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Gary GillesGary Gilles, LCPC
Empowering and practical insights to grow your most important relationships

Motivating Adolescents Toward Responsible Choices - Part II

Gary Gilles, LCPC Updated: Feb 6th 2015

In part 1, we talked about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and how you ideally want to instill intrinsic motivation in your teen. Here, we talk about three important ways you begin to foster intrinsic motivation in your teen.

Encourage choice

happy mother and teen daughterChoice gives your teen the ability to change their world to some degree and gives them a sense of power that is not only healthy for future development but necessary for intrinsic motivation to grow. The more choices your teen can make, the more ownership she will have for the tasks and responsibilities she engages in, and the more intrinsically motivated she will be to do her best and see those tasks to completion.

Allowing and encouraging choice in your teen doesn't mean you let them do anything they want. You still provide guidance and determine what is appropriate but within a framework of collaboration instead of control.

Create an optimum challenge

But choices need a target to aim for. That target is an optimum challenge. Adolescents need to be challenged toward a goal they can accomplish. As one challenge is met, confidence builds and leads them to believe they can take on another challenge and see it through as well.

An optimum challenge is one that is not too difficult, nor too easy. To create the optimum challenge for your teen you must first correctly assess their particular skill level and then match the challenge appropriately. When the skill level is mismatched to the challenge these scenarios result:

  • When skills are high but the challenge is low, boredom results
  • When skills are low but the challenge is too high, overwhelm occurs
  • When skills are low but the challenge is too easy, apathy results

But when skills match the challenge, competency results. The challenge should be just out of reach but attainable if they apply their current level of knowledge and skill.

If you apply the principles of choice and challenge to our scenario of earning better grades for instance, you might start by asking your teen what they consider attainable grades for their potential (encouraging choice). This would give you some important information about how they view their skills. If they set the bar too low suggest a slightly higher standard, one that would stretch them, but be within their capabilities (matching skills with the challenge). Keep talking until you can agree on a standard that you and your teen can work toward.

Taking it one step further, you could help your teen envision how they must plan their time around other activities such as sports, home responsibilities, and social life to achieve the grades they want. You could even go as far as making the connection between their goal of particular grades and their eventual job/career. This dialogue opens the opportunity for your teen to make additional choices about:

  • How to divide their time on a given day/week to accomplish their goal
  • Choosing courses that relate to their interests
  • Thinking about how to improve their study skills, among others.

Your prime motive is not to solve your teen's problems but to elicit their participation in solving the problem, which creates ownership for the goal. By taking this approach you convey that you value their opinion, believe in their potential, and trust their judgment enough to ask for it. These are takeaways that never occur when you simply tell your teen "do this or else."

Of course small differences of opinion will be easier to resolve than large ones like earning better grades. And there are many reasons for parents and teens to face off over any given issue. But if you treat your teen as a partner in the process instead of an employee you are much more likely to get what you want and what works to intrinsically motivate them.

Relationship is the glue

The final principle that holds it all together is your relationship with your teenager. The most powerful factor in determining the welfare of your teen is your presence both physically and emotionally as they carry on this experiment with independence. Too often parents mistake their adolescent's quest for autonomy as a message to leave them alone. But in reality they need us more than ever. They need an emotional anchor to weather the storms of adolescence that in many ways seem fiercer than at any time previous.

If you look at the big picture, you and your teen both want the same thing for their life: to grow up to be responsible, autonomous adults. This will not happen if you step out of the way and let them do it alone. Nor will it happen if you retain control over things that they should be having a hand in determining. Give them choices and help them envision a challenge. Help shape the course of the challenge through your ongoing presence and support. And through it all, you will not only be giving them skills that will serve them well the rest of their lives, but greater clarity on what their passions are. And because you gave them the freedom and the guidance to reach for those passions, they will be intrinsically motivated to develop those passions throughout their life.


Gary Gilles, LCPC

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in private practice for over 20 years. He is passionate about helping people live empowered, healthy lives. He works from the idea that we feel most contented and in control of our lives when we take action on what we value most. This typically involves choices around relationships and personal habits. He uses his expertise as a change agent in his counseling practice, his blog and his books to help people get their lives back on track. Gary's hundreds of published articles have appeared in a wide range of print and online publications. He currently publishes a popular blog entitled Relationship Matters at His books are available at You can contact Gary at:

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