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How to Motivate Teenager to Study Using Brain Science

It is an age old question: How to motivate teenager to study in a way that won’t backfire? Motivation involves a complex system in the brain​1​.

Conventional strategies such as simple positive reinforcement or punishment usually work temporarily, if at all. They often backfire, resulting in less motivation in kids. Find out how to truly motivate a teenager so they can develop the right motivation to study.

Motivation & The Brain

Motivation is associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine​2​.

Dopamine levels are boosted when we encounter rewarding experiences, such as winning a video game or being praised. In contrast, low levels of dopamine are associated with a lack of motivation and boredom.

An optimal dopamine level can lead to high motivation. It is the key to your teenager’s motivation​3​.

During teenage years, it is very easy for the levels of dopamine to fall. So, prior to raising them, we need to prevent them from dropping.

teenage boy using laptop with a smile motivated to study - how to motivate my teenage son to study

Stress & The Adolescent Brain

Stress is the enemy of dopamine. Even mild chronic stress can cause your teenager’s dopamine levels to plummet so that they don’t want to do anything.

While children’s brains grow rapidly during puberty and adolescence, increased plasticity also leaves them vulnerable. A teenager’s brain is more sensitive to stress.

Chronic stress, also called toxic stress, is not good for anyone at any age, but it is particularly harmful for adolescent brains because it may lead to permanent changes in brain development. In extreme cases, toxic stress can result in a smaller brain, and damages in the learning, memory and focusing center of the brain​4​.

Toxic stress during this period also contributes to mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and drug abuse, often observed during adolescence.

Not only are teenagers more susceptible to stress, but they are also more reactive and emotional​5​.

Therefore, teenagers can lose motivation to study easily and act emotional over benign requests to do school work. In a sense, they can’t help it. Their motivation and emotional regulation is quite fragile during this period.

Self-motivated learner
Have trouble motivating your child? Check out:

How To Motivate Kids

How to Motivate Teenager to Study

Here is how to convince teenager to study and help them boost motivation.

1. Stop motivating to stop the stress

Stress not only cannot motivate, but it can also have a negative impact on your child’s brain development. The best thing parents can do to motivate their teenagers to study is to remove stress from their lives.

Sadly, parents are one of the most common sources of chronic stress for teenagers. You have already reminded your child about what they should do a million times. More reminders create unnecessary stress for your child.

Here are the chronic stressors you can eliminate for them.

2. Rebuild relationship

Relatedness is one of the most powerful motivators. It’s the feeling of belonging and connecting with someone who cares. 

Unmotivated teenagers often have strained relationships with their parents. Motivate them by mending the relationship and becoming a source of strength in your teen’s life instead of a source of stress.

Building a strong parent-child relationship is not much different from building any relationship. If you are always being ordered around and disrespected, and always on the wrong side of things while the other one is always right, would you want to be in a relationship like that?

No one!

A strong, positive relationship is built on trust and respect.

We’re raising children to become adults. Talk to them as adults and discuss things with them when you don’t agree.

Having a close, warm and accepting relationship with parents is the strongest predictor of future success. It gives your teen a robust foundation for their future achievement.

3. Give autonomous support and help them internalize the value of learning

According to Self-Determination Theory, developed by psychology and motivation experts Deci & Ryan at the University of Rochester, teens who think they have control over their activities are more motivated​6​.

Children, especially teenagers, cannot be motivated when they feel controlled or pressured to study. They need to want to study willingly to have motivation to do so.

It sounds backwards, but it’s true.

When teenagers are allowed the autonomy to decide what activities to engage in, they will be self-driven to do things they deem valuable.

The key is to help them internalize the reasons to study. Children, especially teenagers, internalize the values of those they feel connected to.

“I need to study because otherwise I would be punished.”

“I need to study because learning is important to my Mom and therefore, it’s important to me too”.

Which reason is more compelling? 

But to do this, you need to do #2 above first, i.e. restoring a strong relationship.

Granting a healthy sense of control also means that your teenager will become responsible for things that they should be responsible for. School work should be your teen’s responsibility, not yours. So put them in the driver’s seat and let them take that on.

Autonomy is the most important motivator. Studies show that without a sense of control, your teenager will not be intrinsically motivated to study even if you can achieve all the other items on this list.

4. Help them master

The Self-Determination Theory also suggests that a sense of competence can improve one’s motivation. A sense of mastery can develop when your child tackles a task easy enough to complete, but difficult enough for them to feel challenged.

Helping teenagers master school work can help bolster their self-esteem in addition to competence.

If a subject is too hard, it will be hard to feel motivated to do something you’re not good at. If your teenager is struggling with school work because they are not doing well, consider hiring a tutor to help. Make sure the tutor is someone your child can relate to, because they can then also motivate your teenager through relatedness.

If school is too easy, look for supplemental classes or materials for your child to work on. In any case, involve them to make that decision so they can feel in control of their studying.

5. Encourage dopamine-replenishing activities

One way to help teens enhance their dopamine levels is exercising. Physical activities can help regulate dopamine release in the brain​7​.

In addition, exercises can improve teenagers’ mood and mental wellbeing​8​. Exercise is also related to enhanced cognitive functioning and brain plasticity​9​. Having a better mood allows easier relationship building and better brain functioning facilitates the teenager’s mastery.

You can’t go wrong with some physical exercises every day to boost your teen’s health and motivation to learn.

teenage daughter studying in front of laptop - how to motivate teenage girl

Final Though On How To Motivate Teenager To Study

Motivation is complicated, because the human brain is one of the most complicated systems in the world. As technology advances, scientists start to gain a greater understanding of it. Our parenting strategies should also adapt as we have more knowledge about how a brain works.

Need Help Motivating Kids?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate in learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.


References

  1. 1.
    Robbins TW, Everitt BJ. Neurobehavioural mechanisms of reward and motivation. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. Published online April 1996:228-236. doi:10.1016/s0959-4388(96)80077-8
  2. 2.
    Wise RA. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nat Rev Neurosci. Published online June 2004:483-494. doi:10.1038/nrn1406
  3. 3.
    Mohebi A, Pettibone JR, Hamid AA, et al. Dissociable dopamine dynamics for learning and motivation. Nature. Published online May 22, 2019:65-70. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1235-y
  4. 4.
    Eiland L, Romeo RD. Stress and the developing adolescent brain. Neuroscience. Published online September 2013:162-171. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.10.048
  5. 5.
    Dahl RE, Gunnar MR. Heightened stress responsiveness and emotional reactivity during pubertal maturation: Implications for psychopathology. Dev Psychopathol. Published online January 2009:1-6. doi:10.1017/s0954579409000017
  6. 6.
    Gagné M, Deci EL. Self-determination theory and work motivation. J Organiz Behav. Published online April 14, 2005:331-362. doi:10.1002/job.322
  7. 7.
    Sutoo D, Akiyama K. Regulation of brain function by exercise. Neurobiology of Disease. Published online June 2003:1-14. doi:10.1016/s0969-9961(03)00030-5
  8. 8.
    Heijnen S, Hommel B, Kibele A, Colzato LS. Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise—A Review. Front Psychol. Published online January 7, 2016. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890
  9. 9.
    Deslandes A, Moraes H, Ferreira C, et al. Exercise and Mental Health: Many Reasons to Move. Neuropsychobiology. Published online 2009:191-198. doi:10.1159/000223730

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