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Motivation in adolescence

Definition of motivation

Motivation is an internal force that drives towards achieving a goal. This force is made up of factors capable of provoking, choosing, maintaining and directing the behavior towards the attainment of a certain objective.

 The most intense impulse is the survival in pure state when one fights for life, followed by the motivations that derive from the satisfaction of the primary and secondary necessities: hunger, thirst, shelter, reproduction, security, protection…

Theories on motivation and behavior

In order to explain the relationship motivation-behavior, it is important to start from some theoretical positions that presuppose the existence of certain laws or principles based on the accumulation of empirical observations.

Phases of the motivational cycle

If we focus on motivation as a process, we can define several phases:

  • Homeostasis. In other words, at a certain point the human organism remains in a state of equilibrium.
  • Stimulus. It is when a stimulus appears and generates a need.
  • Need. This need (unsatisfied yet) causes a state of tension.
  • State of tension. The tension produces an impulse that gives rise to a behavior or action.
  • Behavior. The behavior, when activated, is aimed at satisfying that need. Reach the target satisfactorily.
  • Satisfaction. If the need is satisfied, the organism returns to its equilibrium state, until another stimulus is present. All satisfaction is thus a release of tension that allows the return to the previous equilibrium homeostatic.
  • When a need is not satisfied within a reasonable time, it can lead to certain reactions.
  • Disorganization of behavior (illogical behavior and no apparent explanation).
  • Aggressiveness (physical, verbal, etc.)
  • Emotional reactions (anxiety, affliction, nervousness and other manifestations such as insomnia, circulatory and digestive problems etc.)
  • Alignment, apathy and selflessness

7 ways to create the motivation environment

As a parent you have a decisive role in your child’s motivation. To strive for what you undertake, both at home and at school and in sports.

«It’s not that I’m very smart, it’s that I persevere longer.» It is revealing that one of the greatest geniuses of our time has explained his success in this way.  Einstein acknowledged that he owed his achievements to his incredible perseverance, and not only to his superior intelligence. Einstein was motivated to succeed.  At the end of life everyone is responsible for their successes and mistakes, but during childhood and adolescence, parents have in our hands the possibility of creating an environment favorable to effort and perseverance.

  1. Have proper expectations. Do not think that with three years you will know the multiplication table.
  2. Help your child set goals. To say goals: Is that you have to write them at the beginning of the course, goals that are real, measurable and specific.  Better to say: «I will try to lend the ball at least twice in the week» that «I’ll be a good friend.»
  3. Find different ways to make your child understand that what he is proposing is for you very important as a parent: in school, in sports and at home.
  4. Discover and support the learning style that best fits your child.  If you are a hearing student you will learn better by listening, if you are a visual student reading or watching images on your computer, if you are an active student you will learn better by making models, exercising, practicing.
  5. Speak with a language that encourages, not praising. Most parents like to praise with expressions like, «good job!» or «This is great!»  But according to experts, encouraging children has greater effect on motivation than praise. What’s the difference?  Praise rewards the result, the work; encouragement rewards the effort, the way. The big difference is that the words of encouragement lead the child to evaluate himself in a positive way.  Encouraging a child makes his motivation increase dramatically
  6. Accompany your child in learning. Participate. Let your child see that it’s fun to learn for you too.  Visit with your child The Science Museum, or the library, or the zoo, or a painting museum of Show enthusiasm with all the beautiful things you see together.
  7. Encourage your child’s strength. It’s one of the duties as parents.

Parents should know how to ignite the spark that drives the child to seek triumphs from within, a desire that cannot be created with any amount of external rewards, threats or pleas.  Motivation is truly the secret to helping children achieve their full potential and parents should learn to use it.

Give your child a special reward once in a while, but at other times reward them with a big smile or a hug and a positive gesture. Or say, «You must feel very proud of yourself. Look at all you’ve accomplished.»

Motivation Learning

We are born with a very small instinctive baggage, with an inherited organic equipment, but, it is the social culture (validity, moral norms, laws, customs, ideologies and religion) who shapes our behavior and shapes our needs.  External social influences are combined with the person’s internal capacities and contribute to generate the personality of the individual, his needs, his main and changing motivation priority for every moment of his life.

So it happens that what a person considers as an important reward, another person may consider it useless.  For example, a glass of water is more motivating for a person who has spent many hours walking in a desert, than for someone who has taken three cold drinks during a football game. 

