Why is my teen not motivated?


Do you feel like no matter what you try, your teenager is unmotivated? This is very common among adolescents, which is frequently viewed as, “My teen is just being lazy.”. While that may be what appears on the surface, all kids want to do well. Most teens would love to get straight A’s, please their parents, impress their peers, and excel at any interests they may have.

Unfortunately, there is no cookie cutter answer to your teenager’s lack of motivation. Adolescence is a complicated and sensitive time, which can be affected by physical, emotional, social, or neurological obstacles that they themselves may not even understand. Often times, behavior that appears to be laziness can really be avoidant - they are coping with pain associated with trying and failing repeatedly, despite their best efforts. 

More often than not, your teen is just as confused about the root of their problem as you are. The best way to explore and understand your teen’s motivational struggles is to observe and engage them with compassion and non-judgmental curiosity. If you understand the wide range of potential obstacles, you can help guide them with conversations, to help them figure out what is going on.

Here are some common causes of low motivation among teens:

Fear of Failure - Teens can develop such a fear of failure that they are unwilling to try in the first place. These teens may fear that the harder they try, the worse a failure will feel. Some teens have intense external pressures to perform - from parents, peers, teachers, or older siblings. Or, they may have already experienced failure in a way that has led them to shame or pain. 

Lack of Intrinsic Motivators - Children can begin to rely on praise and reward, which can cause adolescents to fail to make the necessary developmental shift from external rewards to intrinsic motivation. They may spend so much energy pursuing what others want them to do, that they begin to find it difficult to know and pursue what makes them happy, which is a critical component of successful individuation. 

Depression - Depression can present as laziness, since teens who suffer from this have difficulty completing tasks and tend to sleep a lot. Their tendency towards irritability may make you think that they are willingly being lazy or defiant.  

Anxiety and Phobias - Anxiety and phobias can lead to severely avoidant behaviors. Teenagers may not feel comfortable discussing their feelings that are causing this avoidance; in these cases the reluctance to engage in certain activities may appear to result from a lack of interest rather than a deep discomfort. 

Poor Diet - A diet that is high in saturated fats and processed sugars, while low in vegetables and whole grains can lead to fatigue, irritability, depression, reduced concentrations and the overwhelming urge to sleep in the middle of the day. Inadequate liquid intake can lead to fatigue and slower cognitive function. Chronic dehydration can also be a problem for teenagers taking certain medications.

Poor Sleep Habits - Your teenager not sleeping properly can have a wide range of causes - social, emotional, or biochemical; whatever the reason, lack of sleep can result in a high level of daytime fatigue, slower cognition, depression, and/or anxiety.

Substance Abuse - Use of substances can lead to a disinterest in normally engaging activities. Even the overuse of caffeine or stimulant drinks can have this effect. 

Learning Disabilities - Many very intelligent and capable teenagers struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities, which may make them appear as unmotivated. Some common undiagnosed learning disabilities are:

NLD (Non-Verbal Learning Disability) - Teens with NLD have a difficult time understanding or expressing non-verbal cues, such as facial expression or tone of voice. This can make them seem as if they do not care when those around them are expressing urgency, irritation, enthusiasm, or anger. This may not be a lack of concern or motivation; it could be their inability to understand the language of non-verbally expressed emotion.

ADD - Teenagers with ADD often struggle with organization, focus, and memory. Since many sufferers of ADD exhibit a high level of intelligence, lost or forgotten homework may not seem innocent to teachers and parents, leading to the thought that the teen simply does not care. This difficulty with follow through is frequently labeled in these teens as simple laziness.

Dyslexia - Dyslexia can be highly challenging for any teenager. The amount of time it takes a dyslexic teen to read or write may not match their teacher’s expectations based on their verbal intelligence. Many students struggle for so long without success that their motivation could lapse overtime. 

Undiagnosed Vision or Hearing Issue - When students repeatedly fail to understand what others are saying or are asking of them, they may learn helplessness and stop trying. Certain vision and auditory problems often go unnoticed for years. A teenager who is repeatedly scolded for not listening to instructions may actually be suffering from a mild vision or hearing problem. These students may think of themselves as not as smart as other students, which could lead them to giving up trying.

Before you conclude that there is nothing else you can do to help your seemingly unmotivated teen, remember that everyone ultimately wants to succeed. When armed with understanding, you are more likely to approach their needs with curiosity instead of reactivity or judgment. If you suspect any of the above factors are impeding your teen’s performance and motivation, the next step would be to get a psycho-educational test done to understand what is going on. Once you understand the problem, you are one step closer to finding a solution and giving your teen a new opportunity to pursue the success they want and deserve.

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