How To Support Kids Of All Ages
I was recently working with a young man, “Brian”, who just graduated from high school. He had finished up the last few months at home, due to COVID-19, and had spent the bulk of the summer watching and re-watching several popular television series on Netflix. Brian was well-known to me, as he’d been a client for a while. During the school year, we worked weekly on applying executive functioning skills to his schoolwork. His mom reached out to me for help, as he seemed to just be wandering through each day with no direction now that he was home with no school to focus on.
I worked with Brian via Zoom that day and asked him, besides watching Netflix, what he would like to be doing now that he was a high school graduate. He said that he wanted to enroll in community college, to get a driver’s license, and to get a part time job. Awesome, I thought! Concrete goals that he came up with!
I implemented an organizational structure to systematically begin to work through each goal. First, I had him prioritize them by order of importance. Brian put college first, followed by driver’s license and job. Then we took each goal, and created shorter goals, or a series of steps, needed to get to the long-term goal. Using a 1-week timeline, we brainstormed what could be done quickly, like researching community colleges nearby or looking up available part time jobs. For goals that required more time, we wrote down steps that could be done regularly, like 10 minutes per day of studying for driver’s permit test. We determined how long each task or action would take, Brian chose a date and time, or series of dates, to complete it, and we discussed any obstacles in the way. He assured me that he could do it all, the timeline was reasonable, and his mom was on board. It seemed that there were no obstacles to speak of. Finally, I typed it all out into a nice neat document, then sent it to him in an email.
You can guess what happened in our next Zoom coaching session: Brian had forgotten to do anything on the list. He had actually forgotten about the entire thing! I asked him to pull up his email and share his screen and there it was – my unopened email!
I had really thought that he wanted to work on these goals. He seemed excited about choosing a community college, and making money, and driving. He apologized for forgetting to do any of it, and he assured me that actually did want the goals completed. He said he didn’t know why he didn’t do anything, including opening the email.
But I knew. Brian was lacking motivation to even begin to do the steps to make the goals happen. He did want to accomplish those things, but he didn’t want them so badly that he was internally motivated.
Our brains have 3 functions: to seek pleasure, avoid pain, and conserve energy. Netflix was giving him pleasure, while allowing him to conveniently put aside any actual “work”. The goals still seemed really far away, even with smaller, more manageable steps. It was just easier to do nothing.
This scenario with Brian confirms for me that we, as parents and ADHD coaches and therapists, can have the best plans – but they are only as good as the person who is willing to use them.
I decided to pause and back up with Brian, and not get so specific so fast. I spent some time asking him to look into the future, and to dream big. I asked him where he saw himself in 1, 3 and 5 years. I asked him how much money he wanted to make, and what kind of life he wanted to live. I asked him what he thought he was currently good at and what he loves to do with his spare time. Getting him into this line of thinking helped him realize that the steps he takes now will influence his future for years to come. I acknowledged that while I, too, love “Friends” and “The Office”, part of becoming an adult is delaying gratification and training our brains to focus and work when the situation calls for it.
So what can we do to fill in that motivational gap in kids and teens like Brian?
If you are constantly butting heads with your teenager over their laissez faire attitude about everything, know that you are not alone! Teens are notoriously casual when it comes to acknowledging the need to make future plans.
You’ve probably already exhausted and outgrown all of the sticker charts, reward systems, bribes, threats, and punishments that sometimes work temporarily for younger children. You want to order your teen to just get motivated! Just do it!
Unfortunately, motivation cannot be pulled out of thin air. We have to help foster it. Here are 4 ways to begin to build the internal motivation that we desire to see in teens.
Mindset – start with some of those questions that I asked Brian. What are you good at? What do you love to do? Where do you want to be in 3 years? 5 years? What kind of life do you want to live in the future? How much money do you want to make? What are your actual goals?
