In this article, we discuss motivating teens and young adults and provide an overview of the reasons some young people are unmotivated and underachieving in school. We focus on aiding these individuals who are experiencing academic failure by helping them work through a variety of challenges, including, but not limited to: anxiety, depression, family conflict, self-esteem issues, risky/harmful behaviors, substance abuse, and behavior issues.
This article is written for parents, teachers, school counselors, or anyone needing advice on where to turn to help a teen or young adult who is unmotivated, underachieving, or struggling in school.
Wilderness Therapy: A Remedy for Low Motivation, Underachievement, and School Failure
Some students experience trouble in school due to learning disabilities or a neurodevelopmental issue such as ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. Other students, however, struggle in school due to a lack of motivation. It is not uncommon for teens and young adults who have typically earned good grades in the past to start underachieving in middle school, high school, or college.
While parents often attribute this lack of motivation to their child simply being “lazy” or unchallenged, a sudden change in academic performance can signify a deeper issue. When adolescents and young adults are struggling emotionally or psychologically, their grades can certainly be impacted.
What is Motivation?
“The term motivation refers to factors that activate, direct, and sustain goal-directed behavior… Motives are the ‘whys’ of behavior – the needs or wants that drive behavior and explain what we do. We don’t actually observe a motive; rather, we infer that one exists based on the behavior we observe” (Nevid, 2013).
Theories of Motivation:
Researchers in biology, psychology, and economics have all developed various theories to explain motivation. Many of the theories separate motivation into two types:
- Intrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed because of the innate or inherent sense of personal satisfaction that they bring.
- Extrinsic motivation – behaviors are performed in order to receive something from others—such as praise, attention, or social status.
Unfortunately, no individual theory fully explains motivation and what drives behavior. However, by looking at the key ideas behind each theory, you can gain a better understanding of motivation as a whole (click on each theory to learn more):
The Drive Reduction Theory states that our behavior is driven to satisfy certain drives. If our hunger grows strong enough, we are driven to take action to reduce the feeling and we eat something.
Arousal in this sense does not refer to sexual intimacy, but rather a state of being alert, awake, and attentive. In terms of motivation, Arousal includes pursuits that help them to feel a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment. People are motivated to engage in behaviors that help them maintain their optimal level of arousal, and depend on individual arousal levels:
- low arousal levels – content to simply read a book
- high arousal threshold – engaged in risk-seeking behaviors.
Incentive Theory of Motivation says that behavior is primarily motivated by the incentive of extrinsic factors. In other words, people are motivated to do things because of external rewards or to avoid external consequences.
Expectancy theory of motivation says that when we are thinking about the future, we formulate different expectations about what we think will happen. When we predict that there will most likely be a positive outcome, we believe that we are able to make that possible future a reality. This leads people to feel more motivated to pursue those likely outcomes.
The Stages of Motivation: Identifying Where Motivation Breaks Down
If you can identify at which stage your teen’s motivation breaks down, you can better know how to intervene. In psychology there are three fundamental stages of motivation:
- activation – the actual decision a person will make to begin a specific type of behavior.
- persistence – the factor in which a person will continue moving forward with a specific and set goal, even when hurdles are thrown in their way.
- intensity – how much concentration, focus, and energy is put into the pursuit of a specific goal.
Again, motivation is defined as, “a cause or reason to act, an inner urge that moves or prompts a person to action.” If you want to motivate a teen or young adult, you can either increase the reasons to act or decrease the reasons to not act in each of these stages. In order to increase reasons to act, it is helpful to know what is causing the lack of motivation.
Causes of Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement
When an otherwise bright and capable student starts to experience school troubles due to a lack of motivation, parents, teachers, and school counselors will often attribute this lack of motivation as “laziness” or “slacking off.” While, sometimes, poor grades are simply a reflection of a student’s apathy toward school, other times it can be a warning sign that your child is struggling with something bigger. Academic underachievement and low motivation in teens and young adults can be triggered by any of the following issues (click on each item to learn more):
Goals can de-motivate a teenager when their goals are not their own, but ones that have been set for them by authority figures. These goals are something you want them to accomplish, but they may not be something they want for themselves. Their heart just isn’t in the effort.
