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The Brain and Motivation


The neurotransmitter dopamine 2 is linked to motivation. When we have gratifying experiences, such as winning a video game, getting likes, or being complimented, our dopamine levels rise. Remember that dopamine is one of the feel-good chemicals in our brain.  Low levels of dopamine, on the other hand, are linked to a lack of motivation and boredom. Dopamine levels are also curbed by stress. So, there is a direct correlation to high motivation being, in part, attributed to high dopamine levels which are crucial to your teen’s motivation 3.

Here are some ways to increase dopamine levels naturally:

  •  Food: Almonds, Avocados, Bananas, Eggs, Watermelon, Meat, Fish, Seeds, Nuts, Dark Chocolate, Berries, Dark Leafy veggies like kale and spinach, olive oil, butter, broccoli, mushrooms, oats, parsley, fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi.
  • Avoid sweeteners
  • Get enough sleep
  • Vitamin D, ideally from exposure to real sunlight
  • Get more Human Contact (hugs) – even hugging your pet increases dopamine levels
  • Meditate, silence, self-reflection – this allows your mind to sort out its thoughts and reduces stress and links to higher dopamine levels.
  • Discover new things – when we find something new and exciting, we get a boost
  • Listen to music
  • Do creative things
  • Write out a To-Do list and check things off when completed – satisfaction dopamine boost

While none of these are major ah-ha’s, they are yet another validation to eat well, get rest, get outside, stay connected and play and create.

The brain is programmed to pay special attention to new information, which is what learning is.  We need to make learning fun, which is difficult when you are having to read some super boring topics from textbooks. (I won’t disparage any particular subject here.) The more activity in learning or the more exciting we can make learning, the stronger the neuron synapses will be, and the more enjoyable learning will be, thus, the stronger the motivation to continue.

As an aside, the brain has another chemical called endocannabinoids.  These are found in especially dense quantities in the areas of the brain responsible for cognition, memory, emotion, motor coordination and MOTIVATION.  When THC (marijuana) is introduced into the brain, those molecules head straight for the endocannabinoids and overwhelm those receptor points and interfere with what they are supposed to do.5  This is why we have the stereotypical depiction of pot smokers to be slower, more clumsy, and less motivated.  When pot smoking happens in younger teens, it also stops the growth of the brain.  Remember the campaign, “This is your brain on drugs”?

Just a quick note – if you’d like to learn more about brain development and the stages of brain development in children, we’ve covered the topic in-detail in one of our previous articles!

The Adolescent Brain and Stress


It is relatively easy for dopamine levels to drop during adolescence. Dopamine is inhibited by stress. Even minor persistent stress might cause your teen’s dopamine levels to drop to the point where they are unwilling to do anything. During puberty and adolescence, children’s brains grow rapidly, yet their increased plasticity makes them vulnerable. The brain of a teenager is more vulnerable to stress.  In parenting teenagers, we know that they are still exploring the world like they were when they were toddlers, but now they have past experiences as a lens and new experiences and exposures coupled with “new” areas of their brains that are coming online.  All of this is happening at the same time that they are having all kinds of new hormones starting to work in ways that hadn’t been present when they were younger.

Teenagers may also how problems with motivation. We’ve written an in-depth guide on how to motivate teens to study, or anything else for that matter! Make sure that you don’t miss it.

Chronic stress, also known as toxic stress, is bad for people of all ages, but it’s especially bad for adolescent brains because it can induce irreversible alterations in brain development and neural pathways forming, as they were intended. Toxic stress can cause a brain to stop growing which can lead to damage in learning, memory, and attention centers of the brain in extreme circumstances 6.

Teenagers are more stressed than adults, and they are also more reactive and emotional as these areas of the brain are not yet fully formed 7. Toxic stress during this time adds to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and drug abuse, which are common during adolescence.  Stress is a huge distraction as teenagers can easily lose motivation to study and become emotional when asked to do schoolwork. In some ways, they can’t help themselves. During this time, their drive and emotional management are extremely vulnerable.


How Do You Get Your Teenager To Study?


