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Why Is This Generation of Young People SO Unmotivated? Because They’re Missing These Three Important Daily Elements

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Today’s article is going to answer the question you’ve always wondered: why can’t young people just buckle down and get their work done?

You know what I’m talking about, right? As adults, we have tasks and responsibilities that we have to complete every day. We do things like get up early in the morning, go to work, wash the dishes, clean up after a pet who has thrown up on the carpet…and many, many more “adulting” tasks.

We don’t want to do many of these tasks, but we do them anyway. We push through the feeling of avoiding them and get them done. So if we can complete so many unpleasant tasks in one day, then why can’t our kids and teens get it together enough to complete their homework, clean their rooms, and get up on time in the morning?

When did this part of parenting get so hard? 

Maybe you know what I mean, and maybe you don’t. Let me share a patient story from my Southern California private practice with you to see if it resonates with you.

About 9 months ago, I began working with a 15-year-old bright and talented high school sophomore because her parents brought her to me to help her become more self-motivated. She was a straight-A student in elementary and middle school, had played AYSO soccer on Saturdays for years, and played the violin in the middle school orchestra.

Then, the pandemic hit, and everything changed.

This bright and talented young person was thrown into quarantine and at-home instruction. At first, she tried her hardest to keep up with learning, but things slowly changed. She got used to attending classes in her pajamas while lounging in bed each day. She began to prefer staying in her room instead of interacting with her family. She stopped practicing the violin and her soccer ball became flat from non-use.

You would think that when school opened up again and she was able to go back to in-person instruction that things would go back to normal, but that just didn’t happen. This teen who started the pandemic as a middle schooler in the 8th grade was now a high school sophomore, and this felt really disorienting for this teen. She struggled to pass her classes. She never went back to her soccer team, saying that it just didn’t interest her anymore. And she emphatically declared that she was done with the violin, so her parents never registered her for the high school orchestra.

When I initially talked to this teen about her motivation for school and extracurriculars, she told me that getting good grades and participating in an extra-curricular just seemed like too much energy. Unless she was pretty much guaranteed that she would get straight-As or be the best at an extracurricular, then she wasn’t interested in putting forth the effort with these activities.

Now, over the years, I’ve worked with countless numbers of frustrated parents who feel like they’ve tried everything to get their child or teen – who are so full of potential – to be motivated to do well in school and in life, but they feel at the end of their rope.

It might seem like, as a whole, this generation of young people is challenged with self-motivation more than any other generation – and that the pandemic has made this problem worse, but is that ACTUALLY true?

Well, I looked into the data to find out for you, and what I found out is pretty shocking.

More high schoolers than ever before are falling behind, putting them at-risk for graduating late or dropping out of high school altogether.

The rates of students who failed individual classes in large cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago nearly doubled in 2021 – a year after the pandemic started. And this issue isn’t confined to large cities, either – it’s happening in most of our cities and states. For example, the share of high schoolers on track to graduate on time fell by 7 points in Illinois, 12 points in Oregon, and 14 points in Nevada.

Our young people are struggling with motivating themselves to do the work they need NOW in order to secure a happy and successful future for themselves LATER…and today’s parents feel like they’ve tried all the usual strategies to rectify this problem to no avail.

So if telling our young people to buckle down and get the work done isn’t working for you, what can you do?

I’m glad you asked because the answer lies within a science-backed theory called The Self-Determination theory and I’ve used this theory as a guide for years when helping many young get back on track with their self-motivation, and I want to share with you the framework that I use – and have been pretty successful with – when helping my young patients.

I’ll explain the concept first, and then I’ll show you how using this framework worked for that 15-year-old that I told you about earlier in this article.

 

The Self-Determination Theory and Parenting

First, let me introduce the Self-Determination theory. This theory was created in the 19070’s by two psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, out of the University of Rochester. They wanted to see if the two most dominant beliefs about motivation were true – that to motivate someone to complete a task, they needed to either be rewarded with bribes or threatened with punishment. 

As parents, we tend to fall back on one of these two strategies too. For example, if a parent wants their middle schooler to clean their room, they might either bribe them with a reward (“If you get your room clean, I’ll let you play video games for the rest of the night”) or threaten them with punishment (“If you don’t get your room clean I’ll throw away all your stuff!”). 

So what is your guess? Do you think these strategies work? Let’s look at the results of Deci and Ryan’s work to find out.

Deci and Ryan were interested in motivating adults in the workforce, so their initial work was done using this population, and they found that neither rewards nor punishments increased self-motivation, and, as a matter of a fact, both strategies actually hurt motivation.

