Teens and Their Choices
As a pediatrician, parents often asked me, "How do I get my teenager to ___________?"
- eat better
- get more sleep
- get off the screen
- stop vaping
- do their school work
The common strategies of demanding, cajoling, reminding, bribing or threatening a punishment may work in that moment but they are not long-term, sustainable solutions to your child developing good habits that will serve them. Plus, those stick-and-carrot, old-school strategies don’t feel good for anyone involved, the parent or the child.
Instead, I offered parents an important reframe of the above question.
Instead of asking “How do I get my child to ________________ ?” (fill in the blank)
Ask: “How do I help my child want to ______________?” (fill in the blank)
Because when the desire to take action is coming from within the child themself, they are far more likely to do it on a regular basis.
This kind of motivation from within is called intrinsic motivation. This looks like a teen who wants to complete their homework. They want to eat healthy foods. They want to get enough sleep. And because they themselves want to, they do!
And the reason why they want to do whatever the thing is, is because they are personally invested in either the process or the result they will get from doing it.
Human beings thrive when they have a sense of agency.
Agency is the ability to make your own choices and take actions that are meaningful and purposeful to you.
When teens have a sense of agency, they have increased motivation to do things because they feel a higher sense of control over their own lives. They can tie together their personal reasons for doing something with their effort, their actions and their goals.
Here’s 4 tips for how parents can foster a teen’s intrinsic motivation:
- Support your child’s autonomy. Encourage your child to make their own choices and decisions, take their own actions and allow them to take responsibility for their results. Again, children are more intrinsically motivated when they feel a sense of control over their lives. Having a higher sense of control can improve physical and mental health. Having a low sense of control is experienced as stressful and contributes to anxiety (think being stuck in a traffic jam when you are running late for something).
- Create a supportive home base: Teenagers need to feel safe, supported and connected to feel motivated. Create opportunities for talking together and aim for open, two-way communication. Recognize your teen’s efforts as well as their achievements.
- Support your teenager's strengths and interests: This encourages mastery. It feels good to be good at something. Mastery involves setting and chasing challenging goals, developing skills and competencies and experiencing a sense of progress and growth over time. Whatever your child is interested in, provide opportunities for them to develop and improve their skills. Encouraging mastery can increase a teen’s sense of competence and confidence which in turn can fuel their motivation.
- Encourage your teen's self-reflection: After your teen decides to do something and then does it, help them reflect on their experiences, including what went well and what were the challenges. This can help teens learn from their mistakes and build resilience. It can increase their motivation over the long run.
Intrinsic motivation can only come from within your child but there is a lot you can do as a parent to help it flourish from within them. Fostering your child’s intrinsic motivation is a powerful way to help your child develop important life skills and can have an extremely positive effect on their overall health and well-being.
If you are interested in working with me to change the trajectory of your child's life,
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