10 Ways to Easily Motivate an Anxious Teen

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

 

Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

If your teenager experiences anxiety, the chances are that you’ve noticed it can be really difficult for them to motivate themselves, or even know how to.

Though you want to support your child with anxiety and show empathy, you also want them to have a full life and join in with family activities.

In this article I will explore the reasons why your anxious teen is unmotivated and outline 10 strategies to help them as follows:

1)    Break Down Barriers

2)    Meet Them Where They Are

3)    Focus on Effort and Experience, Not Achievement

4)    Actively Work on Resilience

5)   Help Them Develop Values and Purpose

6)   Build a Clear Roadmap

7)   Teach Them The Benefits of Leaving Their Comfort Zone

8)    Engineer Positive Experiences

9)    Help Them Directly With Time Management

10)  Put Clear Boundaries Around Social Media and Gaming

Is Your Teen Unmotivated Because of Anxiety?

  • Does your child seem uninterested, fatigued or appear lazy?
  • Do they require a lot of support and reassurance?
  • Is making the effort to motivate themselves something they resist?
  • Are they socially withdrawn?
  • Do they struggle with focus or direction?

What Is A ‘Motivated Teenager’?

Motivation in your teenager’s world may challenge your own view and will look different in every family. 

A motivated teenager exhibits a few key characteristics. They display enthusiasm towards learning, not just in academics, but in areas they’re passionate about. They show initiative, seeking out opportunities or challenges rather than waiting for them. Their drive often stems from personal goals, be it mastering a skill, helping the community, or pursuing a hobby.

However, motivation is complex. Parental expectations play a role but true motivation comes from within. It’s that internal spark that pushes your teenager to achieve, even when things get tough.

Yet, some teenagers, especially those grappling with anxiety, might struggle with motivation.

I will explore why some teenagers with anxiety experience motivation difficulties, and what you can do to support them in building great coping skills.

Common Causes of Low Motivation Amongst Teens

Low motivation in teenagers can stem from a multitude of factors. Some reasons might be physiological, like hormonal changes leading to lack of energy, or environmental, such as peer influence or academic pressures leading to overwhelm.

Mental health challenges, particularly anxiety disorders, can significantly impact a teen’s drive and enthusiasm.

Recognising these causes is the first step in offering support.

Contributing Factors

Poor Sleep

Teenagers typically require between 8-10 hours sleep each night.  If they are consistently getting less than this, it can cause irritability, low mood, reduced concentration and a high level of daytime fatigue.

If you want to improve your child’s quality and quantity of sleep, start by reading our article: Sleep Problems In Teenagers And Pre-Teens.

Diet

Healthy eating is important for overall physical and mental health.

Eating a wide range of foods – particularly brightly coloured fruits and vegetables – means your child will get the range of micronutrients required for a healthy brain and nervous system.

A poor diet can leave a teenager without much energy and feeling demotivated.

Read this article from Harvard university about how what you eat makes you feel.

anxious teenager

Fluids and Motivation in Teenagers

Dehydration can make us feel sluggish.

Inadequate liquid intake can lead to fatigue and slower cognitive function. This results in reduced motivation and productivity.

Teen Motivation and Brain Differences

Neurodivergence (e.g. autism and ADHD) and specific learning difficulties can be associated with difficulties in organisation skills, focus, planning and memory.

This may look like a lack of motivation to those observing.

Neurodivergent teenagers may require more time and patience to meet academic milestones and expectations. This can be mistaken for a lack of motivation to complete tasks.

Teen Motivation: Effects of the Global Pandemic

For anxious teens, the interruption and change to familiar routines of the pandemic turned their world up-side-down. It may be having a lasting effect on them. 

For some, new expectations and changed plans have led to uncertainty about exams, the future, relationships and confidence in their own abilities.

Uncertainty during the pandemic may have impacted your teen’s anxiety levels and their ability to motivate themselves in a number of ways.  For example:

1)    Risk assessing and planning.

2)    Self-esteem and confidence.

3)    The need to feel safe and well.

4)    Feelings of loss and grief.

Teen Motivation: Fear of Failure and Self Doubt

Your teen may be so worried about ‘failing’ that they won’t try something in the first place.

‘Failure’, or perceived failure can bring about feelings of embarrassment, shame and self-hatred or emotions such as sadness, worry and stress.

how to motivate an anxious teen

A fear of failure can sometimes see a child’s behaviour steer towards avoidance.

If a child is constantly praised for getting good grades with high expectations placed on them by others, they may judge that ‘failure’ threatens their image or perception of capability by others.

This can lead to damaged self-esteem.

