Perhaps this is the million dollar question! You might have peered into the eyes of your adolescent and wondered, “What exactly is going on in that brain of theirs?”
Yes, what is it that motivates a teen’s behavior? Well, since the early 1900’s, psychologists have tried to answer the same question! Psychologists who study behavior are known as behaviorists, and a few famous ones include B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson. They wanted to know what drives the observable behavior of human beings. What they discovered is that much of our behavior is driven by motivation. And there are two main types of motivation:
Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to change, the inner desire to do something differently. For instance, a teen may decide on their own that they want to go to college and change their study habits as a result.
Extrinsic motivation is the desire to change because of something outside of you, like legal obligations or demands made by loved ones. In many cases, teens experience extrinsic motivation when they change as a result of the demands of their parents.
Sometimes, intrinsic motivation can be hard to sustain. For instance, when a teen wants to overcome an addiction, their intrinsic motivation needs to be strong to counter the drive to drink or use drugs. As long as there is ambivalence inside, the desire to change will be countered by a desire to drink.
Intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to great change. However, sometimes teens need extrinsic motivation to kick start their psychological well being. For instance, this is often the case with teen depression. At first, extrinsic motivation (request by parents; doctor’s directions) may be necessary because depression will often be accompanied by a lack of motivation from within. However, if a depressed teen can find motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, to exercise, follow his or her treatment plan, and talk to an adult when sadness takes over, it can greatly facilitate healing. Over time, a depression can lift, especially when a teen is exercising, talking openly with a trusted adult, and taking medication, if necessary.
Other Factors that Influence a Teen’s Behavior
Motivation becomes a bit more complicated when you consider the needs of teens. Their behavior is not only driven by internal or external desires. It is also driven by biological, emotional, and psychological needs:
Biological Needs:. For instance, human beings have biological needs which produce an internal condition of tension (hunger) that orients them toward a specific behavior or goal (finding and eating food). Typically, biological needs drive us to action. We are motivated or driven to reduce our needs and stay alive.
Emotional and Psychological Needs: The researcher Harry Harlow helped prove that there is more to motivation that just satisfying our biological drives. Using monkeys in his experiments, he proved that a loving, comforting touch motivated monkeys more than hunger or thirst. His research greatly impacted the adoption process and stressed the importance of placing children with parents that can provide contact comfort as quickly as possible. If a teen has an emotional need, particularly one that remains unmet, they may be drawn to stay in a relationship even if it is unhealthy.
Need for Affiliation, Achievement, and Power: These needs can also drive individuals to make certain choices and behave in certain ways. Fulfilling these needs might drive human beings to get a degree, start an organization, or join an elite club. The American culture places importance on fulfilling these needs. For many teens, affiliation (with certain friends) is going to strongly motivate their behavior.
Incentives: Not only do the above needs drive behavior, but external rewards can also drive behavior. For instance, if we want more money in our lives, then we will spend time looking for a job. If we want companionship, we may spend time looking for friends to spend time with.
All of the above may play a role in what’s influencing your teen’s behavior. And keep in mind that there may be a combination of the above that is having an influence on your teen’s behavior.
Beliefs, Values and Cultural Differences
All of these needs motivate people to behave in certain ways. However, most theorists see motivation as a result of both the “push” of an internal need or drive and the “pull” of an external rewarding stimulus. For example, someone might be hungry (internal drive, biological need) but choose to satisfy that drive with a candy bar or a celery stick. Depending on the beliefs, values, and importance of health of that person, his or her choice will vary.
In other words, teens may choose to satisfy their desires and needs differently depending upon their beliefs, values of the family, and cultural influences. As mentioned above, the American culture places a great deal of influence on achievement, affiliation, and power. Similarly, in some Hispanic cultures, seeing a mental health provider isn’t the first choice. Parents might take their teen to see a priest, family friend, or relative to sort out problems. And if this is the cultural preference teens experience in their families, then they might not want to see a therapist; they may want to talk to a friend or teacher instead.
Along these lines, certain types of motivation are going to influence in how they care for their mental health. If a teen is motivated by the acceptance of friends, they may not want to see a therapist. They may highly resist staying at a teen residential treatment center. However, if addressing symptoms of depression or anxiety are more important, then an adolescent might be more motivated to seek treatment and stick with it. Sadly, many teens don’t get the treatment they need. And certain needs, beliefs, and values are likely playing a role in their choices.
What Parents Can Do
If your teen is resisting something (mental health treatment, focus on grades, etc), then parents may need to step in. Sure, parents can provide extrinsic motivation for teens by letting them know that you’re going to take away the Ipad or late night privileges. But another, more effective (and long lasting) way of motivating a teen’s behavior is through your relationship with them.
The stronger the parent-child relationship, the less acting out a child will exhibit.
And this is true throughout adolescence. When a child feels secure in their relationship with their parents, they are more likely to be less resistant, defiant, or shut down. Parents can help engage their teen in a loving, nurturing, and trust-worthy relationship, and in turn, teens will be more likely to be honest, open, and less defiant in their adolescence.
Even if you haven’t had a strong relationship when your teen was younger, you can work on that relationship now. And as you continue to build that relationship, you and your teen are likely to experience greater levels of connection, trust, and honesty. The strength of relationship with their parent will also be a great motivator in a teen’s behavior. It will have an influence on their choices. If you want to motivate your teen in the right direction, have a strong relationship with them.
Dr. Nalin is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, and Founder and Executive Director of Paradigm Treatment Centers, who has been a respected leader in the field of adolescent mental health for more than 20 years. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Southern California, his Master’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, his Doctoral degree from Pacific University’s APA approved Clinical Psychology program, and completed his training at the University of California, San Diego’s APA approved psychology internship program.
Dr. Nalin has provided training and mentoring to students entering the field of psychology at institutions of learning including Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College. He was also instrumental in the development of the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.
Dr. Nalin has appeared as an expert on shows ranging from CBS News and Larry King, to CNN, The Today Show and MTV. He was also featured in an Anti-Drug Campaign for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
Dr. Nalin is a Diplomate of the National Institute of Sports Professionals and a Certified Sports Psychologist as well as a Certified Chemical Dependency Intervention Specialist. He lectures and conducts workshops nationally on the issues of teen mental health, substance abuse prevention, and innovative adolescence treatment.
In 2017 Dr. Nalin was awarded The Sigmund Freud Foundation and Sigmund Freud University’s Distinguished Achievement Award in recognition of his work with youth in the field of mental health over the course of his career.