If your son or daughter has grown up overly focused on pleasing others and living exclusively the life you have planned out for them, they will end up with NO IDEA what they want or even who they are. It is important to give your teen as much autonomy as is appropriate, let them fail, let them succeed entirely on their own, and let them figure out who they are and what they want for their own lives. Help them to find their WHY.
A fixed mindset is when your teen believes their capabilities are fixed. They are either good at something or bad at something. This mindset is easily identified by phrases like, “I’m not very creative,” or “I’m not very good at math.” When teenagers adopt a growth mindset, they learn that they may be bad at something right now, but with practice, they can improve and become “good” at something.
As adolescents transition into their high school years, there is an increased pressure to perform well in school, get into college, play well in sports, do well on tests, etc. When high schoolers make the transition to higher education, there is the added pressure and responsibility of being on one’s own for the first time. Some students simply are not prepared for these added stressors, leading to an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, depression or low self-esteem. This can certainly hamper academic performance.
There are few things that are as demotivating as feeling obligated to accomplish goals that you think are impossible to achieve. There are a couple of common causes for feeling overwhelmed:
- Lack of clarity: either on what the actual goal is or on what to do next to accomplish the goal. If this is the case, help your teen or young adult make SMART Goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
- Lack of task, project, and self-management skills: your teen or young adult may not know how to break tasks and projects down into manageable chunks. Help them identify the different steps it will take to accomplish a goal, and then help your teen to put each step on a calendar so they know how much time & effort it will take to accomplish.
- They lack the necessary knowledge & skills: Imagine if you had never played the piano and someone told you that you needed to give a performance at a recital in 3 days. Your teen or young adult may feel the same way about accomplishing their goals. They just don’t know how to do it.
- Procrastination: some teens and young adults (especially those with ADHD) crave the intensity that a deadline provides. They get a rush when they put off study sessions until the night before a test, or submit a paper with just minutes to spare. These teens argue that they do their best work at the last minute. Unfortunately, teens are terrible at estimating how much time and effort a project will take. As they get older and projects get harder, this habit leads to a recurring feeling of being overwhelmed. Help your teenager better manage their time and energy & avoid this “motivation by disaster” habit.
- They are simply exhausted: If your teenager is already a particularly high achiever, or even if they are simply unused to exerting a sustained effort, they may be experiencing burn out.
Parents can do too much planning and problem-solving for their teen or young adult. We all want our kids to succeed and avoid the sting of failure. Our best intentions lead us to be overly involved in their school and extra-curricular activities, sometimes to the point of doing projects almost entirely for them. When you make ALL of the decisions for your teen, it trains them to be comfortable feeling helpless, knowing that you will ALWAYS do it for them. Learn to support your son or daughter without doing things for them by teaching them to embrace the decision-making process, not run from it. Give them control of their own life, but don’t make them feel like they have to navigate life on their own. It’s a fine line and will take some practice, but you can learn how to empower and support at the same time.
If your teenager or young adult never finishes anything, they may struggle with either the persistence or intensity stages of motivation. There are three common causes for this lack of grit:
- Failure to experience success: If your son or daughter has never experienced that emotional reward of accomplishing something they’ve worked hard to achieve, they don’t know what they’re missing. Encourage them to stick with a smaller but difficult goal, and when they finally achieve it, make it a big deal and truly celebrate. As they build on that success and accomplish more difficult tasks, their self-confidence and ability to tolerate discomfort will grow over time.
- Failure to experience consequences: This often happens either when parents shield their kids from life’s natural consequences or struggle to enforce consequences in their own family. It is important to let your teenager learn from failure.
- Mental health struggles: sometimes, this could be indicative of depression, anxiety, or a learning difference like ADHD. If you think this may be the case, please consult a professional to have your teen tested.
Most parents don’t truly understand the power of their words and actions. Sometimes our efforts to “toughen up” teenagers or young adults or to help them see a key character flaw results in shame rather than motivation.
These teenagers and young adults often feel they have to be perfect and are afraid of never measuring up. To counter this, make sure you focus A LOT more on the positives than on the negatives. Research suggests that it is best to give positive feedback 5 times more than constructive criticism.
