‘Dear EveryDay Strong, what can I do to help my unmotivated, defiant child?’

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Teenagers at a fire pit eating take-away pizzas, close up

By Dr. Matt Swenson, EveryDay Strong Team Member

I met with a 13-year-old boy from a rural Utah community whose exhausted mother began our visit by pulling a paper from her purse containing a list of problems she was having with her son.

   The list read something like this: “defiant, oppositional, unmotivated, entitled, manipulative, lying and stealing, addicted to this or that, etc. etc.”

   I don’t remember the specific items on the list as much as I do the sinking feeling I had as I considered how demoralized the son must have been, and how powerless and unappreciated Mom must have felt.

   The first question that needed to be addressed was whether this teen was choosing that predicament — Mom’s interpretation — or if there was a disability getting in the way of adaptive functioning. Was he unmotivated or just unable? Can’t or won’t?

   Motivation is widely misunderstood. We assume people’s lives are driven by a series of rewards and consequences, and that a lack of progress, discipline or productive and compliant behaviors represent a deficit in these “carrot and stick” motivational strategies.

   But this approach misses an important truth: People are intrinsically motivated to have their needs met and want to be good!

   A better approach is to start by assuming people want to be good and successful. However, to grow into our best selves, we require that basic needs be cared for, or else motivation will be focused on preserving more basic needs instead of fully thriving. These needs are (1) safety, (2) connections, and (3) confidence/competence.

   Back to our 13-year-old and his mother.

   I wondered whether this 13-year old felt psychologically “safe” to talk, to feel, to fail or even to be himself (he had been bullied in the past and was being pretty heavily criticized by his parents).

   With this in mind, I turned to the boy and thanked him for talking with me about such complex problems. I told him I really, truly wanted to understand his perspective. I validated his reality that being a teenager can be hard in ways adults may not appreciate.

   After a few reluctant head nods I guessed aloud (but really knew!), “I bet you wish others could understand how hard you are trying.” At this moment, he — like so many other youth — could no longer hold back tears. I thanked him for allowing me to see those.

   Once this young man sensed I was safe because his thoughts, perspectives, feelings and failures were not just OK but welcomed, we got everyone on the same page for the first time in a long time. He talked openly about problems and could safely reflect on and problem-solve some of his behavioral issues.

   His mom softened when she could more clearly see his pain, and she further warmed when he was able to express his wish to have a better relationship with his parents. On a solid foundation of safety, we worked on coping skills, achievement and behaviors. He began moving in a positive direction!

   I’m not suggesting there is no place for traditional rewards or consequences. These can be valuable tools for improving a person’s ability to self-motivate. When any person has to do something that isn’t a desirable task, they must employ a set of cognitive skills in order to motivate themselves.

   Self-motivation needs to be taught, so rewards and consequences may be appropriate at times. But no kid will make much headway with this effort if safety and connection are unmet.

   So I invite you to avoid terms like “unmotivated,” “lazy,” “manipulative,” or “defiant” when we talk about one another. Choose to believe people want to be good, want to succeed, but they may self-sabotage when struggling with other basic psychological needs, including the need to feel more confident in their abilities, achievements, or ability to self-motivate when things get hard.

United Way is on a mission to help every child in our community feel safe, connected and confident. In this space on the pages of Utah Valley Magazine, we share ideas from local professionals, parents and friends about how you can do that for the kids in your life. In the meantime, find us at www.everydaystrong.org, or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
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