Motivation and Your Neurospicy Teen

Lately, I have been seeing tons of posts of parents asking for help motivating their teenager, usually a boy, who has ADHD or autism. They feel their teen isn’t interested in school work, or getting a job, or going to college, the way they want them to be. They want someone to give them the easy fix. A reward, punishment, or trick that will magically make this situation better.  But that isn’t how it works. 

Where does motivation come from? 

True motivation comes from inside a person. It involves feeling in charge of yourself and your decisions. From that, a person works towards goals they want to meet. For any teenager, these things can be challenging, but for a teen with neurodiversity, it can be much harder. 

Why is this hard? For one thing, teenagers rarely have experiences where they can feel in charge of their lives and their decisions. On top of that, they may have been told they are bad at making decisions, or that their desires are wrong. If your teen has been told what to learn when for every day of their life, and struggled with that plan, they may not have had time to dream of other things. 

Executive Function

The other challenge of motivating a teen is that making and meeting goals is a many-step, complex process. Executive functioning helps us do those things. It helps us make a plan, and adjust that plan as we go, so we can meet our goals.

However, if your student has issues with executive functioning, they may struggle with making a plan and sticking to it. If they have a history of failing at small goals, they may fail at bigger goals too. 

Complicating Factors

When a person has neurodiversity, they are more prone to depression and anxiety. Those two things can also be motivation killers. They go along with having a brain that is taking in much of the world and not being able to change it or yourself to make things easier. 

Anxiety can make it hard to make decisions for fear of making the wrong one. It can make you fear the results of your actions. It can immobilize you. Anxiety sees your ideas and tells you all the things that could go wrong trying to get there. 

Depression kills motivation. Depression can take away your interest in life. It can make it hard to get out of bed, much less accomplish harder things like school work or jobs. It tells you that nothing will ever be better, no matter what you do. 

What can you do? 

First, it is important to address things like anxiety and depression. Those can be situational or chemical and often are driven by both. Some people find that lifestyle changes, like eating a healthy diet and exercising, help those things. However, for many, the combination of medication and therapy is much more effective. The right medication gives the brain the chemicals it lacks. Therapy can help work on the thought processes to help them develop coping strategies and new ways of thinking about challenges. 

One side note, if your child has health issues, either known or unknown, those can be a big factor in mental health. I know of many families who say they had great success taking their child off of foods like wheat or dairy to manage mental health issues. Those are two of the most common food allergies. Eating things you are allergic to can irritate the nervous system and cause stomach aches and headaches. Other issues, like vitamin D deficiency, can also cause a lack of focus.

If your child is struggling, talk to them about how they are feeling and seek medical care if they have complaints. I have a child with celiac disease and one with Alpha-gal. In both cases, the kids had stomach aches that made it hard to do schoolwork. It took years and many doctor visits to figure out each of those diagnoses. But both kids did SO much better with schoolwork once the health issues were addressed. 

What else? 

Once you have addressed your child’s mental and physical health, you can come back to working on that motivation issue. The first thing you need to ask is whether the motivation you want to see is reasonable from your child’s perspective and from a developmental perspective. 

While it is not only expected but necessary to ask an 18-year-old what they will do after high school, they may not yet know. If you pose it as asking what they want to do for the rest of their life, they may freeze. This problem of not knowing gets more profound the younger you ask it, until you get down to elementary-age kids who want to be cowboys and pop stars, with no care about practicality.

What is practical? Your student is now old enough to know that not every option is practical for them. They may look around at the careers of the adults they know, and realize none of those things are a good fit for them, but they don’t know what else they could do.

The best thing you can give your student is success.

Your student needs to see themselves meeting challenges and goals, even if the goals are small. 

One way to create a sense of accomplishment is to get your student involved in volunteer work or community service. Both of which can provide opportunities to succeed and to see life through a different lens. Animal shelters, food banks, and soup kitchens are all good options. You can also look into helping at your local nursing home or hospital, though those may have more regulations to meet. Regular volunteer work provides the experience of a job, with less stress. 

Other options include getting your student involved in scouting, martial arts, choir, or art classes. Depending on your area, you may have to hunt for programs that will accept teens who have never participated before, but it is still worth looking into. Learning an instrument is also a great option, as it requires new skills and discipline, and you can find private lessons in person or online. 

What is age-appropriate? 

An important thing to remember when parenting neurodiverse kids is that they may be behind their peers in various stages of life. This does not mean they can’t accomplish the same goals, but that they may need extra time, even years, to get there. Frequently they have the executive function and planning abilities of someone 4-5 years younger than their age. However, that ability improves throughout their lives, so by age 40, they may be ahead of their peers. 

They also may not be ready to put as much on their plate as a neurotypical teen. For example, your teen may not be prepared to hold down a job while also doing school work. Neurodiverse folks need more downtime to decompress and regroup. They also may need more time than typical to do their schoolwork. This leaves less time in their life for also having a job. 

Lastly, they may struggle with being self-directed. Choosing something to do, planning it, and following through can be harder for them. This means your student may need a bit more help than a typical kid their age. For example, if your kid wants to learn to cook, it may not be enough to hand them a cookbook and a kitchen full of food. You may need to sit with them and make a plan for them to cook something. Go shopping with them for supplies. Read over the recipe with them and stay close if they have questions. When they are successful at their first dish, help them choose another to make soon. Repeat.


Oh, hi there!
It’s nice to meet you.

Sign up to receive our latest blog post, news about sales, and sneak peeks of new products in your inbox.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.


About the Author

nimble_asset_Laura-in-floral-shirt-with-treesLaura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator, and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.