Lack of sleep, poor exercise and nutrition habits, and toxic relationships all contribute to low motivation. Help your son or daughter get 7-8 hours of sleep each night, avoid junk food (especially energy drinks and sugary foods), and have them take a walk around the block every day. In addition to helping their overall health and well-being, it will increase their motivation.
When teens and young adults have low self-esteem and self-confidence, this is typically accompanied by low-performance standards for themselves. They don’t believe they can achieve what they’re striving for. What looks like laziness may be fear of failure, exposure, pressure or, most of all, the future. Even the brightest individuals with low self-esteem can believe themselves incapable of performing well in school. In order for your son or daughter to be motivated to accomplish anything, they must first believe it is possible for them to succeed.
In a strange phenomenon, these teens and young adults often become comfortable being unhappy. In fact, they become so comfortable being unhappy, that it can be uncomfortable for them to feel happy. They not only struggle to believe that they can accomplish something, whenever they do they can feel that they aren’t deserving of the accomplishment.
And because your teen or young adult is uncomfortable with happiness, they don’t trust it. They often seek out a more familiar feeling of emptiness and discouragement. In these scenarios, they are not only unmotivated to accomplish a goal, but they also tend to self-sabotage.
Teens and adults display signs and symptoms of depression very differently. An adult who is depressed is more likely to outwardly appear sad. Teens and young adults, however, may appear angry, irritable, or just apathetic. School failure can be indicative of unmanaged or undiagnosed depression in young people.
Anxiety disorders are some of the most common diagnoses in young people. Because anxiety symptoms are associated with impaired cognitive functions, including concentration, anxiety can–much like depression–appear not just as excessive worry, but fear of judgment, unwillingness to try new or previously engaged in tasks/assignments, irritability, anger, and physical symptoms such as frequent stomachaches and headaches. At times students might display apathy towards assignments, saying “I don’t care about school,” when really they are anxious about underperforming, being wrong, or being judged negatively by others.
Adolescents and young adults who are the targets of bullying can often experience feelings of social isolation, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, and fear. These negative emotions can, in turn, lead to poor academic performance. In addition, since school is oftentimes the scene where bullying occurs, some victims will skip school altogether to avoid the conflict.
While many adolescents and young adults demonstrate a high level of maturity, most are not emotionally equipped to deal with major family conflict or trauma such as divorce, abuse, adoption issues, and similar situations. Some adults even have trouble dealing with these issues. Due to their inability to cope with the negative feelings associated with these situations, some will experience major anxiety and emotional turmoil that has the potential to hamper academic performance as well.
Grief is a hard emotion for anyone of any age to overcome. For adolescents and young adults who are less familiar with this emotion, the death of a family member, pet, friend, or peer can be overwhelming and hard to process. Young people may struggle to give it 100% in many aspects of their lives (relationships, jobs, sports, hobbies) after a loss, but the ramifications of failing in school are something that can follow them for some time.
Because poor academic performance is often a reflection of emotional or psychological turmoil, parents shouldn’t simply dismiss bad grades or underachievement as their child being “lazy.” If you know your son or daughter isn’t living up to their potential, talk to him or her. Find out what’s going on. If you suspect that their underachievement may be simply the symptom of a more serious emotional or psychological issue, talk to his or her physician or mental health care provider.
Ways to Motivate Teens and Young Adults at Home
The high school and college years are full of some major life changes for many students. Whether your “A student” has become a “C student” or your child is failing every class, academic underperformance and underachievement can be a sign of an internal struggle. There are, however, some ways you can help your child if he or she is struggling with academics. Here are the Do’s and Don’ts of helping an underachieving student who lacks motivation (click on each item to learn more):
Every individual is different. Comparisons to their siblings, classmates, or friends can be extremely detrimental to your child. Statements like, “Why can’t you get good grades like your sister?” or “Your friends all got A’s on their projects!?” simply aren’t helpful. Some parents will even compare their child’s academic performance to their own, “I loved history when I was in high school! I got an A.” This can make your child feel inferior to others and that they will never be good enough as a person. If your son or daughter is struggling with an emotional or psychological issue such as depression or low self-esteem, statements like these can exacerbate the problem.
