Motivating Teens & Young Adults: Over 65 Insights & Tips to Help Gifted Underachievers

Motivating Teens & Young Adults: Over 65 Insights & Tips to Help Gifted Underachievers | Aspiro Adventure Therapy 

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.
Humanistic Theories of Motivation states that people are motivated to fulfill basic biological needs for food and shelter, as well as those of safety, love, and esteem. Once the lower level needs have been met, the primary motivator becomes the need for self-actualization, or the desire to fulfill one’s individual potential.

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.

It is important for your teen to have goals that are challenging but not overwhelming. Goals that are too small don’t inspire motivation, but goals that are too big seem impossible to achieve.

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.

When teens and adolescents start experimenting with drugs and alcohol, a drop in grades and a change in peer groups are usually two of the very first (and biggest) signs.

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

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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.

Treatment Programs

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.
  • Russell, Keitth C., (2001) “What is Wilderness Therapy?” The Journal of Experiential Education, Vol. 24, 70-79

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

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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.

Written by:

  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

Parenting an Angry Teen: A Proven Guide

How to Parent an Angry Teen: Proven Tips to Help Parents | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

The teenage years are a challenging time for any parent. Teenagers can be notoriously moody, reckless, and unpredictable. However, for parents of teens with defiance anger issues, these years can be especially difficult. Many parents of angry teens worry about their son or daughter’s whereabouts or may fear when they will have their next episode or bout of rage. While many troubled teens with anger issues require professional treatment, there are several steps parents can take to help manage their teen’s anger. With proper support and treatment from both inside and outside the home, teens can learn new ways to manage their feelings and find success and happiness in life.

This article is intended to be a resource for parents, guardians, and teachers of teenage girls and boys struggling with anger, disrespect, and defiance. We will provide an overview of anger and defiance in teens, signs that your angry child’s bad behavior is out of control, how parents can help manage their teen’s anger, and discuss wilderness therapy as treatment.

Anger in Teens: A Phase or a Problem?

The behavior of teens with anger and defiance issues exhibit extend far beyond the typical disrespectful behaviour, eye-rolling, slammed doors, and arguments between teen and their parent. Anger is a normal part of adolescence and can be a healthy emotional response to outside stressors.

Anger is a secondary emotion for teens as it often masks other underlying issues including sadness, hurt, fear, and shame. When these underlying emotions become too much, a teen will often respond by lashing out. Because adolescence can be stressful, most teens will lash out from time to time. However, for teens with anger issues, emotional outbreaks are a regular occurrence.

Teens with serious anger issues are consumed with anger. These individuals can be defiant and may turn to violence, self-harm, risky behavior, and illegal activity as a way to cope with their strong emotions. They may lash out with anger in response to outside stressors or an untreated or undiagnosed mental disorder. In the sections below, we will define common causes of teen defiance and the behaviors and patterns that fall outside of normal.

Angry Teenager Causes and Contributing Factors

There are many factors that can contribute to anger issues and defiance in teens. Every teen’s emotional regulation skill set, capacity, and maturity is different. Some teens simply need more help in learning how to healthily manage their emotions and cope with stress. Other teens experience intense anger as a symptom of a mental health issue, traumatizing life experience, or simply from the stress and pressures of adolescence. Some of these common triggers of severe anger in teens include:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Victim of bullying or persistent & unhealthy peer pressure
  • Conflict within the family
  • Traumatic event
  • Death of a loved one
  • Adoption issues
  • Substance abuse
  • Divorce
  • Abuse
  • Grief

In addition to the above list, an unresolved issue such as teen depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) can contribute to anger issues in teens. These disorders often impact social skills, self-control, and impulse control which results in a child being more prone to having angry outbursts.

10 Warning Signs Your Teen’s Anger Is Out of Control

If a parent is concerned about the level of anger and defiance a teen is exhibiting, the first step is understanding what is normal teen behavior and which behaviors may indicate a more serious issue. If your teen is exhibiting one or more of the following behaviors, they likely have anger issues that require external help.