Why is that?

Over many different experiments that confirmed the results, Deci and Ryan found that when people were bribed to do their work, they performed as expected, but they rarely performed over and above what they were being bribed to do. These participants didn’t enjoy their work or find fulfillment with their tasks. They performed these tasks simply to get the reward. AND…when the reward stopped or was taken away, the participants work deteriorated. They had no self-motivation to do the work if they weren’t getting something out of it.

And if you’re a parent who uses rewards and bribes as a way to motivate your young person, this next bit of information is REALLY going to scare you. In multiple follow-up experiments, Deci and Ryan found that rewarding behaviors that were previously fun or interesting to both kids and adults actually killed their natural passion and interest in that task!

Basically, these experiments showed that when participants were rewarded for doing things that were previously fun or interesting, it was hard for them to go back to enjoying the tasks without a reward. Exchanging a reward for the behavior sent the message that there’s a cost and benefit to every activity. The cost is the effort given to the activity and the benefit is the reward received at the end, which now seemed to be more valuable than the reward of simply enjoying the activity and slowly getting better at the activity over time.

This is why many young people appear to stop enjoying and participating in activities that they had a natural inclination for when their parent connected a reward to the outcome of the effort involved in the activity.

External rewards hurt something called intrinsic motivation – the internal desire to perform a task for personal satisfaction. When young people are intrinsically motivated to perform a task, they’re doing the task because they find value in it, and this tends to make them care more about the quality of the effort put forth in performing the task. On the other hand, when they are extrinsically motivated, they perform the task only to get the reward at the end. The quality of the effort goes out the door!

When we offer a reward for behavior, it sends the message that a physical reward is worth more than the enjoyment of the activity, the life lessons learned through participation in the activity, or the contribution to family, peers, or others that the activity provides.

So we now know that rewards and bribes don’t encourage self-motivation, so what about punishments? Did the participants in Deci and Ryan’s experiments fare any better when they performed tasks to avoid a punishment?

No, they did not. The participants who were threatened with a punishment performed the task as requested, but they found every opportunity to do poor work, or to cut corners. They only worked while being observed, and they goofed off when they thought they weren’t being observed. These participants only performed their requested tasks to avoid the punishment, not because they cared about the task.

So, I think you’re beginning to understand that both rewards and punishments work in the short term, but they don’t do anything to inspire self-motivation in the long-term or when our young people are not being observed.

This is important information for parents because we tend to use these two strategies on a regular basis, but now you know that they don’t work…especially in the long term!

So if our two most popular strategies don’t work, then what does work? That’s what the rest of this article is about, because Deci and Ryan uncovered the 3 ingredients that all adults and young people need in order to develop true self-motivation.

True self-motivation means that young people choose on their own to perform tasks that bring them closer to their goals – even if those tasks are hard, boring, or if no one is watching them. The reward they get from performing these tasks are internal – meaning that they come from inside the teen versus from their environment. Internal rewards are good feelings such as pride, confidence, and the enjoyment of hard work. Young people who are self-motivated tend to believe that they are in charge of their own decisions, and they are able to create – and meet – life goals that are based upon their natural talents, abilities, and interests.

Doesn’t that sound awesome? And the good news is that self-motivation is like a physical muscle – it can be strengthened with practice. This means that parents can develop strategies to use with their young people to help them grow well-developed self-motivation muscles!

So let’s dive into the three ingredients that Deci and Ryan found were needed on a daily basis in order for self-motivation to grow and thrive: they are autonomy, mastery, and connection.

 

Autonomy

When I mention the word autonomy, most parents stare back at me with a shocked expression because they initially believe that giving a young person autonomy means allowing them to do what they want when they want. But that’s simply not true.

In terms of self-motivation, autonomy refers to the feeling one gets when one believes that they have control over their choices and that these choices can bring about good things or not-so-good things. That depends on the choice they make.

You might better understand autonomy by understanding its opposite, which is control. When people feel controlled, they believe that their environment makes their choices and that they have no power over their decisions. When young people feel like they don’t have autonomy – that their parents, teachers, or other authority figures – have all the control in their life, then they react in either one of two ineffective ways: they either shut down and let life happen to them, or they stubbornly dig in their heels and do the opposite of what is requested of them as a way to exert some control over the situation.

Quickly think about situations where you didn’t have control. How did this make YOU feel? Did you feel motivated in those moments? Did the lack of control make you want to give up? Or did this feeling create an obstinate feeling in you? Well, that’s how your young person feels too.