In addition to making comparisons to others, if your child is experiencing emotional or psychological turmoil, criticizing your child’s efforts can simply exacerbate the problem. Avoid labels like, lazy and unmotivated. Rather than criticizing, seek to understand their difficulties, help them know you see the good in them as a person. In addition, ask how you can help. “Do you need to drop an after-school activity to have more time for homework? Would a quiet working space help? How about after-school tutoring or lessons?” Limit arguing and lecturing, yelling never helps, discussing does.
When your child does perform well academically, make sure to praise each step in the right direction. Whether they aced their big midterm or improved their grade on an assignment, positive reinforcement is a significant motivator. In addition, it is vital to challenge any negative statements about him or herself. For example, if you child states that he or she failed a test “Because I’m so stupid,” simply remind them that, “You didn’t do well for the test, it’s not the end of the world. Let’s talk to your teacher to see how you can improve for next time.”
Chances are if you have noticed your child’s waning academic performance, so has his or her teacher. Reaching out to school staff to notify them of your child’s struggles will help to ensure that they don’t slip through the cracks. In addition, your child’s teacher being more aware of the situation means it is more likely that they will know to notify you if he or she skips class or fails a major project or test.
If your child is having troubles in school, have him or her screened for a learning disability or neurodevelopment issue (such as ADHD) to rule that out as a possible culprit behind his or her waning academic performance. While many individuals are diagnosed as children, over 60 percent of adults with literacy problems have an undiagnosed learning disability. In addition, some students with ADHD (and in particular predominantly Inattentive ADHD) aren’t diagnosed (and therefore do not receive help) until the high school, college, or adult years.
Depression and anxiety rob teens and emerging adults of the desire and energy to progress. If you suspect your son or daughter is struggling with depression or anxiety, please see a therapist or medical professional. If depression and anxiety are severe enough, you may need to consider a treatment program like wilderness therapy.
The goal of motivating teens and young adults is to get them to eventually be able to live independently and strive to achieve life’s goals without you pushing them. You can mold intrinsic motivation once you learn details about what fuels your teenager or young adult. Here are some ways to help your son or daughter develop internal or intrinsic motivation and not rely on external or extrinsic motivation.
- Use incentives carefully – Avoid external rewards and punishments as much as possible. Research shows that external rewards can actually decrease intrinsic motivation. External rewards, praise, punishment, etc. can be very effective, but there is a better way. Help your son or daughter recognize their natural feelings of accomplishment after completing a task. Or encourage them to study a subject that already fascinates them.
- Recognize efforts and achievements – Celebrate your son or daughter’s effort and don’t focus solely on traits or outcomes. This helps develop motivation for the process and the grit to tolerate the discomfort that may come as they work towards achieving a goal.
- Celebrate strengths – You will find it is much easier to develop intrinsic motivation in your child if you focus on what they are good at and stop dwelling on what there are not good at. If your son or daughter loves art and despises math, help nurture that creativity. Or if they prefer biology to English, go with it. Your child has unique gifts, talents, and interests. Teaching young people to discover their gifts and talents helps develop motivation.
- Play video games – This may seem counterintuitive but playing video games teaches teens and young adults to put in consistent and sometimes prolonged effort to accomplish a goal. Just make sure you set limits around playing video games.
As your child transitions to adulthood, it is important that you give them as much opportunity to practice independence as possible. This applies to motivation as well. Here is how you can start to put your teen or young adult in the driver’s seat:
- Reflect on your own motivations – in looking for ways to motivate your teen or young adult, it’s important to reflect on the origins of the goal you want them to achieve. Is it something they chose to accomplish or is it something you chose for them?
- Let your child state his or her own goals – when you let your son or daughter have a say in which goals to pursue, it helps them to take ownership of the goal.
- Leverage their radical self-interest – help your teen or young adult answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” Once you help them understand the benefits that come from living a goal-centered life, they will be more open to practicing their motivation.
- Expand their vision of the future – sometimes it is hard for teenagers and young adults to imagine that anything can be more important than what is going on in their lives at this very moment. Help them develop motivation by painting a picture of what life could be like 2, 5, or 10 years into the future. Once they catch the vision, the motivation to act today comes much more easily.
- Make it achievable – previously we talked about how demotivating it is when your son or daughter feels like there is no way to accomplish a goal. Avoid that overwhelming feeling by making sure everyone agrees on the end goal, the steps it will take to accomplish the goal, and the time frame.