Likewise, having an important reward in front of several individuals, is not guarantee of the same motivation.  The reason is that the reward itself will not motivate the person unless you feel the deployed effort would lead you to get that reward.

That’s why each person differs in the way they take advantage of their chances to succeed. A task that a person might consider to give him rewards, may be seen by another as impossible.

Social Learning Scheme 

The mechanism by which society shapes people to behave in a certain way can be outlined:

  • The stimulus is activated.
  • The person responds to the stimulus.
  • The society, through a member with a higher hierarchy (father, chief, priest, etc.), tries to teach, judges the behavior and decides whether it is appropriate or not.
  • The reward (incentive or prize) is given if the behavior is judged positive. If it is deemed inadequate, it provides a penalty (punishment).
  • The reward increases the likelihood that in the future, before similar stimuli, the prefixed response will be repeated.  Each time this happens a reinforcement and therefore increase the likelihood of the occurrence of the desired behavior. Once this behavior is established, it is said that there has been learning.
  • Punishment is less effective; it decreases the likelihood that this behavior will recur to similar stimuli.

Learning is about acquiring new types of current or potential behavior.

Once you have learned something, this becomes part of our behavioral repertoire.

Theory of Maslow 

shows a series of needs that concern all individuals and are organized in a structural form (like a pyramid), according to a biological determination caused by the genetic constitution of the individual.  In the lower part of the structure, the most priority and in the upper part the least priority needs are placed.

According to the hierarchical structure by Maslow the needs are:

  • Physiological needs: These needs are the first priority of the individual and are related to their survival.  Within these we find, among others, necessities like the homeostasis (effort of the organism to maintain a normal and constant state of blood irrigation), feeding, quenching thirst, maintenance of a suitable body temperature, there are also other types of needs such as sex, maternity or complete activities.
  • Security needs: With its satisfaction we seek the creation and maintenance of a state of order and security.  Within these we find the need for stability, to have order and to have protection, among others. These needs are related to the fear of individuals to lose control of their lives and are intimately linked to fear, fear of the unknown, anarchy…
  • Social needs: Once the physiological and safety needs are met, the motivation is given by social needs.  These are related to the need of the company of the human being, with its affective aspect and its social participation.  Within these needs we have the communication between people, empathy, affection, living in community, belonging to a group and feeling accepted…
  • Recognition needs: Also known as the needs of ego or self-esteem.  This group lies in the need for everyone to feel appreciated, to have prestige and to stand out within their social group, as well as self-assessment and respect for themselves.
  • Self-improvement needs: Also known as realizations that become the ideal for each individual.  At this level the human being needs to transcend, make an impression, perform his own work, develop his talent to the fullest.

Adler’s theory: Striving for perfectionism                       

Alfred Adler postulates a single «drive» or motivational force behind all our behaviors and experiences.  Throughout time, his theory was transformed into a more mature one, calling this instinct, a desire for perfectionism. It is that desire to develop to the maximum our potentials in order to reach more and more our ideal.  It is, as you can see, very similar to the most popular idea of updating the self.

Another word that Adler used to refer to this basic motivation was the compensation or desire to improve.  Since we all have problems, inferiorities of one form or another, conflicts, etc.; especially in his early writings, Adler believed that we can achieve our personalities as long as we can (or cannot) compensate or overcome these problems.  This idea remains immutable throughout its theory, but tends to be rejected as a label, for the simple reason that it seems that what makes us persons are our problems.

Adler was influenced by the writings of Jan Smuts, the philosopher and man of state African.  He argued that in order to understand people, we should do it more as unified sets instead of doing it considering them as a collection of pieces, and we must do it in the context of its environment, both physical and social.  This posture is called holism and Adler had a lot to do with this.

First, to reflect the idea that we should see others as a whole instead of in parts, the author decided to designate this psychological approach as individual psychology.  The word «individual» literally means «the undivided».

Second, instead of talking about the personality of a subject in the sense of internal features, structures, dynamics, conflicts and so forth, he preferred to speak in terms of vital style (today lifestyle).

Lifestyle means how you live your life; how you handle your problems and interpersonal relationships. Let’s quote in his own words how he explained this: «The lifestyle of a tree is the individuality of a tree expressing itself and shaping itself in an environment.  We recognize a style when we see it against a different background than we expected, so we are aware then that each tree has a pattern of life and is not just a mere mechanical reaction to the environment. «

Adler considers motivation as a matter of inclination and movement towards the future, rather than being driven, mechanically, by the past. We are driven toward our goals, our purposes, our ideals. This is called teleology.

