What Happened To Motivation?


Is your teen a lazy slug who seems to have absolutely no motivation to do anything productive? Are they perfectly capable of being exciting and fun with friends, but seem to have no energy for school or family? How can you motivate him? How can you teach him to motivate himself?
Motivation is what causes us to act, whether it is studying for a test or doing the dishes. The term motivation is used to describe why a person does something. But when talking about teens, it often describes why your teenager doesn’t do something!

 To better understand how to help your teen find his missing motivation, break it down into smaller parts. There are three major pieces to motivation: activation, persistence, and intensity.

  • Activation involves the decision to initiate a behavior. This could be your teen actually opening his text book with the intention to study for the test.
  • Persistence is the continued effort toward a goal even though obstacles might popup. So not only does your teen open the book to study, but he also sticks with it for an extended period of time.
  • Intensity is the concentration or effort that goes into completing the goal. Some teens may eagerly study, calling friends, hosting a study group; others may simply read the chapter and hope it sticks in their brain. What level of effort or intensity is required for the task?

Where does your teen fall short in the three smaller parts of motivation? Does he not do any of the steps? Maybe he activates his plan and might even look like he has some persistence, but has no intensity at all? Talk to your teen about what he does do really well. Tell him he is great about activating the plan to study. Let him know you see his persistence. Tell him he does a great job on wanting to study for the test. But then help him see he falls short on the energy level. Encourage him to put in more effort on writing note cards or studying with a friend, or even quizzing you on the material.

Maybe your teen has a good plan and good energy, but no persistence. Maybe he has amazing intentions, but is easily distracted and moving on to a million different tasks while “studying”.

Maybe your teen just can’t activate the plan, but once he does he can persist with intensity! Help him to see that while he has very little desire to activate a plan, once he does, he is unstoppable!

We can also break motivation down into two different categories; intrinsic and extrinsic, or internal and external. We know that a person can be motivated internally and do something because it is rewarding to that person; they feel proud, accomplished, or happy. People can also be motivated by external means. This is generally a reward for doing something or a consequence for not doing something.

Teens are motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic. Ideally they operate on feeling good about themselves and accomplished in their task, but if they don’t have that capacity for a certain task, or seemingly at all, it is completely fair to provide extrinsic motivation. After all, we are all motivated by extrinsic motivation. We get a pay check for showing up to work. We get fired if we don’t show up to work. External motivation is everywhere in adult life. So find the reward or consequence that will get their attention. Ideally though, help them find intrinsic rewards too. By seeing motivation as three distinct parts, Activation, Persistence and Intensity, your teen has a better chance of seeing their own strengths and using those to find success. If they “have no motivation” and they act and feel “lazy”, their chances of tapping into intrinsic feelings are much lower. That is eliminating 50% of their motivation before they even begin to attempt to study for that test or complete the task at hand. Allow them to feel proud. Allow them to know the feeling of really working hard for something and knowing they did it!

Have fun experimenting with the concepts of Activation, Persistence, and Intensity with your teen! While you are figuring out your teen’s style keep these final conclusions in mind.

  • Research has shown us that when a person is rewarded for doing a good job, they will come to expect that reward every time and it will dampen the intrinsic reward of feeling proud. If your teen gets a Starbucks gift card for every “A” on a test, they will learn to look for the external reward in all things they do and will miss out on intrinsic rewards as they move into adulthood. Don’t reward, but praise and acknowledge the accomplishment.
  • Along that same line, we know that praise and positive feedback are excellent ways to increase intrinsic motivation. Find ways to praise your teen and give them positive comments about how they studied for that test as a way to increase their positive feelings and increase their motivation to get that praise again. Reinforce that the praise feels good.
  • However…..the research also supports that if a teen is praised constantly, or when it is unearned, it will significantly reduce intrinsic motivation. It will only decrease his motivation!! So, don’t praise for an “A” that they got by pure dumb luck, but do praise them for the C+ they got on in Calculus because you know they worked really hard all semester!




Don’t want to miss the next article? Please provide your email in the “Subscribe” box to the right so we can let you know when there is a new article ready to go!





Plotnik, R. & Kouyoumjian. H. (2011). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *