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Motivating Teenage Boys

What To Do Or Not

 What To Do Or Not
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Lee Bare :
With final exams wrapping up and summer coming up for my teenagers, I have been watching them struggle with motivation. Motivation affects us all, whether is pursuing a goal, struggling through the work of therapy, or getting up and going to school or work. As a therapist and an educator, I would like to impress upon my own children the importance of developing an internal motivation to lifelong learning, but I do not think my teenage boys study simply because they are inspired by learning and the value of learning.
I think it's an unfortunate myth that we tend to think of teenagers, and boys especially, as being unmotivated. I don't think they are unmotivated. Rather, I think they are trying, like many adults, to figure out their own motivation and what gets them going. Life in childhood tends to be set up as revolving around a series of external motivators (things like grades, money, praise, wins, goals) that give some kind of external value or meaning to what we do. Younger kids tend to be intrinsically motivated to play and have fun and do activities they simply enjoy to do, but we do tend to place external value on behavior outcomes as they get older. Once school starts, an intrinsic desire to learn and read may result in good grades. An internal desire to shoot baskets may end up resulting in winning a close game for your basketball team. Often times, kids then get used to placing value on the consequences and become motivated by external rewards. But as we move from childhood and into adolescence and into adulthood, we want to have some internal desire to do the things we do. We want to find purpose and meaning, relying on intrinsic, or internal, motivation to keep us going when times are difficult (and summer is coming but you have to prepare for exams).
As a parent, you cannot force kids, especially teenage boys, to develop internal motivation but there are some things you can do to help:
1)    You have to naturally trust the process and allow them to explore interests on their own. We have expectations, as parents, that tend to become even more apparent during our kids' teenage years. But it is crucial that we allow teenage boys to find and develop the things that they like. For example, when our boys were in kindergarten, we started music lessons. Music is important to us, as parents, and we wanted to begin cultivating this as soon as possible. However, we shortly learned that getting our sons to practice was tedious and we dropped the lessons after a year (parenting fail, maybe, but live and learn). Fast forward to last fall. Our 15-year-old started asking to take piano lessons. I kept putting it off and said we'd wait until the first of the year. A few months later he declared he no longer wanted to take piano, he instead wanted to take guitar lessons.
But this time, he picked up his dad's guitar and playing around with it on his own, watching videos, and teaching himself some basics. (Spoiler: Yes, we've started him with lessons). Developmental theorists agree that the teenage years are about trying to create a sense of identity and autonomy. We have to let our teenage boys do that and support their healthy interests along the way.
2)    Ultimately, you want your teenage boys to have a balance of internal and external motivation that mirrors regular adult life. As adults, we need to find joy and purpose in getting out of bed every day (i.e. internal/instrinsic motivation) but we also need money in order to live (i.e. external/extrinsic motivation). It is important for our teenage boys to develop a realistic presentation of what life as an adult is like while teaching important concepts like hard work and finding purpose in mundane tasks. You can help them develop this understanding by having open conversations about their future and goals and supporting their dreams as much as you can, while also including chores to help develop skills needed in adulthood.
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3)    Make sure you point out, for your teenage son, the positive responses that other people have to the things that they do.
Tell your son that what he did made you happy. Show him the smiles of his teammates' faces after a big win. Tell him when you are proud of his hard work.
This praise may sound like external motivation, but your teenage son is still learning from you and noting these positive responses will help him internalize those responses so he can recognize these himself. Your son should be driven to bring out the best in himself and other people but this does not happen overnight or on its own. Encourage your son to recognize the impact of his actions on himself and on other people.
4)    Be careful to avoid consistent use of positive reinforcement (i.e. praise, money) for things your teenage boys should be doing anyway. We get caught up in trying to find things that force our teenage sons to do the things we want him to do.
You want to encourage behavior but relying on positive reinforcement teaches your son that he does not need to develop internal motivation on his own. It's okay for him to be bored. He needs to find the internal drive to do what he should be doing.
5)    Ask yourself (and explore with your teenage son) if the lack of motivation response is due to depression or some internal or situational difficulty. While we, as parents, want to develop internal motivation in our sons we also need to be aware of the impact of stress and how to respond appropriately. Don't be afraid to ask your teenage son directly about depression, bullying, or academic pressures and provide support as needed. Know he may not be open about his feelings but trust your instincts and call in the help of a therapist if you think there is more to his lack of motivation.

(Lee Bare, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist currently in private practice in Alabama).

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