When young people believe that they don’t have autonomy over their life, then they don’t care about those things that serve to help them develop as a worthwhile individual – things like academics, extracurriculars, and pursuing hobbies and interests – and these are the exact qualities that young people need to succeed in college, in their careers, and within their interpersonal relationships!

When young people feel like they have a direct influence over their lives through their choices, then they become more invested in making good decisions for themselves. I’ve seen this happen over and over again with the young people that I work with. It’s like a light bulb goes off in their heads when they realize that THEY are in control of their lives.

So how can parents encourage the feeling of autonomy on a daily basis?

You can encourage autonomy by:

  1. Reminding your young person of their choices during situations – but don’t appear invested in the choice they make. For example, if your middle schooler tells you they don’t want to clean their room, remind them that if their room is clean by dinnertime, then they get to stay up until 9:00, but if it’s not clean, then they have to go to bed at 8:00. And project an attitude that shows you are NOT invested in which choice they make, because you’ll follow through on the reward or consequence depending on the choice they make.
  2. Having conversations with your young person. Don’t just talk at them; talk with Allow them to share their thoughts, opinions, and viewpoints, even though they might differ from yours. This teaches your young person that their thoughts are valid (although maybe immature or inexperienced) and that your thoughts are just as valid too.
  3. Focuing on the intrinsic rewards gained by performing tasks, not on the external ones. This is especially important when young people start a new extracurricular or hobby. They won’t be great at first, so you can encourage them to stick with the activity by focusing on the enjoyment of the task; the personal satisfaction of life-long learning; the good feeling of challenging themselves and meeting those challenges; and how this activity makes them an interesting person.

Now, it’s equally important to understand how you can destroy your young person’s feeling of autonomy too. This is usually done with three ways.

  • Number 1. Taking away your young person’s ability to choose by telling them what to do. Now, sometimes this is just necessary, and we have to tell our kids what to do but try to allow choices as much as possible. For example, your child might not have a choice in getting up early in order to get to school on time, but you can give them the choice of taking a shower at night and sleeping in 15 minutes later in the morning or taking a shower in the morning and waking up 15 minutes earlier. Does that make sense in how to provide choices within a constraint?
  • Number 2. Not allowing your young person to learn from their mistakes by dictating all their life choices. As parents, we can sometimes predict the outcome of some of our young people’s choices, but there’s so much value in letting your young person learn by making mistakes.
  • Number 3. Exerting pressure on your young person to make a certain decision. Remember, TRULY giving your young person autonomy is allowing them to choose without any skin in the game on your part. Don’t let your child think that their decision will make you happy – or make you mad.

 Now, a question I get a lot at this point is “Should I use rewards and consequences at all”? And the answer here is yes. Rewards and consequences encourage internal self-motivation, but only if they’re done strategically. That discussion is too long for this article, but I go into detail about using a strategic reward and consequence system in my online course for parents that guides parents on improving their child or teen’s self-motivation. This course is called the Self-Motivation Success Academy, and you can find out more by visiting selfmotivationsuccessacademy.com.

 

Mastery

Now let’s talk about the second crucial element of self-motivation: mastery

If autonomy allows our young people to feel in control of their lives, then mastery allows them to feel competent to bring about good things in their lives.

Mastery is when one believes that they have natural talents, interests, and abilities that bring them joy, fulfillment, and happiness. Everyone has a need to feel special and unique, and the identification and practice of natural passions, talents, and abilities serves this need.

Listen, my office is full of young people who struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem. One of the biggest issues that feed anxiety and low self-esteem is when these young people believe that they are stupid, or they’re losers, or that they can’t do anything worthwhile. When I focus on increasing these young patients’ sense of mastery by working with them on identifying their own natural talents and interests – and then pursuing these natural abilities an interests in their downtime – the anxiety almost disappears completely and their self-esteem goes through the roof!

So, you might be wondering why today’s young people struggle with mastery so much? Well, the primary reason is that they tend to spend a lot of time on activities that give them a false sense of mastery. When a young person achieves a new level in a video game or gets lots of likes on an Instagram image, they might receive an immediate feeling of accomplishment, but this feeling is only temporary – and it’s a lie. What really did they accomplish with these tasks? Nothing! And that’s why this feeling is a lie.

When our young people participate in activities where they use their natural talents and interests, they actually gain a true sense of accomplishment and pride. Participating on a baseball team and getting a home run or catching a difficult fly ball is a true accomplishment. Taking piano lessons and playing harder and harder songs over time is a true accomplishment. And the secondary effect of working on mastery is that it teaches your young person that they are capable of hard things. That they are special people. That they can navigate life in an effective way. This all contributes to self-confidence and self-esteem.

