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Why Doesn’t Your Kid ‘Just Do It’? The Truth About Motivation and Change by Fern Weis, Parent Coach

Why Doesn’t Your Kid ‘Just Do It’? The Truth About Motivation and Change by Fern Weis, Bergen County Moms Moms

Motivation to change doesn't happen in a straight line, and it isn't just about self-control. Change is difficult because the things that motivate you change all the time. You don't stick with it because at any given moment there is something else that can take priority. You are affected by a multitude of needs and wants... both yours and the people in your orbit.

Does the following sound familiar? You make a decision or a resolution to change a behavior. Two months, two weeks, or even two days later you've fallen off the wagon. Even though it still feels important to make the change, you just can't seem to muster the self-discipline to carry on. And when your kids are inconsistent, watch out! Visions of incompetence and disaster may not be far behind.

The good news is that self-discipline is only one aspect of motivation and change, so you can stop berating yourself and your kids for not following through. Change often goes along in fits and starts. Two steps forward and a few steps back is normal and to be expected.

Now what about your child? Perhaps you can't stand the mess in his room. So you propose, "If you keep your room clean, I'll give you the X that you really want." It's the thing he's been begging for weeks, so why doesn't he cooperate?

The clean room is your idea, not his, which automatically makes it a lesser priority for him. You're highly motivated, and he's not. There are far more important people and things than those you offered him. And so he resists making the change.

I used to wonder, "What is so important to my kids that it will create a permanent behavior change?" I never could figure it out, because, as I now know, motivation changes.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by psychologists Deci and Ryan at the University of Rochester, identifies two types of motivations behind people's choices: internal (autonomous) and external (controlled) motivations.

Internal vs External Motivation

Internal motivation is a reason for making a choice that is important to us, our values and our outlook on life. External motivation comes from the outside - the law, school rules, parental rules, or company policy, for example.

External motivators are often the reason we do something in the first place. ("I want a better grade." "I want my parents to be proud of me." "I don't want to get a speeding ticket.") These are motivations to get someone's approval, or to avoid a consequence. External motivators tend to fade over time. Maintaining a behavior change usually requires a shift to an internal motivation.

What are Internal Motivations for Teens?

Spending time with friends, being accepted, staying connected on devices... these are universal motivators for teens. Some kids know how to balance these with other, longer-term life goals. Others will act on the strong pull of what feels good right now, and homework, a clean room and the college essay are left behind.

Motivation Changes Over Time

Even the 'laziest' of children (and adults) is motivated... just not in the way you want them to be. Today's good intentions are tomorrow's uncompleted goals.

There is an unconscious cost-benefit analysis going on. When the cost of a behavior outweighs the benefit, everything changes. If there's a party going on, the benefit of being with friends will often outweigh the cost of putting up with your nagging about the college application. The application is important, but, in your teen's mind, it can wait. Being part of the group is a higher priority.

What's A Parent To Do?

Remember that motivation changes and internal motivation tends to rule. The old adage about 'picking your battles' is important to remember, too.

Which are the issues that will have longer-term consequences? (The messy room pales in comparison to the journey to college.) What is a priority? Are there deadlines to be met? You can help your teen by giving gentle reminders:

* Is he thinking about a career in the sciences? "Marine biologists need a strong foundation in science. How's your effort in those classes?

* Has he been focused on attending a particular college? "You've always talked about going to X University. What still needs to be done to have a strong application?"

Maybe the goals have changed. The question is why. This is an opportunity for a calm, non-judgmental, exploratory conversation. His interests may have gradually changed or, just as likely, there is something blocking him.

The bigger process may be overwhelming and he needs help breaking it down into smaller steps. There may be an academic/learning challenge. Is there a love interest diverting his attention? Perhaps there is substance use/abuse going on. Every one is a strong motivator.


  • Internal motivators rule.

  • Motivation changes over time, and can change frequently.

  • You can help your child understand what is motivating him.

  • Help him refocus on his goals, or reevaluate and change them.

  • Be patient and calm.

  • Have a respectful conversation. Be curious (not critical).

Fern Weis is a certified life coach who learned that caring and good intentions are not enough in parenting.  In fact, they are often the problem! Fern supports parents of teens and young adults who are going through difficult situations, including addiction recovery.  She helps parents release guilt, end enabling and confidently prepare their children to thrive through life's challenges. Her articles are featured in Thrive Global, Medium, Motherly, The Teen Mentor, and Bergen County Moms.  

Learn more about coaching and classes at And then download your free guide, "Five Powerful Steps to Get Your Teen to Talk." For information on Family Recovery programs, visit