• Jotham Busfield, LICSW

Increasing Self-Motivation + Discipline in Young Males


We work with a lot of parents who are super frustrated that their son seems to always want to be indoors on video games or on their phone instead of outside in nature or taking the initiative to improve as an athlete.

I like to start by reviewing all the factors that are working against them, not as a way to justify their actions, but as a way to understand and empathize with them first. If we can start from that place, it helps us play the long game, instead of resorting to impulsive tactics like impromptu lecturing, punishment, or other reactionary strategies that tend to cause minimal if any positive changes.

First Step: Identify WHY they are behaving this way

Age: Although there are subtle differences in what makes a nine year old choose isolation and screens over outdoor activity when compared to a say a 16 year old, ANY young guy under 25 whose brain is still developing is likely to be at greater risk for low levels of “intrinsic" motivation, meaning motivation that comes from within, self-driven and not requiring an outside stimulus like a parent. Why? Because when the brain is still developing, self-esteem levels tend to be lower because self-awareness is lower. It is hard to be self-aware when a person is so young they are still trying to define who they even are or who they want to be. Intrinsic motivation levels increase once a person has a firm grasp on who they are, what their values are, where they are headed, and where they want to go in life. People under 25 are not supposed to have all this stuff figured out, and that “figuring out” process can often look like a lack of motivation.

Cultural Norms: Personally, I’m not envious of kids going through adolescence in the present day culture, at least as it relates to life in parts of the United States (we live and work in Greater Boston which plays a role in this perspective). Social Media alone creates a landscape where kids/adolescents are exposed to endless dopamine, a permanent record of their age related mistakes, an ongoing ledger of their popularity (or lack thereof), and a fraudulent showcase of the perfect lives everyone else seems to be living. For those who haven’t seen it, “The Social Dilemma” is worth a watch on Netflix, as it covers in detail how and why social media has had some intended and unintended negative consequences on those using it, particularly minors. Two other related cultural norms are the reduction of recess in school combined with the hyper-structured nature of sports. On the one hand, we are giving kids far less time to have unsupervised play across the board (in and out of school), while we are also often pressuring young athletes to specialize in only one sport and be doing it around the clock. This does not apply to all young athletes, but even for multi-sport athletes, between school and their sports schedules, they rarely have any free time, which can lead to burn out just like if an adult was working 80+ hours a week, particularly if they didn’t have a say in what they were spending this much time on. Add in academic pressure (intra-social and from parents) being at an all-time high, and we can see why some choose to isolate in their free time.

Video Games are not what they used to be: Video games in the present day are quite different than they were even 10 years ago, let alone 20+ years ago. Video games now are more diverse, include a lot more strategy, overlap much more with personal identity, and most importantly have a massive social interconnectivity component. This aspect of social connection is the most important variable to remember, as this is often the MAIN way young guys connect with each other. Social connection is vital to their wellbeing and their path to figuring out themselves, which is what BUILDS intrinsic motivation. If we take this away, it could impact their well-being and delay their healthy development (including development of

the intrinsic motivation to one day choose outdoor activity for themselves over increased indoor isolation on screens.)

Second Step: Age often drives Intervention

We always favor a combination of short and long term game plans when it comes to parents shaping behavior. There are some things that can be effective on the scale of a day, but often playing the long game is the best approach, and age factors into this.

For young guys ages 12 and under for instance, their levels of outdoor activity are largely going to be driven by a combination of parental modeled behavior (parents choosing to spend time with the family outdoors being active), and structured outdoor play/sports (parents enrolling their sons in organized sports each season, and/or setting up regular times for their sons to be outside with other kids their age, exposing them to a combination of supervised and unsupervised play). The most important thing for parents to do is to be consistent in getting a balance of all of these things for their kids, while also navigating the occasional blow back when they “aren’t in the mood” to do one of these things. A combination of validating their emotion, while also standing firm on the expectation to participate, is a balanced approach to take which ensures they feel heard and understood, while also not removing healthy activities just because they don’t feel like doing it. It is key for parents not to take things personally if they aim some raw emotion at you as, believe it or not, this is a sign that they love and trust you!

For young guys 13 and over, things get more complicated. Around this age, and it is hard to pinpoint for any one person, a LOT is changing. Between hormonal changes and puberty, the newfound focus on social hierarchy and popularity, and the desire to be independent and autonomous (without the level of responsibility required to handle this), young guys in this stage often need to be handled a bit differently. More of their personal choice needs to be factored in, and they will value and respond better to a collaborative approach. On a related note, they tend to respond poorly to being told what to do or being lectured on things. Playing the long game and using a combination of direct and indirect approaches often works best.

Examples of a more direct approach:

- Ask them define their goals relative to sports/activity without telling them what you think their goals should be (having them write these down is great, but respect their initial desire to do this or not do this, as young guys tend to despise writing things down) - Open ended questions to help identify changes that need to be made (i.e. “You mentioned that you want to make varsity next year as a sophomore, what changes do you think are required to get there?” Really key here that they know you WON’T suggest changes, make sure when they are done providing possible changes, you validate those but offer none unless they ask - Teach them about dopamine and how seductive this can be. The social dilemma documentary is one way to help them learn about this. Having someone else explain it tends to work better, if it is coming from you as the parent, they may be instantly less likely to listen because it is you. Most young guys don’t listen to their parents, even though they know you are right most of the time!

Examples of a more indirect approach:

- Play podcast episodes with motivated athletes or other successful people on in the background when driving places - Ask them what they would suggest to someone slightly younger than them who is trying to improve as an athlete

- Expose them to successful people and athletes. Take them to games or sporting events, have them meet successful athletes if possible to increase their motivation. - Support their gaming and social connection to a degree! Showing interest and sitting down with them to watch them play so they can educate you is a GREAT way to both connect and reduce their desire to play just to spite you. Keep in mind, doing something we aren’t supposed to be doing is very stimulating to a young brain especially, so if they know you don’t want them playing video games, it is likely to INCREASE their desire to play more. If they know you support them, they will feel closer to you (which is most important) AND the are less likely to view video games as an outlawed act.

Playing the long game is vital. Young guys developing intrinsic motivation is a very gradual process that happens over many years. If we try to make it happen on any one day or within one conversation, it will backfire, we will lose their trust, and their path to this intrinsic motivation will only be delayed. I often tell parents, the number one thing that drives wellness as an adult is their relationship to one/both parents, so if you can keep that in a solid place, it is easier to trust that over time, they will gradually develop that intrinsic motivation because you were there for them and patiently guided them gradually, directly and indirectly.

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