Since the early 1900’s, the scientists of psychology have tried to figure out why human beings behave the way they do. Exploring human behavior is the fascination of behaviorists, like B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson, who want to know what drives the observable behavior of human beings.
Much of our behavior is driven by motivation. For instance, human beings have biological needs which produce an internal condition of tension that orients them toward a specific behavior or goal. Typically, biological needs drive us to action. We are motivated or driven to reduce our needs and stay alive.
But we are more than just biological needs; we have emotional and psychological needs as well. For instance, 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.
And then we also have the need for affiliation, achievement, and power. These will also drive us 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 need for affiliation, achievement and power play a significant role for many in the United States. Lastly, our behavior is also influenced by incentives. If we want more money in our lives, then we will spend time looking for a job.
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) 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.
What does all this have to do with teen mental health? Well, certain types of motivation are going to influence a teen in getting treatment or avoid getting treatment. If a teen is motivated by the acceptance of his or her friends, he or she won’t want to see a therapist or stay 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 get the treatment he or she needs. Sadly, many teens don’t get the treatment they need, which perhaps is why suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens.
Furthermore, certain types of motivation are going to influence a teen’s desire to get mental health treatment for depression, anxiety, and/or drug or alcohol addiction. For instance, there’s intrinsic motivation, which is the internal drive to change, compared to extrinsic motivation, which is the desire to change because of something outside of you, like legal obligations or demands made by parents.
In order to overcome an addiction, for instance, intrinsic motivation needs to be strong to counter the dependency that will drive you to drink or use drugs. As long as there is ambivalence inside, the desire to change will be countered by a desire to drink. Yet, when the intrinsic motivation is strong enough that’s when change will happen.
The same is true if a teen is struggling with depression. In this case, it might be the external motivation that an adolescent needs to rely upon first 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.
Intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to great change. However, sometimes teens need extrinsic motivation to kick start their psychological well being.
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