This is called intrinsic motivation—an inner drive towards an activity simply because the activity is enjoyable or rewarding, not because of external rewards or punishments. Learning how to work with your teen in exploring their intrinsic motivations will help them find a healthy path for their life and deepen your connection with your teen.

Creating Intrinsic Motivation In Your Teen

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Why can your teen learn the newest TikTok dance in under an hour but can’t seem to study for more than 5 minutes? Your teen learns a complex video game in less than a day; why can’t they learn a new piano piece? As frustrating as it is, it isn’t completely an adolescent’s fault that they can’t seem to do the tasks you want them to do but can easily manage difficult tasks that matter to them. 

They are dealing with a rapidly changing brain, and their motivation is now directly tied to what matters to them and no longer tied to what matters to you. This is called intrinsic motivation—an inner drive towards an activity simply because the activity is enjoyable or rewarding, not because of external rewards or punishments. Learning how to work with your teen in exploring their intrinsic motivations will help them find a healthy path for their life and deepen your connection with your teen. 

Identifying Intrinsic Motivation in Your Teen

You may think that your teen has no intrinsic motivation, but the reality is that they probably are intrinsically motivated when it comes to tasks and goals that matter to them. Sure, they aren’t particularly motivated to clean their room, but they’re probably very motivated to beat a new level on their video game or perfect their makeup. Just because they aren’t motivated to do what you want them to do doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated in any way. 

Part of helping your teen to be intrinsically motivated towards positive goals is to notice what they already seem motivated to do. Watch what makes them light up, whether it’s a new dance they learned on TikTok, a new outfit, or a cool car they saw. Sure, dances, clothes, and cars aren’t necessarily going to get them into college, but noticing their interests and then being curious about their interests creates a connection. 

Connection leads to a better chance that your teen will consider your advice and ideas rather than completely ignoring you. Additionally, you can take their seemingly frivolous interests and see if you can expand on them—maybe your teen loves cars, so you help them sign up for auto shop at the school. Or maybe you notice they love learning new dances, so you offer to help find them a dance class they feel excited about. Noticing your teen’s interests and then connecting them with opportunities to expand those interests will help them experience intrinsic motivation. 

Fostering Intrinsic Motivation: Strategies and Steps

Remember, intrinsic motivation is an inside job, and if you’ve been trying to motivate your teen with threats, rewards, or punishments, it might take a while for true intrinsic motivation to show up. But with enough time and support, your teen will trust that they have the space and support to find their inner motivation. 

Lead By Example

Whether they’ll admit it or not, your teen is watching you (and has been their whole life). If you are sitting on your phone for most of the day, don’t have any goals or aspirations outside of your role as a parent, or seem only to do things from a place of fear or guilt, they’ll see and repeat those behaviors. Show your teen what it looks like to be intrinsically motivated by having your own hobbies, goals, and drive. 

Remove The Pressure

Sometimes, well-meaning parents get their teens into activities that the teen has expressed interest in, only to squash the joy of the activity with pressure. Maybe you get your child into art classes, and rather than let the teen enjoy learning a new skill with no expectations, you want to see their progress, compare it to other kids’ work, or be too critical of the work. Your teen (whether they show it or not) still wants your approval and favor, so if they sense pressure to be the next Van Gogh, they’ll shut down because the fear of failing in your eyes is too scary and overwhelming for them. 

Consider Their Mental Health

Motivation is complex, but when you have depression, anxiety, ADD, ADHD, or other mental health or neurodivergence, motivation can be almost impossible to find. Depression makes it hard to do anything, even basic care tasks like eating and sleeping, let alone getting a job or a hobby. Anxiety can make it difficult to do anything for fear of messing up or not being able to figure it out. As a parent, you must be aware of these factors and treat them before you expect your teen to be intrinsically motivated. 

Ask The Right Questions

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a big question, and while little kids have no problem throwing out all kinds of answers to that question, teens are much closer to actually “growing up,” so the pressure to have the right answer is overwhelming. Instead, ask open-ended questions like “If money weren’t a concern, what would you do with your time after high school?” or “What problem in the world do you want to help fix?” and see what comes up. 

Maybe your teen is concerned about homeless pets, so ask more questions about that until you get a clear understanding of their motivation behind that concern. Then, if they seem open to it, suggest careers or schooling options to help solve that problem—like becoming a vet, working in the government to help regulate animal populations, or working in a shelter. Watch what makes their eyes light up and see how you can guide that intrinsic motivation. 