External Pressure and Intrinsic Motivation

Teenagers who experience intense external pressure to perform from parents, teachers, or perhaps by way of comparison to an older sibling, can often become avoidant.

They may feel overwhelmed or resentful about the external pressure, and begin to disengage.

Teenagers who spend energy and time pursuing what makes others happy, may not understand how to harness what makes them happy. This can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of intrinsic motivation.

Peer Pressure

Peer pressure at high school and in social settings can cause some anxious teenagers to retreat and isolate themselves, particularly if their self esteem is low.

They may choose isolation over potential judgment or ridicule. This retreat can be a protective mechanism, a way to avoid situations they perceive as threatening or uncomfortable.

To us as parents, this appears to be lack of motivation to socialise or engage in school life. The root cause is anxiety.

Academic Performance

Over-emphasising performance can lead teenagers to feel that it’s only the outcome that matters and not the growth process.

serious anxious teen boy

Many teens struggle to see the importance of working hard now for a reward in the future. This is known as delayed gratification.

The concept of delayed gratification may not make sense to your child at this stage in their lives. They may just want to enjoy the moment.

This comes across as a lack of motivation to study, and it is understandably frustrating for parents and teachers. But ultimately, we cannot force motivation, and academic motivation tens to come along in its own time.

How Anxiety Can Impact Your Child’s Ability to Self-Motivate

Anxiety sometimes feels like a road-block and can be a barrier that prevents motivation.  

It can feel truly overwhelming and consuming, at times leaking into every aspect of a child’s daily functioning.

Learning coping skills is key. You can read more about this here in our articles: 5 Emotional Regulation Activities For Children and Insecurity And Anxiety In Teenagers: 9 Parent Tips.

Encourage your teenager to manage their anxiety with these powerful strategies:

  1. Being active – exercising and being outdoors.
  2. Stay connected and spend time with other people.
  3. Practicing self-care. Get some powerful tips in our article: Adult And Child Mental Health: Supporting Yourself And Your Child.
  4. Minimise phone use and screen time.
  5. Reducing caffeine intake.
  6. Practicing deep breathing, mindfulness meditation or yoga.

If you are not sure how to get started in improving your child’s well being, start with our article on “Quick Wins” To Improve The Emotional Well-Being Of A Child.

Motivating a Teenager With Anxiety: The Groundwork

Cultivating motivation in anxious teenagers requires ideas, goals, positive attitude, endurance, resilience, support and performance.  That sounds a lot right?!

Teen Motivation: Reflect on Their Needs

Reflect on what is in your child’s best interests.

Why do you want to motivate them to do a certain thing?

Why would it matter if they didn’t do it?

Make sure you are not projecting your own agenda onto your child.

For example, maybe upon reflection you want them to take part in sports because that’s what you did and it made you happy. Yet, what makes your child happy may be completely different.

How to Motivate Teenagers: Learn to Listen

The best way to understand how to motivate a teenager with anxiety is to first, listen to them.  

This isn’t possible if we, as parents, do all the talking and take charge of motivation for or teenagers.

Endeavour to increase connection with your teen by talking and being with them.  Let them know you’re interested in understanding their relationship with motivation and anxiety.

  • Do you know what makes your child anxious?
  • Are you aware of how their anxiety impacts them?
  • When it comes to self-motivation, how do they feel? Scared, indifferent, confused?
  • What do they value in life? What’s important to them?
  • Do they have any life goals?

You can read more about developing your listening skills as a parent in this article about listening skills.

Gain an understanding about the barriers that might be preventing your unmotivated teen from feeling or being motivated. Let them tell you what these are. Don’t guess.

When supporting your anxious teenager, one of the most important things to do is ask some simple questions such as:

  • “What would help you get started?”
  • “What do you need?
  • “How can I help you”
  • “What inspires you?”
  • “What might motivate you to grasp the task ahead?”

The good news is that you and other family members can support your unmotivated teen in lots of ways. 

By identifying poor habits, practices or unhelpful thinking patterns (in a non-judgmental way), you can support your teenager to acknowledge what doesn’t or isn’t working currently for them.

From here, look at exploring a healthy way of approaching tasks with a positive mindset. 

Work together to identify what key motivators might be for them.  Some key motivators might include:

  • Working towards a qualification
  • Earning pocket money so they can buy their favourite video games
  • Taking up a new skill like learning an instrument so they can join the orchestra
  • Winning medals

TAKE THE QUIZ!

How to Motivate a Teenager With Anxiety: 10 Practical Strategies

1)    Break Down Barriers to Motivation for Teens

Break down all the barriers to your unmotivated teenager taking part in a particular activity or aspect of life.

Make sure you include even the barriers which seem small or insignificant.

