How to Motivate Teens (Really!)

How to Motivate Teens (Really!) - Make It Better

You know the scene: you ask your teen to do something, anything — complete his homework, put away her phone during dinner — and you’re met with an eye roll, an argument, or a begrudging “Fine,” which really means, “I’ll do it but I hate you for asking.” Teens are between childhood and adulthood, between loving and hating themselves and their family, between worrying about right now and planning their entire future. Between is a tough place to be.

David Yeager
Dr. David Yeager (Photo courtesy of FAN.)

Dr. David Yeager, Assistant Professor of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, describes high school as “one big marshmallow test” (referring to the infamous late 1960s research that tested delayed gratification by offering children one marshmallow now or two if they could wait a little bit). His point is that teens are expected to perform day in and day out to earn a future reward in the form of admission to a good college — which in turn will mean more waiting before starting a career. Yeager says, “We expect teenagers to take all of this on faith and not do the things they think are fun right now.”

A long-standing teen stereotype is that they’re unmotivated; Yeager makes the case that we’ve just been failing to motivate them constructively. He cites findings that a mother criticizing a teen as a method of spurring them into action doesn’t actually work. In fact, the teen brain responds with increased emotional reactivity and decreased cognitive control and social cognitive processing. That means that often when parents make “helpful” suggestions, their teen reacts emotionally, without processing the information they’re given.

So, how do we motivate teens to:

1. do work that is boring (to them) but important;

2. embrace criticism and learn from it; and

3. solve social conflicts peacefully?

Create a Purpose for Learning

“Often learning is only pleasurable in retrospect,” says Yeager. Learners might get confused, lost, frustrated, embarrassed or criticized; only later can they appreciate their growth as a result. “Learning is the negotiation between enjoying new content and being motivated to persist at things that are at the frontier of your skillset,” says Yeager.

We send our teens into the classroom expecting them to learn, yet research by Rich Lerner at Tufts shows that by ninth grade, 51 percent of students report being “usually or always bored in school.” If school is seen as boring and uncomfortable in the short term and the reward for achievement is a long way off, how can we convince teens that it’s important?

Yeager says that the key is creating a purpose for learning. More specifically, “to portray [school] as not a meaningless imposition on their time but as a root of doing something important to others.” School programming that engages students in solving real-world problems gives them a chance to matter right now. Yeager says it’s important to engage teens in finding their purpose but that they should self-generate it. Encourage teens to “write about a social justice issue that outrages them.” Invite them to problem-solve and ask questions of their own values. Then help them connect skill development to their passions and goals.

Yeager stresses that this is not just “giving a kid a new belief,” it’s “also about helping teachers create environments that help students find context for learning.”

Utilize Feedback for Growth

How do you simultaneously criticize and motivate? Especially when we’ve learned that some criticism (like that from parents) can create an emotional response? Society’s answer to the impalpability of criticism has been the compliment–criticism–compliment method (i.e., I like your hair that length; I wish you’d keep it out of your eyes; you have such a pretty face). Yeager calls this “the ultimate s— sandwich.” He says that 14-year-olds can sense a false compliment — “They know when an adult is BSing them.”

Instead he encourages us to consider the questions we’d ask ourselves if we got feedback from an authority figure: Am I being taken seriously and are they with me until I get better? One Yeager study showed that seventh-graders with a teacher’s notes on their papers that expressed criticism plus high standards plus assurance resulted in a higher percentage of students willing to revise and a higher percentage more likely to attend a four-year college. By contrast, the control group students who were offered only criticism and a neutral statement were more than 25 percent less likely to attend college (as much as 50 percent less in the case of African Americans).

It’s important to let teens know that we give them feedback because we have faith that they are capable of meeting our high standards and that we will support them while they work to get better.

Understand That People Can Change

Adolescence is a time when testosterone surges — in both males and females. Testosterone is not only involved in aggression and sex but has been found to be a status-seeking hormone. This means that social emotions like shame and embarrassment become especially vivid. Teens are uniquely sensitive to status and respect among their peers. “They also notice quickly when they are being treated unfairly by adults,” says Yeager.

What makes this time even more tricky is that, to teens worried about exclusion and acceptance, it doesn’t feel temporary. Yeager says, “They’re worried about what boxes them in permanently.” He says that it’s important to move teens away from an “Entity (fixed) Theory” of personality and toward an “Incremental Theory.” The former posits that people cannot change. So your teen will perceive that they and the people potentially being mean to them will forever be in those roles. The latter suggests that personality evolves over time and is taught by sharing brain science facts and true stories of formerly aggressive or shy people who have changed. Students are more likely to internalize Incremental Theory if they write their own stories about how this belief is true.

In short, teens who develop purpose, a growth mindset and flexible ideas about personalities are teens who are motivated to learn and grow (even in school!).


Dr. Yeager spoke for the Family Action Network (FAN) in Winnetka in February. The event was not filmed; don’t miss out on any more speakers — visit FAN’s site for a list of upcoming events. Of special note is Yeager co-hort at The Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences Angela Duckworth, who will be speaking for FAN on “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” on May 11.


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