- Don’t move the goal post – Once the goal is set, stick to it. Don’t change the goal halfway through. If goals are always changing, your son or daughter may feel like it is impossible to achieve them and lack of motivation to keep trying.
- Seek out sources of inspiration – Dreaming motivates everyone, including teens and young adults. One of the best ways to find a dream or goal is to be inspired by something. When we see other people accomplish amazing things, it helps us expand our self-perception of what we are capable of. Connect your teen or young adult with positive mentors and role models to help lift their motivation. Take them to an art gallery, a concert, a sports game, watch an inspirational movie, or host an Olympics party. Enroll them in sports, send them to robotics camp, or join an outdoor adventure group–Anything that will get positive mentors and inspiration in your child’s life.
- Encourage them to journal – journaling helps teens and young adults understand their own thoughts and feelings. It can be their sounding board just to get everything out of their head so it is easier to examine and challenge when needed.
- Challenge the negative voices in their head – Everyone has a voice in their head telling them to play it safe and to not take too many risks. Sometimes this voice can be negative, telling your son or daughter that they aren’t good enough, strong enough, or talented enough to accomplish their dreams. It is safer to just spend the foreseeable future on your couch and not try anything too daring. Ask your teenager about the negative beliefs they have about themselves and together develop a plan so that both of your actions challenge those negative voices and beliefs.
Maintaining a solid connection with your teen or young adult helps facilitate motivation. Here are some ways you can build your relationship and provide “motivation through involvement.”
- Empathize – put yourself in their shoes. Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. Resolve any problems once you truly understand what’s going on with your teen or young adult.
- Quantity over quality – It’s important for you to be there for the special moments and celebrations in your child’s life. It is also important for you to support them through the boring, tedious, or uneventful moments as well. The uneventful, but consistent relationship building provides a foundation for your child to practice being an adult and then come back to tell you about it.
- Be Mindful – Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life. What are their patterns, what do they get excited about, what are their friendships like? If it is hard to find the time to talk, see if you can set up a regular date night or a scheduled hang out with your kid. Go do something fun and show genuine interest in what is happening in their life.
- Communicate – Encourage communication that is clear, sincere and open by using the EAR method:
- Encourage – Ask open-ended questions and validate your son or daughter’s feelings.
- Affirm – You can show you understand without agreeing. “I know it’s not easy for you to talk about this,”
- Reflective Listening – Repeat what you heard in your own words to show that you get it.
If you encounter resistance when trying to motivate your child, try the Stop, Drop and Roll strategy created by psychologists Sylvie Naar-King and Mariann Suarez:
- Stop and evaluate – Is your son or daughter escalating, blaming, stonewalling?
- Drop your current approach
- Roll with the resistance – Make a statement that shows you get it, quit for now and try another approach later.
- Listen to them – Practice motivational interviewing by asking open-ended questions about your son or daughter’s life and truly listen to the response. Fight your urge to comment or advise. Ask them what they are feeling and strive to connect and validate those feelings.
- Always follow-through – Teach by example and make sure you always keep your promises and commitments, including holding boundaries and implementing consequences. If you have a hard time remembering, try using a “contract” with your son or daughter. Outline what each of you commit to and what the expected outcomes will be.
There are 4 common parenting styles: Authoritarian, Permissive, Uninvolved, and Authoritative. Authoritative parents create positive relationships with their kids while still setting boundaries and enforcing rules. Here are some authoritative parenting strategies that can help increase motivation in your teen or young adult.
- Focus on having influence, not control – One of the hardest realizations for any parent is to recognize the only person they can control is themselves. Instead of demanding that your son or daughter comply with your rules and using punishments and bribes to get them to obey, try to influence them instead. Instead of telling them to do something, take the time to explain why it is important, discuss all their options, and talk about the potential consequences of their choices. Imagine they are on a jury and you are a lawyer. You can’t force them to make a certain decision, but you can make your case.
- Joint problem-solving – Include your son or daughter in the decision-making process as often as you can. It’s okay to let them know that you don’t have all the answers. Simply state the problem and see if you can come up with a solution together. In doing so, you give them the respect they desperately seek and show them you are on their side.
