Motivating The Low-Achieving Young Adult

book-15584_640Young adults, with few exceptions, are motivated. It may not be the sort of motivation their parents want to see to be ambitious, to work harder, to achieve more, to be self­-starters,­ but they are certainly motivated to do what they want (pleasure) and avoid what they don’t want (work). From a therapeutic perspective, therefore, the ‘unmotivated young adult’ problem is actually the ‘dissatisfied parent’ problem. The focus should then be on helping the parents to determine how to get their objectives to align.

To begin understanding this, parents need to consider that adolescents are typically motivated by three Fs—friends, freedom (autonomy) and fun. Transitioning from more “child-like” concerns about where and when they will see your friends next to more “grown-up” thoughts about career paths and retirement accounts can be intimidating and teenagers often need strategies to help them cope with this turning point in their lives. Some find an apathetic attitude about their future appealing because of the protective quality it can offer them. Apathy can shield them from anxieties like selecting a college major when you don’t know what you want to do with your life and your worries about failure. Compared to concerns like these, social recreation, drug use, video games and other distractions may seem considerably more pleasant to engage in.

How then do you help them to unlock their motivation?

Pay Attention

Parents often assume that their teenage children do not require the same amount of attention as they received when they were younger but this is far from accurate. If young adulthood is a developmental stage associated with many stressors, then feeling that you are isolated because your parents are either unresponsive or that you may have trouble living up to their expectations will only make the conditions harder to cope with. Their self-esteem is directly correlated to their success. Recognition and praise for accomplishments will be great catalysts. Adolescents with an engaged family that actively encourage and support them will feel more capable, less isolated and are therefore more likely to be motivated.


As most teenagers have a me-centric view of the world coupled with a very active need for immediate gratification, one possible way to motivate your child could be to offer them a monetary or other form of incentive. A “what’s in it for me” attitude may not be a character flaw since, even as adults, salaries, bonuses and commissions motivate us to complete tasks.

Reconsider Telling Them How Smart They Are

My son has many basketball trophies sitting on his shelf and many of them were earned just for showing up to practice. Research has shown that constantly telling children they are good at something actually discourages them from trying harder at it. In addition, telling them how smart they are may form an expectation that they end up feeling they must live up to. Being considered smart could become their prized identity, one they might be afraid to lose by taking risks and failing. If you are going to praise them, better to praise them for working hard.

Ultimately, there is no parenting strategy or top ten list that can replace a trusting, mutually respectful relationship with your child. It is from a place of security in your love and belief in them that your child will respond to your encouragement and your efforts to help them move forward. If you are a safe place for them to come to, when they succeed or when they feel defeated or ashamed, then you can more effectively offer your much needed support.



Jeremy Skow, LMHC, CASAC, MBA maintains a private practice in Great Neck. Visit or call 516-322-9133 for more information.

Jeremy Skow
Jeremy Skow, LMHC, CASAC, MBA, maintains a private practice in Great Neck and can be reached at 516-322-9133. For speaking engagements or media inquiries, email or visit

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