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Appearances can often be deceiving, especially with adolescents 

By Susan Parmelee

Many parents tell me their adolescent is not motivated. My usual response is that teens are very motivated but only when they believe it is benefitting them. How we use this developmental stage to benefit everyone is an art form that is not that difficult to master once we have made some changes and had lots of practice.

As the adolescent brain struggles to increase the firing of neurons and synapses, they can be forgetful, irritable and primarily intrinsically motivated.  Intrinsic motivation means that teens value self-interest and ownership over pleasing the adults in their lives, unlike younger children who are very interested in pleasing adults. For this reason, it is very important for adults to encourage motivation, not try to punish, reward or push their own agendas.

An important concept to teach is that often we have to do what is required before we can do what we want. This can be a challenge when getting our teens to do homework or housework. In this instance, I often recommend natural consequences.

If your child will not take out the full kitchen trash bin, allow it to fill-up and overflow and the child will then have to clean it all up. The son or daughter who refuses to bring their clothes to the laundry room does not have clean clothes.

The biggest consequence in their lives is that school performance now is a huge determinant to college acceptance and being able to land the job that might make them a happy adult. Often, internships in businesses they have a passion for and college visits in middle school or the beginning of high school are very good motivators.

Disorganization and forgetfulness are also related to the developing brain and not just laziness. While we work on encouraging intrinsic motivation, we also have the responsibility to help our child learn organization and how to break projects down into smaller tasks. Teens still need their household responsibilities posted in the home or to be taught to use their calendar alarms and other smart phone apps that help with scheduling. Model (provide real world examples) how you approach deadlines by breaking projects into smaller tasks and what small rewards you might give yourself as you complete the task. Empower them to learn how they best work their way through tasks and the larger project.

Most importantly, parents should let teens have their say. Let them choose their chores, when they do their homework and set their own timelines. Parents should guide the discussion and set the parameters. The art here is discussing the issues and valuing their input, then making compromises. Next, let go and give them the entire task.

For example, if your teen is required to make dinner one night per week, allow them to set the menu and do the shopping. Most importantly allow them to fail—this is the most important learning tool you will ever provide. We have all burnt the dinner and then ordered a pizza, and that is a valuable skill as well.

Susan Parmelee is a social worker who works during the week at San Clemente High School in the Wellness & Prevention Center and at Western Youth Services. To subscribe to Wellness and Prevention Center weekly emails email “subscribe” to

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