 Another great influence on Adler’s thought was that of the philosopher Hans Vaihinger, who wrote a book titled The Philosophy of «as If» (the philosophy of «as is»).  Vaihinger believed that the ultimate truth would always be beyond us, but that for practical purposes, we needed to create partial truths.  His particular interest was science, so he offers us examples of partial truths through the existence of protons and electrons, waves of light, gravity as distortion of space and so forth.

The second concept in importance only for the pursuit of perfection is the idea of social interest or social sentiment (originally called Gemeinschaftsgefuhl or «community sentiment»).  Maintaining its holistic idea, it is easy to see that almost no one can achieve the desire of perfection without considering its social environment.  Even those more resolvent people are in fact in a social context.

Social concern is a matter of being useful to others.

On the other hand, for Adler the true definition of mental illness lies in the lack of social care.

All failures (including neurosis, psychosis, criminality, alcoholism, child problems, suicide, perversions, and prostitution) are given by a lack of social interest: their goal of success is directed at personal superiority, and their triumphs have only meaning to themselves.

Difference between motivation and satisfaction

You can define motivation as the impulse and effort to satisfy a desire or goal. Instead, satisfaction is referred to the taste that is experienced once fulfilled the desire.

We can then say that the motivation is before the result, since this implies an impulse to achieve it; while satisfaction is after the result, as it is the result experienced.

How to motivate adolescents

Motivation is the most important guideline in adolescent education. Take care of the way you talk to your children: be very positive even when correction is needed.  Let’s put some examples: these can be phrases that parents say and promote the opposite attitude in the children:

  • You’re messy
  • You’re always looking forward to annoying
  • You must learn from your cousin
  • You won’t get anywhere.
  • I’m sick of you
  • I no longer love you 
  • Learn from your brother
  • You’re punished
  • If you continue like that I’ll punish you
  • You’re always arguing
  • Get away from my sight……. I don’t want to see you.
  • You don’t know how to stay still
  • You behave worse every day
  • You’re a liar
  • When are you going to learn?
  • You don’t love me
  • If you continue like that you won’t have any friends
  • I’ll tell dad when he comes back

How to motivate positively

  • I’m sure you’re able to do it
  • All right, I know you’ll do it.
  • I don’t doubt you have good intentions
  • John has a high concept of you.
  • If you need anything, let me know
  • I know you did it without wanting
  • I’m very proud of you
  • You know I love you so much
  • I know you’re good
  • I congratulate you on what you’ve done
  • What a nice surprise you have given me.
  • When you need me, I will help you
  • Very good, you’ve done very well.
  • I can see you are better every day
  • I believe what you tell me, I know you will
  • You know I want the best for you
  • You deserve the best
  • You can get wherever you want
  • I’m sure the next grades will be better.

Note: Use phrases like these often. In front of other people they increase their effectiveness; but in the presence of brothers or sisters they can produce jealousy. 


  • “Besame mucho: como criar a tus hijos con amor” de Carlos Gonzalez,
    edi Temas de Hoy, s.a. Madrid 2007
  • “Sobre el carácter nervioso ” Alfred Adler (1942)
  • “Comprender la vida”. Adler, Alfred & Brett, Colin (Comp.) (2003). Ed Paidós Ibérica.
    Barcelona 1978
  • “La Psicología Individual de Alfred Adler”U. Oberst y J.J. Ruiz:. Ed, 2007
  • Relloso,Gerardo.”Psicología”.Editorial CO-BO. Caracas 1995
  • Manual de la autoestima. Mampa 1995.
  • Bright Minds, Poor Grades: Understanding and Motivating Your Underachieving Child por Michael D. Whitley, Ph.D.
    Perigee Books
  • Dreamers, Discoverers and Dynamos : How to Help the Child Who Is Bright, Bored and Having Problems in School por Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D
    Ballantine Books
  • Helping Students Develop Self-Motivation: A Sourcebook for Parents and Educators por Donald R. Grossnickl
    eNational Association of Secondary School Principals 
  • Homework Without Tears: A Parent’s Guide for Motivating Children to do Homework and to Succeed in School. por Lee Canter y Lee Hausner, Ph.D.
    Harper Collins
  • “Increasing Student Engagement and Motivation: From Time-on-Task to Homework” por Cori Brewster y Jennifer Fager
    Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory  


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