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Is your fixed mindset lowering your teen's motivation?

Worried that your kid is unmotivated and lazy? Here’s what experts say about motivation and how to develop it in teenagers.

“My teen is 16 and they have no career goals. They’re moody and they show no aspiration to do anything with their life. And even if they did have a vision, I’m not sure that they would have the skills to get there.”

Sound familiar? Getting teenagers excited about things is hard. It can be frustrating, disheartening even, to see your teen struggle to find a passion they really care for. You may even be thinking, I didn’t have the privilege to pick a passion when I was child, and they’re squandering their shot! You might’ve tried threatening to take away the PlayStation or no phone for a week praying that they’ll buckle down and get serious, but your teen is smart. They adapt and find something else to entertain themselves, or bet that you’ll eventually give in. The cycle continues until you’re exhausted.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to break free from this cycle by creating the right environment to foster your teen's motivation:

Your teen was not born lazy

An underlying misconception that damages both a teen’s motivation and self-esteem is the belief that they are inherently unmotivated or lazy. Not only does this name-calling dismiss getting to any root cause of their lack of motivation, but it can morph into a nasty self-critical inner voice that can persist for years. The reality is that during adolescence, teen brains undergo what clinical professor and psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls “remodeling.” This process involves pruning away old neural networks and making new ones, all in efforts to build a stronger and more effective brain. This brain development allows for a sea of learning possibilities including a more motivated mindset. Because of the brain’s extreme plasticity during teen years, any inherent belief about them should be taken with a grain of salt because their brain is literally changing. Taking on a fixed mindset towards your child’s potential may truly make them think they're not capable of much.

Feelings of incompetence feeds lack of motivation

A lack of motivation typically may stem from a lack of confidence or competence. Many teens may just be scared, confused, or overwhelmed to start, which may appear as laziness. Regardless, parents should recognize that they have a large role in their child’s confidence because at the end of the day, children want love and respect from their parents. The fact that teens are constantly vying for their parents’ approval means that parents’ words and actions matter. For example, criticizing everything your child does and jumping on how they can improve can feed low levels of confidence and self-esteem. This can lead your child to take on the “nothing I do will ever be good enough for my parent, so why should I even try?” mindset and may even impede them from getting started on a task for the fear that it will only be criticized. This mindset has dangerous implications for depression and anxiety due to feelings of helplessness and lack of autonomy. Instead, try using your voice to empower your teen’s confidence by recognizing when you are being overly critical and hurting their sense of competence.

How to foster a growth mindset in your teen

Knowing that teens are still developing and learning, you can try fostering a growth mindset in your teen. Growth mindset takes on the lens that any ability can be developed through dedication and hard work (as opposed to fixed mindset where you believe abilities are innate). Growth mindset individuals learn to enjoy challenges and believe that their intelligence and talents can be enhanced when they put in hard work. They expect things to be hard, and don't lose motivation when the going gets tough. Leveraging this mindset allows you to root for your teen’s continual progress and growth. It puts the equation for motivation in reverse - instead of trying to constantly motivate your kid to do something, tackle the mindset your teen has when they do something.

Here are 3 tips to foster a growth mindset in your teen:

1) Reframe failure

A key element to a growth mindset is reframing what it means to fail. In an interview with NewsWeek, Spanx founder and the youngest self-made female billionaire in 2012, Sara Blakely, shared that her father used to ask at the dinner table, “What have you tried to fail at this week?” By actively promoting failure, she was able to reframe it and see the opportunity for growth in failures. Similarly, questions like “What mistakes did you make today that taught you something?” can speak volumes to your commitment to supporting your teen's struggles.

2) Change your phrases

As much as you may like to believe that you’ve adopted a growth mindset towards your child’s learnings, mindset is truly revealed in what you say. Some phrases that are well-intentioned like, “You’re one smart girl” or “you’re a natural,” actually praise innate talents that may lead your child to believe that they are not capable unless they’re good at something from the get go and inhibit them from exploring other talents. Instead, strive to praise their efforts with phrases like, “When you practiced, you got a really wonderful outcome.”

Even more important than the words you say to your children, are the words you say about yourself and others outside of your family. Children will notice if you use growth mindset phrases for them, but not anyone else.

Take a moment to reflect on how you respond to not only your teen’s failures but to your peers’ and to your own failures. Do you ever say, "I can't believe I messed that up, I'm so stupid", or "Why can't people do their jobs right? Everyone is lazy"? Your response to failures is an opportunity for modeling how you’d like your teen to respond to failures. If they see you take a critical, fixed mindset to everyone but them, they'll still learn to internalize a fixed mindset script. Worse, they may interpret the discrepancy between what you say to them and others to be disingenuous effort on your part, which ends up creating doubt for any compliments you truly want to give them.

In short, consistently praise effort, not the final result, even for yourself. That way, you're constantly teaching your child how to self-narrate their failures and make them feel more competent to try new things and ultimately make mistakes that will help them grow.

3) Check your anxiety

Ask yourself why you need to motivate your teen in the first place. Are you resorting to punishment to motivate your teen? Are you engaging in shouting because it's not working?

With self reflection, most parents realize their tireless efforts to motivate their teen (and anger when their teen is resistant) is rooted in anxiety. Every parent wants the best for their child, and it can feel scary to watch your teen squander their shot. But the truth is, anxiety is contagious. The more anxious you are about your teen's future, the more paralyzed they can become from transferred anxiety. In these cases, even when they do perform, the motivation is less often intrinsic.

Kids are meant to grow

Mindset is everything, it affects how much we think we’re capable of. Ultimately, you can’t control your child’s intrinsic motivation to do something. Intrinsic motivation, like the name suggests, comes from within. But fostering their mindset can go a long way. This study found that competence, autonomy, and relatedness, when satisfied, yielded higher self-motivation in teens and when not satisfied, led to less self-motivation. In other words, when your teen feels capable and competent towards a task, they feel more motivated to do it. On the flipside, when teens feel discouraged, incompetent, and as if the situation is out of their control, they will be demotivated to complete the task. Furthermore, if we have people around us believing that we can manifest change, we’re more likely to manifest that change. Instead of trying to force on motivation, foster a mindset for your kid that allows them to chase down their passions with creative confidence.

We’d also love to hear from you if you would like us to cover any specific topics. Cherish is offering free resources (from coaching to curated parent community groups) for parents with teens throughout COVID-19. If you're interested in a personal parenting coach, sign up here!

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