So how can you encourage a sense of mastery with your own young person? Here are three suggestions that you can begin using today.

  1. First, help your young person identify their natural passions, talents, or interests. Allow them to explore new interests without the expectation that they have to be good at them right off the bat. Expose them to new things as much as possible.
  2. Next, once your young person has identified one or more interests or talents, encourage them to develop these areas, but do it in a way that focuses on the fun of learning about it. For example, if your young person likes to dance, sign them up for dance lessons without the expectation of getting the lead role in the upcoming dance recital. Or here’s another situation that comes up a lot with the families that I work with. Don’t force your young person to participate in an activity that YOU like, but in an activity where THEY have a natural talent or interest. So, if your young person wants to join a hip-hop dance class, but you’d rather them sign up for ballet, resist the urge to force them to make your choice. This is about your child’s development of mastery – not yours.
  3. The last way to encourage your young person’s sense of mastery is to model your own participation in hobbies and interests. Do you spend all your time scrolling through social media all evening and then get annoyed when you see your young person doing the same thing? Do you or your partner play video games all weekend and then wonder why your child hasn’t developed any hobbies? Make an effort to model to your young person that participating in worthwhile hobbies and interests makes us better and more interesting people.

In order to really encourage mastery with your child, you’ll have to also work with them on problem-solving skills and the ability to persevere when things get hard, boring, or intimidating. I’ve been noticing that this is a huge problem for today’s young people, but they’ve GOT to learn to push through the feeling of wanting to give up when things get hard or embarrassing in order to get to that awesome feeling of mastery and accomplishment. Again, mastery is a skill just like autonomy that can be taught – and you can be a big influence in teaching this skill to your child or teen.

I’ve got some good strategies – in addition to the ones that I mention in this article – that really supercharge a young person’s sense of mastery, but they’re too much for one podcast article, so I teach all of these strategies in the mastery module of The Self-Motivation Success Academy online course.

 

Connection

We’ve talked about autonomy and mastery, and now it’s time to dive into the last self-motivation ingredient – connection.

This crucial element for self-motivation is all about instilling in your young person a sense of connection with their family, their peers, and within the larger world around them.

When young people know they are in control of their lives, that they have important natural talents and passions to share, and that these passions and talents positively affect the people they care about, then their self-motivation goes into overdrive!

Motivation researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci found in their research that both kids and adults feel better about themselves, more confident in their abilities, and experience less stress and anxiety when they understand HOW they fit into a bigger world.

It’s human nature to want to fit in and to contribute to the world around us, but when we feel like no one cares about us or that we don’t contribute anything special to a larger society, then we experience a debilitating disconnect.

I’ve extended Ryan and Deci’s theory by teaching that young people not only need to understand how they fit into a larger world, but they also need to understand how they fit into smaller environments such as the family and a friendship group first.

Young people have special developmental needs, and by focusing on making sure that they feel valued and loved within the family needs to take priority. During my years of working with kids and families, I’ve found that when the parent-child relationship suffers, then so does most other areas of the child’s life too; therefore, the first step I take when working with Modern Parents is to repair this important relationship.

It’s also equally important to make sure that the child is attracting – and keeping – quality friends. Just like the family environment, kids do best when they understand that they have an important role to play in their friendship group and that they are accepted by their peers.

There are many roles to play within friendship groups – leader, confidant, comedian, problem-solver, the smart one, etc. – and your child needs to understand which role is unique to them and that this role is valued by the others in the group.

Finally, once kids feel confident that they have a special role to play in their families and within their friendship groups, they begin to understand that they also have an important role to play in the larger world around them too – and this is where knowing their natural strengths and talents becomes so important!

When kids feel valued within their smaller worlds – their families and friend groups – then they naturally want to share their natural talents with others in order to make a positive impact on the world.

For example, if a 13-year-old young girl enjoys playing the piano, she might want to play a few songs for her grandma and the other residents of a convalescent home in order to make them happy. In this way, the child feels proud that she’s able to share her talents with others in order to make the world a better place – and she also takes this responsibility seriously. This inspires her to practice and to continue to grow with her piano talent. In addition, she gains the invaluable feeling of pride and accomplishment.

So how can you encourage connection with your young person? Here are some ideas:

  • First of all, chores send the message that your young person is part of a family unit and that the family unit needs their participation to function optimally
  • Second, online friends provide some feeling of connection, but the connection with in-person peers is best. If your child seems more comfortable interacting with online friends, also encourage them to make in-person friends too. How? Encourage regular participation in extracurriculars, religious groups, or family and school functions.
  • Third, some young people just weren’t born with extraverted tendencies – and that’s ok. If your young person tends to shy away from in-person social events, they may need coaching from you on how to interact with their peers. Sometimes we take for granted that our young people know how to behave in social situations, but many need coaching in this area. Ask your anxious young person what concerns them most about social situations and practice those situations with them.

