Want to Motivate Struggling Youth? Work to Understand and Love Them, Therapist Says

Contributed By Sarah Harris, Church News contributor

  • 7 September 2017

Young women write in Personal Progress journals. Robb E. Clawson suggested ways to better motivate struggling youth in a BYU Education Week address on August 22, 2017.

Article Highlights

  • We can better help and love youth when we understand them.
  • Engaging in activities with youth can greatly help us motivate them.
  • Youth are imperfect children of God, just as we are.

“We love whom we serve, and we love whom we understand.” —Robb E. Clawson, marriage and family therapist

PROVO, UTAH

“We first must understand and love somebody to be able to motivate them,” marriage and family therapist Robb E. Clawson taught in a BYU Education Week class on August 22 about motivating struggling youth.

Work to understand and love them

“There’s something that happens when you join someone else’s world and you learn some things and you join them halfway,” he said. “We are to study the person that we are hoping to motivate. We love whom we serve, and we love whom we understand.”

Clawson, who previously worked as the clinical director of a treatment center for teenagers, said what we perceive as a lack of will or motivation in others is often actually a lack of skill. For example, just because youth can stop using electronics when their parents ask them to do so doesn't necessarily mean they have the understanding to do the same in other situations.

“How many of us got up at the time we wanted this morning and exercised for as long as we wanted and ate as well as we wanted and avoided six scoops of ice cream at the BYU Creamery like we thought we would?” Clawson asked. “We’re all capable of doing that, but sometimes, it’s not a matter of motivation; it’s a matter of having the skill to do it in the right circumstances.”

It can also be helpful to ask youth—without judging or blaming—why they aren’t motivated to do something and to be open with them about our perspectives as well, Clawson suggested.

“Be direct with a teenager that’s struggling,” he said. “It is OK to say, ‘I have no clue what to do.’”

Slice the task thinner or walk with them as they do things

Struggling youth might also benefit when we slice the task thinner or walk with them as they do things that they aren’t motivated to do. As we do this, Clawson said, we can try out new ideas in order to figure out what motivates them.

“Usually when things don’t go well, it’s because we don’t know what to do … and that’s when you do an experiment,” he said. “And if they don’t like it, the job is theirs to switch it up in some way.”

Clawson taught that we should also think about our reasons for wanting to motivate others and whether the desired change is about us or them.

“When the Savior motivates us, it is about us; it’s not about Him,” Clawson said. “It’s not about, ‘Hey, I’m trying to save everybody. Get in line and do what you’re supposed to!’ It’s about, ‘How can I help this person see the value of what I’m asking them?’”

Consider the big picture

When motivating struggling youth, we should also consider the big picture and whether we are asking for obedience now versus focusing on conversion later, according to Clawson.

“Sometimes we prefer to get what we want right now rather than building our youth to survive eternity, and sometimes we forget about that,” he said.

It is also important to realize that sometimes the more we try to motivate someone, the more resistance we invite, Clawson advised. He explained that although bribing or forcing struggling youth to do something can be helpful as a “jump start” to build momentum in motivating them, these methods are not that effective in the long run.

“While our loving Father desires that all of His children return to Him, He will force no one to heaven,” Clawson said quoting President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s April 2016 general conference address. “God will not rescue us against our will.”

Build a relationship with them outside of any challenges

As we work to motivate struggling youth, it’s important to continue building a relationship with them outside of any challenges, Clawson emphasized.

“Research shows that when kids struggle, our level of parenting deteriorates, … and what drops is the building of the relationship side,” Clawson said. “It’s really important to dedicate time on purpose. Pretend like your kid doesn’t struggle and do something with them as though they’re perfect, and then later on, consequence them, … but make sure those things are separate.”

We should also remember that to our Heavenly Father, we are all youth with our own challenges and mistakes, Clawson recommended.

“Teenagers are our Heavenly Father’s children,” he said. “We are lucky enough to be in their presence and to help guide them.”

BYU Education Week students walk between classes at the Provo campus on August 23. Photo by Sarah Harris.

Robb E. Clawson, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Mountain View Family Counseling, teaches a BYU Education Week class titled “Lift Where You Stand: Motivating Struggling Youth” on August 22. Photo by Sarah Harris.