Accountability – find a third party that your teen can be accountable to, whether it’s a coach, teacher, tutor, grandparent or friend. They need someone to check up on them and be a cheerleader to keep them going when the motivation wanes. As I continued working with Brian, I made sure that he was the one doing the writing or typing up the steps and reporting back to me throughout the week. I gave him interim “homework” and had him put it in his calendar and in various other places to help him remember.
Support – teens also need your support and to know that you have their back. Having a network of reliable people who fully support them is an important part of developing motivation. I asked Brian if we could involve his mom to help more, as I couldn’t be there daily for him. He and his mom set up a whiteboard with his goals and placed it in the kitchen. Brian also had a notebook on his desk with written things to do. His mom’s job was to gently remind him to follow his plan, and to ask if he needed help with anything. If he did need actual help, she could provide just as much as he needed, then back off as he was able to be more independent.
Mastery – we are more motivated to do things that are easy (remember the brain’s 3 functions). When mastery is achieved, teens have improved self-esteem and confidence, which leads to increased internal motivation. Brian had a really hard time learning the rules of the road at first. As he studied the manual more, and took more practice tests, he began to “get it”. As his practice test scores increased, so did his motivation to keep working toward his driver’s permit. He started talking about what it would be like to finally get behind the wheel of his dad’s car to learn to actually drive. He also shared details with me about the truck that he would like to eventually own.
Let’s Talk Goals
Goal setting is important for all ages. Part of establishing a growth mindset is being open to learning and improvement, which can be addressed through both SMART and DUMB goals. We are all familiar with the former:
This is a great system for homework, chores or other tasks. When setting therapy or coaching goals with clients, I use the SMART goal framework. Brian’s goal for applying to college fit neatly into the framework.
But we cannot discount DUMB goals! Are you familiar with DUMB goals? Think of a girl wanting to be President of the United States when she grows up. This has not yet occurred, so some might say it is not attainable. Think of forming a company that builds driverless cars, or one that makes spaceships that can go to Mars and beyond. Do you think that before these goals were met that they seemed realistic and attainable? Not on the immediate surface! And we certainly can’t predict a certain timeframe for them (“within 2 years” or “when I’m 42 years old”). When I am working to help foster motivation, and to get kids and teens to dream big, I introduce DUMB goals.
Once I encouraged Brian to dream big, we had some DUMB goals. He said he wanted to be a business owner, and to make 1 million dollars. He didn’t know what kind of business, or when this could occur, but he knew that the goal made him feel good and hopeful toward the future.
Motivating Younger Children
Younger children – pre-school, elementary school age and pre-teens – respond to external drivers like rewards. The younger the child, the more immediate the reward should be. I discourage food rewards, except in short term situations like potty training. A common way to introduce faster rewards is with a “first/then” framing. “First, do your homework page, then you can go outside”. “First finish chores, then you can play on the Xbox”. Delaying gratification and “wants” until a less preferred task is completed is an important executive functioning skill.
As kids get older, you can use a chart or token system where they earn something tangible in exchange for desired behaviors, like doing chores or working on homework tasks. This can be implemented with tokens earned over the course of a day, several days, or a week or longer, depending on the activity, and the reward. Tokens or stickers can be exchanged for money, small toys, later bedtime or screen time. A special “trip” with mom or dad is usually a big motivator, and in this case, it may be to the ice cream or donut shop, or out for a movie. A chart or jar that accumulates tokens earned toward a bigger item gives a nice visual cue of progress. The key with these kinds of systems is consistency. Your child needs to know exactly what he or she is working toward, and how much it takes to get there. They need to get that sticker or token every time they do the thing that you are asking.
We do not want kids to learn that they need to perform behaviors in exchange for rewards and privileges forever. Eventually, we want them to desire to do certain things for less tangible payoffs.
Kids with ADHD may need more support overall to develop motivation for things they find boring, hard, or without a solid payoff. As parents, we can help them get there in a developmentally appropriate way. If you feel that your child could benefit from third party accountability, fill out this questionnaire to see if ADHD coaching is a good fit!