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January 19, 2015

Is My Teen Just Lazy? Diagnosing Motivation Problems

teen motivation school gradesShow us a teenager who’s unmotivated about school, and we’ll show you a parent who’s desperate to ignite a sense of purpose. Motivation isn’t something that’s easy to teach or to force kids to feel. It’s a complicated psychological state that’s rooted in a variety of factors.

If you can relate, don’t despair! It will take some work and time, but you can help your child re-engage with school and perform to their potential. Keep reading for insights and practical solutions!

Laziness as a Label

It’s tempting to buy into the myth of the “lazy teenager.” It’s so easy to assume that many teens would prefer to do nothing but sleep in, play video games, and rely on their parents for all their needs. But that’s just not true.

Humans are not inherently lazy. In our natural state we are industrious, creative, and inventive. Starting from birth, we seek out challenges and derive true happiness from overcoming them. We experience real joy in creating something new, in learning, and in growing. This doesn’t change as we age, but it does become obscured by a more complicated emotional and psychological landscape.

Your teen may certainly act lazy when it comes to school. They can take on a set of careless, unmotivated behaviors. This laziness, however, is not part of their personality, nor is it a permanent condition. Research tells us that labeling children, in either a positive or negative way, is a slippery slope that causes more harm than good. In this case, the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a child believes that adults think they’re lazy, they’ll continue to act that way. If, however, we can label the behavior and not the child’s personality, we’ve achieved the first critical step in getting them back on track.

Starting the Conversation

You may be feeling extremely frustrated, and you may have run out of patience. That’s completely understandable. But we’d encourage you to shift your perspective and consider what might be going on just underneath the surface of your child’s disheartening behavior.

Motivation is linked to confidence, a fear of failure, and even a fear of success. Your child’s perception of what they’re capable of achieving may differ from what they actually can achieve. When the options are: 1) try and fail or 2) try and succeed and then feel the pressure to continue to succeed, sometimes teens create option 3) don’t try. But when teens act lazy, they’re not feeling a sense of achievement and growth, and this causes pain and sadness.

Acknowledging all of this is a powerful way to to open a dialogue with your child. You can say something like, “I can tell that you’re hurting. I know you’re not a lazy person, so something really tough must be keeping you from showing who you really are. I’d like to help you figure out what that is and work through it.” Be prepared for them to deny this at first. It’s not at all uncommon for teens to be out of touch with the stress they’re feeling until they are compelled to address it.

Diagnosing the Problem and Finding Solutions

We want to discuss four common reasons teens become unmotivated. The next step for you is to determine which one (or more) is impacting your child.

Task Difficulty
If the school work is too difficult or too easy, your child is working outside of what’s known as the “zone of proximal development.” This is the place where work is challenging enough to be interesting but never too challenging to be overwhelming. When work is consistently outside of this zone, it’s either very hard or very boring. It’s important to note here that work that’s too easy or simply “busy work” is just as much a problem as work that’s too difficult (gifted students, in particular, may totally shut down when work doesn’t provide a stimulating challenge or value in the real world).

To remedy this problem you’ll have to be a bit of a detective. Is it the class content itself that’s too easy or hard? Or is it the homework assignments, quizzes, and/or tests? Maybe it’s the way the teacher is presenting the material (e.g. in a confusing way, or too quickly). Some next steps include:

  • Meeting with the teacher to preview and review notes and tests
  • Tutoring to build skills, learn how to effectively study, or work on more challenging concepts
  • Switching to a different class

Task Size
Sometimes schoolwork is at the right level of difficulty, but the amount of work is simply too much. If your child has one class that requires hours of nightly study, a combination of classes that keeps them working late into the night, or too many extracurricular activities, schoolwork can become overwhelming. Some solutions include:

  • Breaking down large tasks into manageable pieces
  • Learning time management strategies
  • Curating a schedule of classes and/or activities that are important to and energize them – it’s okay not to do it all!

Perception of Control
Sometimes a student has work that is appropriately challenging and an overall workload that is manageable, but they still struggle with motivation. This is not unusual! The next question we have to ask is whether the student feels like they have control in their world.

All humans have a basic need for some level of control over their circumstances. Children lose motivation if the ability to assert that control doesn’t expand over time. Teens need to experience gradually expanding boundaries in their school and personal lives, opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, and a sense of self-efficacy. If teachers and parents are hovering and controlling too much, the child can’t stretch.

You can help your child assert control by offering choice within limits around these areas:

  • How they record and track homework and studying (e.g. paper planner vs online)
  • Where they do their homework and studying
  • Course selection for the next school year

Fulfillment of Needs
The last area that we have to look at when it comes to motivation is whether or not a child’s basic needs are being met. Typically, we’re not talking about the need for food and clothing (although that’s possible), but are focused on emotional needs like belonging and significance. If a teen doesn’t feel like they’ve found their niche in school, if they’re experiencing bullying or loss of friends, or even if they just feel “unnoticed,” these basic needs are not being met, and their academic motivation may wane.

This aspect can be the toughest to deal with, and you may need outside assistance. Here are some ideas to help you dig in:

  • Find ways to strengthen your relationship with your child – this article from Child Mind Institute offers several suggestions that are specific to teens
  • Talk with them about their interests and strengths (both academic and non-academic), and help them identify an outlet for them (e.g. school group, community club, part-time job, local or online college class)
  • Schedule a consultation with a therapist

Getting to the root of your child’s lack of motivation is key to supporting their growth! With honest and caring conversations, a dedication to trying new strategies, and a willingness to fall and get back up, they can become independent and confident learners. If you need help getting there, give us a call!