  • Physical aggression or violence
  • Excessive arguing with parents, siblings, teachers, and/or peers
  • Regular emotional outbursts that may include yelling, screaming, or lashing out
  • Irrational thinking and behavior
  • Bullying
  • Verbal threats
  • Cruel behaviors to people or animals
  • Criminal activity
  • Destroying property
  • Self-harm

Any of the above behaviors are a red flag that your teen’s anger issues require professional treatment, in addition to parental support. If your teen’s anger extends beyond normal response to outside stressors and exhibits one or more of the above behaviors, the next step is to lay a parenting plan in place and consult with his or her physician.

8 Ways Parents Can Help Their Angry Teen

While parenting a defiant or angry teenager is extremely draining for parents, there are several key steps parents can take to help ease the contention and strain within home. Teenagers lack the emotional maturity and stability and therefore significantly rely on their parents to give them the help and direction they need.

It is essential that parents do the best they can to love and support their child while still keeping in mind that they cannot control their teen’s emotions or actions. The best thing empowering parents can do is provide their teen with proper support within the home and seek appropriate external treatment to help the teen learn how to manage his or her feelings.

1. Create Boundaries and Expectations for Your Teen

Defiant and angry teens need clear rules that are tied to a clear consequence when he or she breaks the rule. Establish these rules and expectations during a calm time. Have a conversation with your teen so they know what to expect when the said rules are broken. Explain to your teen that these rules are to help keep him or her safe and free from harm. Express your love for your child. Even angry teens want to know that their parents love and care about them.

2. Talk to Your Teen

Parents of angry teens may find it difficult to talk and communicate with their child through the outburst and contention. During times of peace or once a teen has calmed down from their outburst, parents should try and talk to their teen about what is really bothering them. If the teen is willing to speak or share, do not judge or try and correct your teen. Simply listen to him or her without becoming angry.

3. Encourage a Healthy Lifestyle

Encourage a healthy lifestyle of physical exercise, healthy eating, and proper sleep. Creating a healthy lifestyle routine for your teen helps fosters good behavior in children and teens. This includes setting regular mealtimes and bedtimes, a set time to check-in with your teen, and regular exercise.

Most of all, make sure your teen gets enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can increase stress, mood swings, irritability, and can also cause problems with weight, memory, concentration, and decision-making. All teens should get between 8-10 hours of sleep. To achieve this, many parents find it helpful having teens turn in their electronics two hours before bedtime to eliminate distractions.

4. Limit Technology Use

Parents should not just limit technology at bedtime. The overuse of technology, social media, or screen time is unhealthy for any teen. Too much screen time can not only adversely affect your child’s sleep, it can also lead to irritability. Parents must monitor their teen’s technology use to ensure they are not consuming violent tv shows, video games, movies, and music as they increase the likelihood of outbursts and violent behavior.

5. Encourage Your Teen to Find a Hobby

Hobbies can help teens manage their negative emotions. Adults should encourage their son or daughter to participate in a hobby that will serve as an outlet for anger. This includes anything from sports, weight lifting, journaling, music, yoga, mindfulness & meditation, cooking, art, and horseback riding.

6. Set a Good Example for Your Teen

One of the best ways parents can teach their teen healthy coping patterns and emotional regulation is by example. When your teen starts to feel angry, make sure you display healthy and appropriate responses and that you stay as calm and as rational as possible, even when your teen is extremely difficult and defiant.

7. Have Reasonable Expectations for Your Teen

Perfection from teens is not reasonable. A teenager’s brain is continually developing and changing until about the mid-’20s. Therefore, a teen’s brain will process information much differently, including the way a teen manages their emotions and make decisions. Hormones can further complicate things. While these factors should not serve as an excuse for bad behavior, it is important parents keep these biological differences in mind.