Here’s how to persuade teenagers to study and motivate them to do so:


Adding stress is not only ineffective in motivating your child, but it might also harm his or her brain development. The most effective way for parents to encourage their teenagers to study is to help them reduce stress in their life.

Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent sources of chronic stress for teenagers is their parents. You’ve probably told your child a million times what they “should” do, with the best of intentions. More reminders put your child under unnecessary stress.  They already know what they “should” do, they need help in turning off the worry and focusing on something that they actually have in their power to control.

Here are ways that you can help to avoid some of their chronic stressors:

  • Stop fussing about schoolwork all the time.
  • Don’t keep bringing up the subject of college.
  • Don’t scold them if they get bad grades or forget to do their homework.


In parenting teenagers, one of the most potent motivators that we can help with is connection. It’s a sense of belonging and being connected to someone who genuinely cares. Teenagers that are unmotivated frequently have difficult relationships with their parents. Motivate them by repairing the bond and becoming a source of strength and comfort, rather than stress in your teens’ life. I think we all want that.

Building a strong parent-child relationship is like building any other type of relationship. Would you want to be in a relationship where you are constantly being ordered around, insulted, second guessed about things, and where you are always on the wrong side of a discussion or argument while the other person is always right?

Communication, trust, and mutual respect are the foundations of a strong, positive relationship.  Sometimes we have to let go and back away so that they feel that we trust that they can solve a problem or achieve results on their own.  Let them know that you are there for them and can assist if necessary, but that you know that they have the tools to figure things out.

We’re preparing our kids to become grownups. It’s okay to disagree with them, talk to them as adults and discuss different points of view with them. Those discussions give you great insight into who your child is becoming and how they think.  We are all entitled to our own opinions and perspectives.  It is great experience for them to be able to articulate their ideals and ideas so that they can use those communication skills in the “real world”.

The biggest predictor of future success is having a close, loving, and accepting relationship with one’s parents. It provides a solid foundation for your teens’ future success.  They still need you as a safety net, even though they might not say it, or realize it consciously.


Teenagers who believe they have control over their activities are more motivated, according to Self-Determination Theory, created by psychology and motivation experts Deci & Ryan at the University of Rochester. When children, particularly teenagers, feel restricted or coerced to study, it’s hard for them to be motivated. They must be willing to learn in order to be motivated to do so.

When teenagers are given the freedom to choose what activities they participate in, they will be self-motivated (intrinsic motivation) to accomplish things that they value. It’s one of our jobs in parenting teens, to help them realize what motivates them to study. Children, particularly teenagers, internalize the values of people with whom they have a strong bond. Thier values for learning could very well be different than your own.  You may place value on learning because you think that it will help get a decent job.  They may value learning because it gives them a sense of adventure and sparks their imagination.

S.W. Russ, in Encyclopedia of Creativity (Second Edition), 2011


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation


Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is conducive to creativity. Intrinsic motivation is defined as having to do with the internal value of attaining a creative solution. Research has found that conditions extrinsic, or outside of, the task, such as reward, evaluation, being watched, and restricted choice, all have detrimental effects on creativity. Intrinsic motivation is important for task persistence, for seeing a project through, and for ensuring exploration of solutions, even when faced with challenges or setbacks.

C. Levesque, … E.L. Deci, in International Encyclopedia of Education (Third Edition), 2010

Getting back to our original question about how to motivate teens, we need to understand the motivation that underlies what they do purely for their own interest and enjoyment; extrinsic motivation is what they do for rewards or to avoid negative outcomes. Intrinsic motivation and self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation can show positive outcomes. Non-self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation, such as yelling, shaming, & punishment, are associated with negative outcomes such as anxiety. Autonomy and supportive environments, which provide choices and options, help with the development of intrinsic motivation and self-determination. In education, autonomy-supportive environments provide the context for greater learning outcomes such as increased classroom involvement, performance, and satisfaction because kids are participating because they are interested and want to do it for themselves. The love of the task is a key component of creative work. Love of the work has been mentioned as being crucial by most creative individuals. More research is needed to explore the positive effect and intrinsic motivation link.