- Hold boundaries and follow through on consequences – While you should include your teen or young adult when setting boundaries and deciding on consequences, it is up to you to hold those boundaries and follow through on consequences. Doing so can actually help your teen or young adult feel secure, knowing that their home foundation isn’t going to shift depending on your mood or how badly they act out.
- Help them remember – Use planners, checklists, external timers, and visible reminders to help your son or daughter remember their goals and track their progress. This keeps goals and projects top of mind and helps keep them on track. It will also help you avoid nagging.
- Stick to a bedtime routine free of electronics – As mentioned above, lack of sleep is a huge motivation killer. Set a consistent time for you all to go to sleep, and together as a family, turn off your electronics at least an hour before.
- Provide regular drug tests – 75% of high school students today have used addictive substances. By regularly drug testing your teen or young adult, it gives them an easy reason to refuse invitations to use drugs & alcohol.
- Share the responsibility – provide opportunities for your teen or young adult to have control and make positive choices in their life. Give them chores to do or have them cook dinner once a week. Teach your teen or young adult how to accomplish a task and share the joy of doing something well.
When trying to motivate teens and young adults, it is important to focus on the process, not just the final outcome. Think about a basketball team; if a coach only focused on what happened in the game, the team wouldn’t win very many games. Rather, coaches provide guidance and direction during practice so that each player’s ability is well honed by game time. Here are ways you can focus on the journey:
- Allow small failures – Failure is an important part of learning. You want to save your son or daughter from repeating your mistakes, but at the same time are you preventing them from learning the lessons that shaped who you are? Let them learn from failure. As they fail in small & safe ways, their learning grows until they are able to master what they are working on.
- Don’t rescue them – Allow your son or daughter to work out problems on their own first. If they ask for help, don’t just give them the solution, but teach them how you came up with the solution. Empower them so they can do things on their own next time.
- Give them permission to not have it all figured out in high school – Don’t worry if they don’t know what they will do when they leave school. The General Ed requirements in college are designed to expose young adults to a wide variety of subjects in order to help them find their passions. And most people change careers three or more times in their life. It’s a process. What’s important is that they just start and try different interests. The worst thing for them is if they stay paralyzed by fear or shame because they think they should have life all figured out.
- Don’t make excuses – if your son or daughter is struggling in life or school, don’t shield them from consequences with excuses. While you may be trying to shield them from pain or criticism, you may be conveying that you don’t believe they are capable. Let your teen or young adult fail. Let them experience the pain of the failure. Validate that feeling and let them know that you believe they will succeed if they keep trying.
- Never give up – in addition to letting your teenager or young adult fail, it is okay to give yourself permission to not have it all figured out as well. Not everything you try is going to work. That is okay, as long as you don’t give up. If one of these tips doesn’t work, keep trying until you find something that does. And please remember it is okay to seek help from a professional. Therapists and treatment programs help teens & young adults find motivation everyday.
Practice using humor whenever you are frustrated. It can change your whole family’s attitude. See if you can gamify homework and the learning process. Turn chores into a race or make cooking dinner into a singing competition. Do whatever best fits your family but make things fun.
Options to Aid Academic Underachievers
As discussed previously, when otherwise bright and capable students are displaying waning academic performance, it can be a result of an unresolved emotional or psychological issue. Once they have ruled out the possibility of a learning disability or neurodevelopmental issue, many parents are unsure of where to turn. While every individual is different, here are some possible options to help your child:
If your child is having a hard time adjusting, a good first step in helping him or her is academic mentoring/tutoring. Some students who have done well in grade school and middle school are not used to having to study and work hard to maintain good grades. Enrolling your child in tutoring or mentoring sessions will help with any deficits in his or her studying habits, learning style, organizational skills, and note-taking strategies.
If you suspect that your child’s waning academic performance is likely due to an unresolved psychological or emotional struggle, he or she may not feel comfortable talking with you about it. And that’s okay. However, these issues need to be addressed to avoid further disruptions in his or her academic development. Your child’s guidance counselor or physician may be a good starting point since he or she is likely familiar with your child. If they suspect that your child needs further assistance, they will be able to point you in the direction of a credible educational consultant or mental health professional.