In many ways, teens are still learning, and consequences provide learning experiences to help their brain and judgment develop. Parents of angry teens should maintain age-appropriate expectations for their teen and nothing more. For help in knowing what is reasonable to expect, see neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain.

8. Spend Quality Time with Your Teen

Every child wants to be unconditionally loved and accepted by their parents, even when they do not show it. Take the time to spend quality time with your teen doing an activity they enjoy. During this time, just focus on loving, validating, and being positive about your teen and their strengths. Reassure them how much you love them both in word and in deed. Even if a teen is angry or negative towards you, deep down they are likely feeling unlovable and insecure. Give your teen your undivided attention to reassure them that you love and care.

Don’t get frustrated if your teen resists your efforts. Just continue trying. Remember, the objective is to simply build a relationship with your teen and support them in the ways they need it most.

Wilderness Therapy as Treatment for Anger in Teens

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While the support parents provide to their child at home is incredibly important, severe cases of teen anger require more intensive treatment. The best thing parents can do for their son or daughter is to provide them with the professional help they need. It is important that teens learn healthy coping mechanisms now, so their anger does not consume them or hinder them in their adult life. To achieve this, many parents turn to wilderness therapy.

Researcher Keith C. Russell defines wilderness therapy as “Utilizing outdoor adventure pursuits and other activities, such as primitive skills and reflection, to enhance personal and interpersonal growth.” A credible wilderness therapy program will teach a defiant teen how to manage their anger from a loving and experienced clinical team in a therapeutic wilderness setting. These two factors, among others, enable wilderness therapy to help teens with anger issues in a way that talk therapy cannot.

"My life is amazing. Aspiro has changed everything. I now know how to climb every mountain. Thank you Aspiro for making me realize so much about my life and how to deal with anger."

– Brian, a former student at Aspiro

A Therapeutic Wilderness Setting for Teens with Anger Issues

Wilderness therapy for teens utilizes the natural benefits of the outdoors to help angry teens heal and grow. Studies show that simply being outdoors has mental health benefits. In addition, the new and novel environment of wilderness therapy is ideal for establishing new patterns and ways of coping in defiant teens.

Wilderness Adventure Therapy Promotes Healthy Habits for Teens with Anger Issues

A credible wilderness adventure therapy program provides regular opportunities for teens to learn how to cope with anger, develop problem-solving skills, and establish healthier patterns and behaviors. A credible wilderness therapy program will create a schedule so that participants participate in regular exercise, receive good nutrition, and healthy sleep. These provide angry teens with a healthy mind and body that will be more receptive to learning new patterns.

Wilderness Therapy Strengthens Social Skills in Teens with Anger Issues

The therapeutic group experience of wilderness therapy helps teens with anger issues refine their social skills. Angry teens often feel misunderstood, but wilderness therapy allows them to connect with other teens who are facing similar issues. These daily interactions in a variety of situations can greatly improve a defiant teen’s interpersonal skills.

Wilderness Therapy Provides Angry Teens with Personalized and Specialized Help

A credible wilderness therapy program will support the teen with a caring and professional team of therapists and field staff to support the teen’s journey. Wilderness therapy participants are able to learn healthy ways to cope with anger from an experienced therapist who specializes in working with troubled teens. The clinical team of a credible wilderness adventure therapy program are trained to get the bottom of a teen’s anger issues and provide them with the exact tools they need to work through it.

Wilderness Therapy Teaches Defiant Teens Cause and Effect

Wilderness adventure therapy utilizes “in the moment” or experiential therapy, so students can see, feel, and touch what they are learning. Assessing the hidden emotions behind the anger makes them easier to reach and understand. Experiential therapy is especially effective for teens with anger issues as it helps them take responsibility for their actions and learn about consequences.