Here are some examples of different motivators:

“I need to study since I’ll get in trouble if I don’t.” – Extrinsic Motivation

“I need to study because learning is important to my mother, and so it is to me as well.” – Extrinsic Motivation

“I love to study because it lets me see a whole different perspective.” – Intrinsic Motivation

“I love to study because I have found new approaches to tackle this project that I’m working on.” – Intrinsic Motivation

Which is the most convincing reason?

However, you must first complete #2(Reconstructing Relationship), making sure you have a strong relationship.

Giving your teenager a healthy sense of control also implies that they will become responsible for things that they should be. Your teen’s schoolwork should be his or her responsibility, not yours. As a result, put them in the driver’s seat and let them handle it. The most essential motivation is autonomy. Even if all the other qualities on this list are present, studies show that without a sense of control, your teenager will not be organically motivated to study.



When parents try to offer their children autonomy, one of the most prevalent complaints about #3 (Provide Support but let them be independent) is that they panic. When an adolescent who perceives themself as having been oppressed and they are unexpectedly granted freedom, some will seize the opportunity and quit doing everything. Teens who do not place the same priority on education as their parents frequently have a strained relationship with their parents.  There needs to be a two-way conversation and understanding about the new approach that you are about to take together.

If the parents instantly declare after a week or two, “It doesn’t work,” rush back into the driver’s seat, and take away the child’s autonomy, the parent-child tie is further weakened. When the kids are given true autonomy, they are given the opportunity to experience the natural effects of their actions (or the lack of).  We, as parents, are there to offer suggestions or strategies that may help the kids develop new habits or skills to help them to be successful.

Now, instead of nagging about homework, spend more time connecting and developing your relationship.


A sense of competence, according to the Self-Determination Theory, can also boost motivation. When your child completes a task that is simple enough to complete yet complex enough to test them, they will feel a sense of mastery, this also helps them develop resilience.  So when tasks or assignments are difficult, they have the evidence that they can do hard things and will tend to push on and keep working at it.  This is also what is called a growth mindset.

Sometimes assisting teenagers with their schoolwork can boost their self-esteem as well as their competence. It’s difficult to be motivated to do something you’re not good at something or if the subject is too difficult for where their current level or understanding is. If your child is having trouble with schoolwork because they aren’t performing well, consider asking for help from the teacher, hiring a tutor, or having an older sibling help them. Find someone they can relate to, since they will be able to motivate your adolescent through similarity.

For kids who have an easy time with their schoolwork and need more of a challenge, look for projects, programs, or challenging materials for your child to work on to keep them motivated. In any case, include them in the decision-making process so they feel in charge of their studies.


Exercising is one of the ways to help teens boost their dopamine levels. Physical activity can aid in the control of dopamine release in the brain 7 as well as reducing stress.   Exercise can also boost a teen’s happiness and mental well-being as it is a healthy way to release stress and distractions from the day 8. It’s also linked to improved cognitive functioning and brain plasticity because it gets the blood and oxygen circulating.9 ​. A better mood improves the development of relationships, and improved brain functioning helps all aspects of being a teenager. Encourage your teen to engage in daily physical activity to improve their health and motivation to learn.

Also, if they are open to it, hug them for no reason.  Encourage them to snuggle with their pet.  These are all great ways to replenish dopamine and reduce cortisol.

Good to mention is that if you’re in need of any kind of parenting tips, be sure to check out our detailed article on best parenting tips and skills to know as a parent. We encourage you to reach out to us in case you’d like more assistance with your kids!

One last thought on how to motivate teens:


Because the human brain is one of the most complex systems on the planet, motivation is difficult. Scientists are beginning to have a better understanding of our internal “technology” as it evolves. As we gain a better understanding of how the brain functions, our parenting practices will change as well.

Do you need assistance motivating your children or additional help in parenting teenagers?
This online course Connection Parenting is a terrific place to start if you’re looking for different ways to integrate this information and more.

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