we can selflessly give to others.

By, Scott Lovelace