Instead of lecturing teens about their anger and poor decisions, wilderness therapy utilizes natural consequences to demonstrate cause and effect in a very real and immediate way. For example, if a teen chooses not to build their tent or if they do not build it properly, they will get wet when it rains and sleep horribly. Such experiences teach a teen that they their choices have consequences that only they are responsible for.

Wilderness Therapy Gives Teens with Anger Issues Self-Confidence

Wilderness therapy puts teens with anger issues in situations that allow them to feel confidence and success in a variety of different environments. Participating in adventure activities like mountain biking, rappelling, and hiking, teens are able to achieve things they never thought they could do. In turn, they become more confident and positive individuals who know they can overcome hard things. This self-confidence is key for teens who experience anger since confidence is linked to positive thinking skills as well as a lower vulnerability to stress and depression.

If you decide wilderness therapy is the best option for your teen with anger issues, it is important that you do your research to ensure you are selecting a credible wilderness therapy program for your teen.

How Parents Can Support Their Angry Teen Through Wilderness Therapy

Even when a teen is away at wilderness therapy, they still need love and support from their parents. Continue to strengthen and improve the relationship you have with your son or daughter by sending letters and calling them. Let them know you are there for them and that you are always available to listen.

After addressing necessary issues, focus on the future without shaming them for past choices. Allow your child to share their experiences and growth without judging. Parents should also keep the lines of communication open with their teen’s therapists, so they stay informed and current about their teen’s progress and what they are currently working through. Staying informed and involved with your teen’s treatment program is vital to his or her success.

While your teen is away, continue learning about your teen’s issues and diagnosis. Consider your teen’s situation and learn more about how to help. Doing so will not only help you better understand your teen but will also help you know how you can best help your teen after treatment.


While some parent-teen conflict is normal during the teenage years, there comes a point where anger turns from an emotional response to a level of constant contention that must be addressed promptly. This process can be extremely draining, difficult, and heartbreaking for parents.

No matter how hopeless a parent may feel, and no matter how much turmoil you and your teen are facing, with proper care and support, things can and will get better. A credible wilderness therapy program can provide your child with healthier coping patterns, confidence, and the tools they need to manage their anger and find joy and success in life.

About Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program

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Aspiro Adventure 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 individuals 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.

By Josh Watson, LCSW, CMO at Aspiro Adventure Therapy Program
  • Josh Watson, LCSW
    Josh Watson, LCSW

19 Signs of a Troubled Teen

Signs of a troubled teenager | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Teenage years and teenage problems can be rough for parents and teens alike. As teens make mistakes, learn, and develop the skills necessary to be an independent autonomous adult, it can seem like they are on an emotional roller coaster. Some behaviors that teens display are normal, such as mood swings, increased peer influence, and a changing appearance. There are always going to be typical, teenage problems and behaviors. As teens strive for more independence and explore their own opinions, arguments with family members and struggling for more freedom are not uncommon; however, there are some red flag signs your teen may be in trouble that every parent should be aware of.

Read more19 Signs of a Troubled Teen

COVID-19 Update

Aspiro Adventure Therapy is continuing to support families through this unprecedented time. We are closely monitoring information related to COVID-19 and have implemented additional safety precautions to mitigate risks. Our enhanced admissions screening and program guidelines are informed by the CDC and Utah department of health. To learn more, contact us at (801) 349-2740.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.

Josh Watson, LCSW

Also specializes in: crisis de-escalation / anxiety resolution / frustration tolerance / verbal de-escalation / CBT/DBT / interpersonal relationships/leadership development

Josh has been working with adolescents, young adults, and their families since 2001. As an original member of the Aspiro Leadership Team, Josh has fulfilled several roles at Aspiro including Clinical Wilderness Therapist, Clinical Supervision, Admissions Director, Strategic Development, and currently serves as the Chief Marketing Officer. He is passionate about carrying out the mission of Aspiro and creating the best possible experience for our clients. When Josh is not at work he enjoys traveling, cooking, outdoor adventure (of course!), golf, and spending time doing just about anything with his wife and two daughters.