Sometimes when psychological or emotional issues are present and talk therapy isn’t enough, a treatment program may be the best option for your son or daughter. While no parent ever wants to send their child away from home to receive assistance, it may be worth exploring the benefits of residential treatment. One type of treatment program that has proven especially effective at helping teens and young adults through difficult situations is wilderness therapy. The disadvantages of treatment–absence from school, separation from family and friends–are short-term, but the benefits to participants have the potential to last a lifetime.
Should I Interrupt My Child’s School Year for Treatment?
When your child is performing poorly in school, it may seem counterintuitive to pull him or her out for mental health treatment. However, if an unresolved psychological or emotional issue is the reason behind your son or daughter’s struggles in school, it may be the best way to get him or her back on track. If left unresolved, their poor academic performance could result in the following:
- Falling further behind in school
- Increased risk of engaging in high-risk behaviors (i.e., substance abuse, promiscuity, suicide)
- Resentment towards and disengagement from family and healthy support groups
- Not getting into a good college, university, or graduate program
- Further detriment to his or her self-esteem
- Hampering his or her chances at a successful career
In addition, if left unresolved, mental health issues or emotional turmoil could become exacerbated and can cause many problems in a young person’s life, including:
- Developing maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with stress or negative emotions that will be more difficult to address later in life
- Isolation from one’s family and/or peers
- Increased likelihood for mental health problems later in life
Making the choice to send your child away for residential treatment is difficult, as it will interrupt your life and theirs. The type of intervention provided by residential treatment and, in particular, wilderness therapy may be best executed over several months, and that means that your child will miss school.
The most reputable wilderness therapy programs partner with accredited educational certification programs to ensure that credits are provided and that they will transfer successfully when your teen goes back to school. Earning at least some academic credits while also working through mental health issues may be the ideal situation for your child.
How Wilderness Therapy Addresses Low Motivation and Academic Underachievement
Promotes Self Esteem, Identity Development, and Self Concept
According to Keith C. Russell, a leading wilderness therapy researcher, completing a wilderness therapy program can help to remedy deficits in self-esteem. The strong sense of accomplishment upon completion “is combined with physical health and well-being, which may help clients feel better about themselves, leading to increases in self-esteem and the first steps towards personal growth.”(Russell 2001) In addition, Russell argues that, “An enhanced self-concept represents a sense of empowerment and resiliency.”(Russell 2001)
Mark Widmer, a leading researcher in recreation and adventure therapy, echoes the importance of identity development during the wilderness therapy process. According to Widmer, “Organized activities appear to provide an ideal context for the promotion of positive identity development.” (Widmer 2009)
Provides a Strong Sense of Accomplishment for Teens
A major aspect of the success of wilderness therapy in aiding teens and young adults who are underperforming academically is the strong sense of accomplishment upon completion. Russell states that “completing a wilderness therapy program represents a sense of accomplishment for the client that is concrete and real and can be used to draw strength from in the future.” (Russell 2001) That strength will prove useful in overcoming future obstacles in your teen’s life.
Aids in Self Efficacy
When young people complete a wilderness therapy program with a strong sense of accomplishment, this, in turn, can help lead to higher levels of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish difficult things. Adolescents and young adults believe that “If I completed all of these difficult tasks during wilderness therapy, I can do other difficult things!”
According to Russell, “Clients leave wilderness therapy knowing that they have only just begun the journey and need to continue their own personal growth process.” Higher levels of self-efficacy are linked to greater motivation, positive thinking skills, and lower vulnerability to stress and depression in teens.
Additional Resources on Motivating Teens
- Duerden, Widmer, Taniguchi, McCoy, J. Kelly “Adventures in identity development: The impact of a two-week adventure program on adolescent identity development”, Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, Edition 4, Volume 9, Issue 4, Pages 341-359, 2009.
- Legault, L., Green-Demers, I., & Pelletier, L. (2006). Why do high school students lack motivation in the classroom? Toward an understanding of academic amotivation and the role of social support. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 567–582.
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About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
This article was sponsored by Aspiro Adventure, the pioneer of Wilderness Adventure Therapy. Aspiro Adventure offers safe, effective, and clinically-sophisticated treatment options for adolescents and young adults.
Aspiro’s Wilderness Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at Aspiro Adventure understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
Aspiro Adventure focuses on helping adolescents, young adults, and their families through difficulties that occur when various behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging participants on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.