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Does your teenager seem unmotivated, listless or downright lazy? Many teens do. There is a high incidence of motivational difficulties among adolescents and it can show up as listlessness, fatigue, inactivity, poor follow-through, non-compliance, academic underperformance and social withdrawal. But while plain old laziness may appear to be the culprit, that’s an unlikely explanation. All kids want to do well. Most would love to get straight A’s, please their parents, impress their peers, and excel at music or sports or whatever interests they may have.

More often than not, teens who struggle with low motivation are just as baffled as their parents and teachers about the root of the problem. The best way to explore an understanding of your own teen’s motivational struggles is to observe and engage her in a spirit of compassion and non-judging curiosity.

Start by assuming that your teen, like most people, wants to do well in life. Complementing this attitude with knowledge of the wide range of potential motivation killers can help guide observations of and conversations with your teen, helping you achieve a better understanding of what makes her tick or, as the case may be, not tick.

  • LACK OF INTRINSIC MOTIVATORS: Some children find external praise and reward almost addictive—especially when coupled with a very high degree of external structure and adult direction. But with the dawn of adolescence, many of these young people fail to make the necessary developmental shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. They have spend so much energy pursuing what makes others happy that they find it difficult to know and pursue what makes them happy—a critical component of successful individuation.
  • FEAR OF FAILURE: Teens may develop such a fear of failure that they are unwilling to try in the first place. These teens may fear that the harder they try, the more crushing a failure would because failing at something you try hard to do may reflect a basic incompetence. This fear afflicts several kinds of teens. Some bear the weight of intense external pressure to perform—either from parents, peers, teachers or the success of an older sibling. Others may have experienced failure in a way that led to shame and pain. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University researcher, has noticed that students who are inordinately praised from a young age for their intrinsic abilities or intelligence rather than for their hard work can become avoidant too. They come to feel that any failure is a threat to their image as intelligent or capable.
  • DEPRESSIVE DISORDERS: Depression can present as laziness, since depressed teens may appear listless, have difficulty completing tasks and sleep a great deal. Their tendency toward irritability may make parents think that their laziness is a form of willfulness or defiance.
  • ANXIETY: Anxieties and phobias can lead to severely avoidant behaviors. Young people may not feel comfortable discussing the feelings that are causing this avoidance; in these cases the reluctance to engage in certain activities may appear to result from a lack of interest rather than from deep discomfort.
  • POOR DIET: A poor diet—especially one high in saturated fats and processed sugars, and low in vegetables and whole grains—can lead to fatigue, irritability, depression, reduced concentration and the overwhelming urge to fall asleep in the middle of the day! This is one of the easier motivation-killers to identify because it is directly observable.
  • CHRONIC DEHYDRATION: Inadequate liquid intake (especially in the form of simple water or water with electrolytes) can lead to fatigue and slower cognitive function, both of which result in greatly reduced motivation and productivity. Chronic dehydration is especially a problem for student athletes and students who are taking certain medications, such as lithium.
  • VISION OR HEARING: A student who is repeatedly chided for not listening to instructions or for not completing tasks written on the chalkboard may actually be suffering from a mild vision or hearing problem. These students often assume that they’re either not as smart as other students or, indeed, maybe they just don’t care enough; these students often give up trying at all and are finally, tragically, labeled as “lazy.”
  • POOR SLEEP HABITS: Adolescent insomnia may have any of a wide range of causes—social, emotional, biochemical, etcetera; but whatever the cause, the lack of sleep itself can reduce motivation by causing a high level of daytime fatigue, slow cognition, depression and/or anxiety. Once poor sleep habits are identified as a problem, the cause of those poor sleep habits must be understood and addressed.
  • SUBSTANCE ABUSE: Alcohol, marijuana, barbiturate and stimulant abuse can lead to listlessness and disinterest in normally engaging activities. Even the overuse of substances such as caffeine or stimulant drinks can have this affect.
  • LEARNING DISABILITIES: Many very intelligent and capable young people struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities that make them appear unmotivated or lazy.

So before you conclude that your teen is lazy, remember that all children, teens, and adults ultimately want to succeed. With this understanding, you are more likely to approach her apparent laziness with curiosity instead of judgment. Along with your own parental observations, a battery of psycho-educational testing by a trained psychiatrist may be a critical tool for understanding the problem, finding a solution, and giving your child a new opportunity to pursue the success she wants and deserves.