For example, barriers to your child coming with you on a dog walk might be:

  • Fear of having to chat to other people you meet.
  • Didn’t sleep well (tired).
  • Trainers are not comfortable.
  • Prefer to continue gaming.

So how can you break down each barrier, one by one?

For example, could you go on a shorter walk to allow for your child’s tiredness?

Can you reassure them that you will do all the talking if you meet other dog walkers?

Can you find them a more comfortable pair of trainers?

As you can see, some of the reasons may relate to anxiety, and others will not.

motivating an anxious teenager: dad and son on bike

2)    How to Motivate Teenagers: Meet Them Where They Are

Your priorities may be very different to theirs. Spending time on TikTok might be a high priority for your teen, for example. Getting involved in extracurricular activities might be a low priority.

So, try to meet them where they are currently.

From your teen’s point of view, they enjoy TikTok and find it relaxing.

From your point of view, you want them to get some physical activity and have social contact with others.

So how can you meet in the middle? Perhaps you can make a deal that if they try a new after-school sports club for one term, they can have a bit longer on their phone at weekends?

3)    Helping Teens With Anxiety: Focus on Effort and Experience, Not Achievement

Focus on effort and trying out new experiences rather than performance.

This applies even if your teenager is a straight A student. In fact, it applies even more if your teenager is a straight A student!

If you are trying to motivate your child in their school work, you will be much more successful if you aim to build intrinsic motivation rather than using threats or rewards. Help your child to think about what they want in their future, and how that links to their education.

Encourage them to make choices and commitments, devising measurable goals that are achievable and that allow success to be possible.

However, if your child is not motivated, it doesn’t mean they won’t be successful. At some point, that intrinsic motivation will set in as they mature. They may not make the most of their opportunities at first, but eventually they will find their direction.

Try not to push or nag too much. Of course, your pushing or nagging is only because you care so much, but it will only get them a limited distance and they will need to do the rest themselves.

If it takes some teens longer than others, that’s okay.

Where possible, allow your teenager to chart their own course. Teenagers will often feel far more motivated if they have some or total control over their choices and feel invested in their outcomes.

4)    Motivating Teenagers: Actively Work on Resilience

Encourage resilience through inspiration from others. If your child is sensitive and prone to giving up at the first hurdle, talk to them about the hurdles that other successful people faced.

Talk openly and regularly about what it takes to reach goals. Show them and tell them what you do, if you don’t succeed first time.

teenager with hoodie, holding face in hands

Perhaps your teenager wants to work with animals or be an actor.  Explore what or who might inspire the motivation in them to get them there.

Read our article called 8 Ideas For Building Resilience In Children for more guidance.

5) How to Motivate Teens: Help Them Develop Values and Purpose

Encourage them to have a sense of purpose in what they do. Your child needs to understand what they value in life and what they want to achieve, in order to feel motivated.

Read this article about values and download our free values cards. This will set your teen on a great path.

By beginning to understand their values, they will be able to “live” these a little each day, taking committed action. I see this as a bit of an “antidote” to a lack of motivation.

6) Motivation For Teenagers: Build a Clear Roadmap

Breaking down big goals into smaller, more manageable ones is a simple, powerful tool.

I like to make these highly visual, for example by creating a written action plan diagram. This can help your teenager to focus on just one thing at a time and stay really present with this one goal.

Cognitive development in teens is complex and problem solving skills take time to mature

An anxious teenager might find it overwhelming to know how to get from A to B and may simply ‘check-out’, taking the path of least resistance.

Help your teenager to create a clear road map, one where they can understand the meaning of processes and have clarity about what their end in mind is.  

Don’t just say ‘try harder’ or ‘do more’. Lay out a plan so that they can see what they need to do, step by step.

7)   Anxiety Motivation: Teach Teens The Benefits of Leaving Their Comfort Zone

Everyone needs some time in their comfort zone where they feel safe and relaxed. However, in order to grow in confidence and feel good, we also need to spend some time outside this comfort zone.

The trick is not to get too far outside your comfort zone.

Just a little bit… and the following time perhaps a little more!

You can read about how to do this in our article: How To Build Confidence In Children.

8)    Motivating a Teenager: Engineer Positive Experiences

Encourage and replicate positive experiences.

What I mean by this, is that as well as trying some new experiences, it’s important that your child gets lots of experiences which they already know will be positive.

It’s too overwhelming for a child to constantly be trying new things, well outside their comfort zone.

Here’s an example:

How to Motivate a Teenager: Case Study (Jack)

Jack’s parents want to encourage him to go out more by himself and they encourage him to plan a bus journey to the nearest town to meet his friend.