Talk About Your Experience, Not The Outcome

It’s hard to not praise your child when they’ve had a great game, won the prize, got the top score, or received some kind of accolade. And certainly, those great outcomes are worthy of celebration. But when you say, “You had the best game of everyone on the field,” with a ton of excitement and enthusiasm, your teen might hear, “If you don’t have the best game of everyone on the field in your next game, I won’t be excited, and that will feel like rejection or failure.”  So talk about your experience instead by saying, “I had so much fun watching you play,” or “My heart was pounding in my chest when you caught that pass,” or “I loved seeing how happy you were with your teammates.” 

You still communicate your enthusiasm without the pressure or expectation, and what your teen hears is, “My parent is having a great time supporting me, and I don’t have to be the best for them to enjoy me and my hobbies.” 

The Secret to Long-Lasting Motivation in Teens

The trick with motivating teens is that, developmentally, they struggle with impulse control and conceptualizing long-term consequences. Their brains have a hard time not doing whatever feels good at the moment and considering that what they want now might get in the way of what they want in the future. That’s why it’s so important for parents to facilitate intrinsic motivation—your teen will accomplish goals that matter to them even with the developmentally appropriate struggle to control impulses and consider consequences. 

The key here is helping them find what matters to them, not to you or your goals for their life. They will struggle to practice the violin if they don’t care about music. Your family may love violin music, and it might be a priority to you that they learn to play, they might even begrudgingly practice and go to lessons, but you won’t find the intrinsic motivation for the violin because it isn’t intrinsic to your teen. 

Find what matters to your teen and help them explore those interests. Give them the space to choose for themselves and take all the pressure off their interests. Be curious and supportive about why they like what they like, and watch them find intrinsic motivation for those activities. Then, when they do the activities, help them see how their efforts paid off with specific, non-outcome-based comments. If your child is writing a novel and they tell you they finished the first chapter, don’t ask them how long it is, what happens in the story, or when they will write the next chapter. Ask, “How does it feel to have that done?”. Or comment about a time you accomplished a goal: “When I ran my first 5k, I remember feeling so accomplished, it was the best!” Or even “I’ve loved watching you work so hard on that, I’m proud of you.”

Teens And Motivation Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Intrinsic Motivation in Teens?

Intrinsic motivation in teens is an inner desire to complete a task, achieve a goal, or experience an activity. 

Why Is Intrinsic Motivation Important for Teenagers?

Intrinsic motivation is crucial for teens to help them find their next steps in life—what motivates them is what will propel them to find their footing as adults. 

How Can I Tell if My Teen Is Intrinsically Motivated?

You can see if your teen is intrinsically motivated by watching what makes them light up, even if it is something you don’t understand or think is worthwhile. If they are willing to look up from their phone for it, it’s probably intrinsically motivating to them. 

What Are Effective Ways to Foster Intrinsic Motivation in Teens?

Take the pressure off their activities, be curious about what they like, offer to help them try new things, and be an example of someone with intrinsic motivation. 

How Can I Motivate My Teen Without Resorting to Bribes or Threats?

Autonomy, freedom, enthusiasm, and curiosity will help your teen become more motivated, but it will take time and consistency. 

How Do I Approach Motivating a Teen with Depression or Anxiety?

Treat their mental health first with professional help, medication, and/or support groups. While they work on their mental health, be supportive, curious, and optimistic. 

Can Intrinsic Motivation Be Taught, or Is It Innate?

Both! As with most things, we have some innate and learned motivation. We have to learn what motivates us before we can be motivated and then take the pressure off any “outcome”. 

What Role Does Failure Play in Building Intrinsic Motivation?

Failure is crucial for intrinsic motivation. Part of what blocks intrinsic motivation is fear of failure because, in past experiences, your teen may have learned that failure leads to disconnection, disappointment, and frustration from their caregivers. By allowing your teen to fail and not attach disappointment or anger to the failure, you teach your teen that failure won’t lead to disconnection from you. 

Pure Life Adventure: Discovering Your Child’s Intrinsic Motivation

Motivation is a complex topic, and intrinsic motivation is even more complex. What motivates us is everything from fear to love to rejection to hope. Add in the complexity of a teen’s developing brain, and you have much to consider when trying to help your teen find intrinsic motivation. Sometimes, it’s more than you and your teen can figure out on your own, which is where training professionals become crucial. 

That’s where programs like Pure Life Adventure can help. Pure Life Adventure is a therapeutic outdoor adventure program that helps teens and young adults find themselves, establish healthy routines, and learn to be intrinsically motivated. Set in Costa Rica, our team of licensed therapists, doctors, and other professionals work to create a meaningful, life-changing experience for teens and young adults struggling with intrinsic motivation. If your teen needs extra help finding their path, contact us today to learn how we can help them on their journey to adulthood. 

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