The bottom line is that kids will never mature into young adults who feel motivated to do their best if they don’t feel like they have an important role to play when they grow up, but we teach you everything you need In The Self-Motivation Success Academy in order to set your child up for a successful and happy future.

Unfortunately, parent-child relationships, peer relationships, and learning to be empathetic and charitable are sometimes easier said than done, which is why I give you even more tips and strategies in The Self-Motivation Success Academy.

 

Take Home Message

So now that you understand the three important elements of self-motivation and how to begin working with your young person in encouraging their autonomy, mastery, and connection, let me end this article by finishing the story about the 15-year-old that I introduced in the beginning.

When I began working with this family, I taught the parents about autonomy, mastery, and connection. I encouraged the parents to find opportunities to allow their teen to make choices. I also recommended that they require their child to participate in an extracurricular of her choosing and teach the life lesson that it’s important to always develop our natural talents and abilities. During treatment sessions where I worked one-on-one with the teen, we tackled issues such as self-esteem, problem-solving skills, social skills, and creating short- and long-term goals.

It was really rewarding to see this teen go from someone who wanted to spend all of her time in her room avoiding schoolwork and peers to a teen who began enjoying her life and becoming proud of the person she was and who she could be. She chose to join the high school choir, which was really different from what her parents wanted. They wanted her on a sports team so that she could earn a college scholarship. But this teen loved to sing, and in order to encourage her sense of autonomy, her parents allowed her to make this choice about how she spent her extracurricular time. 

Over time, I witnessed this teen gain confidence and pride as she risked putting herself “out there” in choir. She explained to me that it was really anxiety-provoking to sing in the choir, as she imagined that everyone else would think that she had a terrible voice. But the more she participated in choir, the more other areas of her life improved too. She didn’t miss as many days of school anymore; her grades improved; and she started making some really good friends.

When parents create an environment that supports autonomy, mastery, and connection, then our young people really thrive, just like the 15-year-old in my example did.

So if your young person struggles with self-motivation, what should you do now?

I have two things for you.

The first resource is the Self-Motivation Cheat Sheet that I created for you. Download it today, print it our, and look at it often to remind you to use the three important ingredients. Click HERE to download it now. 

Now, today’s article is meant to give you the blueprint to creating a home environment that encourages self-motivation to grow and thrive, but if you’re looking for more help and guidance in this area, then I’ve got good news for you! Enrollment for The Self-Motivation Success Academy begins soon and I’m so excited to begin teaching a new cohort of parents how to supercharge their young person’s self-motivation.

 I only open enrollment twice per year for this online course, and if your young person is about to begin a new semester, this is the PERFECT time to enroll and set them up for a successful way to end their academic year. By the end of this 4-week online course, you’ll feel more confident in guiding your young person in a way that improves their self-motivation “muscle”.

I love teaching this course, because I’ve had so many parents tell me that they know their young person has so much potential, but they just don’t know how to guide their child to take advantage of that potential for great things. After going through this course with me, you’ll never feel like your child is wasting their potential ever again.

The best thing about The Self-Motivation Success Academy is that I’ve created 3 different ways to take advantage of the course that best fits your lifestyle. The first and easiest way is to take advantage of the self-paced package. In this package, you’re able to watch the lesson videos and complete the lesson worksheets on your own time. If you only have weekend evenings to watch one or two lesson videos, then they’ll be there waiting for you.

The second package is what I call the “Gentle Support” package. In this package, you not only gain access to the online lesson videos and worksheets, but you’ll also gain access to a private Facebook group where I jump on to answer questions and give advice and encouragement. What’s really great about this package is that you get to go through this experience with other awesome parents just like yourself. I’ve found that there’s a lot of value in going through a new experience with support, so I’ve created an experience where you learn from and gain support from your peers who are also going through the same thing – and I get to pop into the group to make sure you’re questions are answered and to provide encouragement too.

Finally, the last package is for those the parent who wants individual coaching alongside the lesson videos. I call this the “All In” package and if you choose this package, you’ll not only gain access to the course videos, worksheets, and Facebook group, but you’ll also get 6 individual coaching sessions with me during the course. This package is the best way to use my expertise in this area, and I love working with the parents that choose this package.

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Download this FREE resource that goes along with this article:
The Self-Motivation Cheat Sheet