Jack has mixed feelings about it. He doesn’t feel motivated and knows he is a bit scared and anxious.

He says he will try it once. He plans it for the end of the month. Until that time, his parents try to encourage him to walk to the local shop 5 minutes away each day.

This helps build his confidence and skills (such as talking to strangers) ready for the bus trip later in the month.

9)    Motivating Teens: Help Them Directly With Time Management

Explore with them how best to manage their time and organisation. 

Can you provide practical tools, perhaps with a wall planner or chart? 

I like time management tools/apps like Pomodoro and Forest.

Even if your child is an older teen, they are likely to need much more help than you think. Teenage brains are still developing, and they are not generally good at planning and organising themselves.

For example, you might say to your child:

“We’re having dinner at 7. You will feel much better if you get half an hour of maths homework done before dinner. How about I help you get started, and then set up a timer for you?”

10) How to Motivate Teenagers: Clear Boundaries Around Social Media and Gaming

Explore your teen’s relationship with social media and how much time they spend using it.  Anxious teens can often feel overwhelmed by what they are absorbing on social platforms.

A great deal of what they see can feed into anxious thoughts and feelings and can be demotivating and demoralising.

Also, social media and gaming are time sappers.

Both have positives, but too much time spent doing them takes away from other activities that will be more beneficial for them, such as exercise, social contact or relaxation.

It’s not too late to set boundaries if you don’t have any.

Understanding Anxiety

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

Helping Teens with Anxiety: The Vicious Cycle of Anxiety and Avoidance

For younger children, teenagers and young adults who have anxiety, avoidance can often become a ‘safe’ default for them. 

They may not feel comfortable talking about their feelings or things that cause avoidance. 

It may appear from the outside, that they don’t engage in activities from a lack of interest or motivation rather than from the reality of deep discomfort.

Anxious thoughts, panic attacks and other anxiety conditions such as social or health anxiety can be really uncomfortable, causing both emotional and physical symptoms.

In the short term, avoiding an anxiety-provoking situation can provide temporary relief. 

However, avoidance can perpetuate the cycle of anxiety, increasing anxiety levels which may lead to longer term difficulties with motivation, engagement, social skills development and self-esteem.

Therapeutic Support For Anxious Teenagers

Breaking the cycle of anxiety and avoidance can feel daunting. Where should you – or they – start? 

Professional help may be required to enable them break through the cycle, but it IS possible.

teenage boy with therapist

Anxiety responds really well to psychological treatment, in particular, CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). 

This approach teaches people how to manage physical symptoms of anxiety, recognise anxiety triggers and challenge anxious responses and behaviours, replacing them with healthy positive ones.

ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – is a wonderful therapy for teens who lack motivation and direction.

One aim is to help a teen be present with their feelings rather than avoiding them. It also places a high emphasis on helping the young person to identify and move towards their values, to live a more purposeful life.

How to Motivate a Teenager With Anxiety: Enjoy the Journey Before Reaching the Destination

When trying to understand how to motivate a teenager with anxiety, it’s important to remember that their anxiety doesn’t define them. 

It may be part of their profile and they may need extra help, but with every new challenge, win or accomplishment, they are learning what they are capable of and where they might need extra support from others.

As they mature, your child is growing and learning about themselves (even if they don’t realise this at the time!). 

They are building a framework of confidence and self-actualisation in response to experiences, setbacks and challenges.

mature woman and teenager

Next time they tell you they ‘can’t’ or don’t know ‘how’, try talking to them about looking at the process of growing up as a journey.  

Being motivated and acting on this is just one facet of them learning how to get the best out of life.

How to Motivate a Teenager With Anxiety: Summary

Knowing how to motivate a teenager with anxiety becomes possible through connection. 

Getting to know what does and doesn’t work for your teenager is crucial. From here they can build a road map that enables them to self-motivate and succeed in the areas that matter to them.

Take a look at our article, 34 Inspirational Quotes For Anxiety Sufferers.

Related Articles

6 Keys to Parenting Teens Who Flourish

What Are Your Child’s Behavioural And Emotional Strengths?

5 Powerful Teen Self-Esteem Activities {+ Printable Workbook}

Tips For Building Confidence In Teenagers And Children

Children’s Self-Esteem: Three Actionable Steps To Build It Up

Getting Help For Teenage Low Self Esteem

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.


UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

Dr. Lucy Russell’s Everlief Parent Club offers a clear path towards a calmer, happier family life. This monthly membership includes exclusive workshops, direct support from child psychologists, and access to our private Facebook community.

Together, we can move towards a calm, happy family life and boost your child’s wellbeing. Become a member today!