Motivating the gifted teenager

Here in Washington, DC, parents and teachers often ask me, “how do I go about motivating the gifted teenager”?

If you have come to this post, you are probably concerned about your “unmotivated” adolescent. Understanding the gifted, but seemingly unmotivated, adolescent is one of my special interests.

Why are gifted teenagers sometimes “unmotivated”?

For me the key is to carefully evaluate the source of the so-called, lack of motivation.  Often, teenagers are very motivated. However, their goals may not match those of their parents or teachers.  For example, your son might be very motivated to hang out with girls but not so motivated to do his math homework. Adolescence is an extraordinarily challenging time. Teenagers are maturing cognitively, emotionally and physically.  Changes are taking place all around them — and, more challenging: changes are taking place within them.  On top of that, here in Washington, DC, often, we attend more to their educational goals than to their social and emotional ones. Achieving a “work-life” balance, or in this case a “school-life” balance can be difficult — even though achieving this kind of balance between the professional and the personal becomes more and more vital as one attempts to navigate the shoals of young adulthood and beyond.

These are ordinary, every day, challenges that nearly every teen, and their family must face.  What are some of the other challenges that hamper motivation in the gifted teen? How do I go about assessing gifted teenagers who are having difficulty with “motivation”? And, most importantly, how do I help?

Motivating the gifted teen: things I assess

Teenagers often have many things on their minds that distract them from academic performance. These may include:

  1. relationships
  2. poor self-esteem
  3. a lack of confidence
  4. not feeling capable
  5. anxiety about establishing their own identity
  6. anxiety about fitting into the group without having to give up their own personhood
  7. worry about friendships
  8. learning differences
  9. dyslexia
  10. unique learning styles
  11. a poor school-student fit
  12. if their parents are immigrants trying to meld two cultures while figuring out who they are
  13. navigating a diverse world … worries about acceptance
  14. getting into college
  15. loneliness
  16. fears about leaving home and growing up (as mortifying as those fears are to admit)
  17. worries about the possibility of their parents divorcing
  18. frustration and unhappiness about having to alternate between two homes when they’d really rather be hanging out where their friends are
  19. feeling like they must take care of and nurture their parents
  20. worrying about their parents (Yes! It may not seem like it but you are on their minds :))
  21. depression
  22. anxiety
  23. conflict with siblings
  24. competition
  25. worrying about their parent’s health
  26. if they have lost a parent through either death, divorce, military service or something else, they may feel sad
  27. worries about parent mortality (especially if there parents are old or ill)
  28. drugs and alcohol
  29. and many other things

Assessing an adolescent’s lack of motivation in school

Meeting with the teenager’s parents & the teenager

My approach to motivating the gifted teenager is to first attempt to understand the basis for the lack of motivation.  For me this starts with an initial meeting involving both parents, and, frequently (though not always) the teenager.  Some parents embrace this idea while others wish that they could just drop the teenager off at my office and have the problem magically fixed. (I only wish it were so simple :)).  I meet with married parents, parents who were never married, parents who are separated, and parents who are divorced.  And, I meet with them together …. sometimes, I’ve had 4 parents in the office at the same time!

Also, I am interested in other central people in the teenagers upbringing. From time to time, meetings have even included the nanny, the grandparents, an involved uncle or aunt or others.

Here in Washington DC where there are so many high powered career couples, it can be challenging to bring everyone together, however, over the years I have found that it’s been well worth the effort. Even when I treat teenagers very intensively, the influence of therapy can never hold a candle to the influence of the parents (and/or parental-like figures).  To be most helpful, I need to partner with parents. My aim is to  learn as much as I can about the teenager’s familial and internal worlds. Also, although much of my focus is on the “here-and-now”, I find early developmental history and subsequent school history to be very important.  Beyond this, I find that parents, especially fathers, tend to underestimate the vital role they may play in their teenager’s development.

Helping an adolescent to grow and mature may entail that all members of the family change. Therefore, I find parents to be a crucial part of the evaluation.

Finally, I think that it is important that parents have the opportunity to assess me, to get to know me and to learn how I think about their adolescent prior to allowing their teen to become involved in treatment. Teenagers sense whether their parents are truly committed to the evaluation endeavor. For this reason, it’s important to select a psychologist in whom you feel confidence.

Meeting with the adolescent, privately

Depending on the adolescent’s age, personality and maturity, I will have some ideas about how to proceed. There are many possibilities – I can meet with the teen alone, with parents and teen, or with the parents, initially. Even where it makes to meet with the teen, alone, first, I spend a bit of time – with teen and parents together laying out the ground rules as to how the evaluation will proceed. Most teenagers want to know about confidentiality; and most parents want to know how I will address dangerous, suicidal or risky behaviors.  When we meet, I will discuss both of these concerns. My aim is to provide a safe environment.

A physical

Difficulties that appear psychological or motivational, occasionally, may be physical. Therefore, I ask that each adolescent obtain a physical with their pediatrician, or primary care doctor, to rule out medical difficulties.

Psychological, Educational &/or Neurological Testing

Many teens benefit from a thoughtful evaluation of their current situation and do not require testing. However, not all gifted children with academic difficulties are unmotivated. Rather, they may have psychological difficulties that interfere with their capacity to excel. Others, may have learning differences; they made need accommodations within their school. Or, they may require a school setting that can attend to their unique learning styles. Still others may have neurological challenges. Often these difficulties are apparent upon evaluation. However, sometimes testing can be useful in further elucidating these challenges. For this reason, I work collaterally with a small number of very experienced, skilled, psychological testers.

Psychiatric consultation

While many of the teens who I see do not need a psychiatric consultation, at times, it can be very useful. Some teenagers profit from the use of medication as an adjunct to psychotherapy or to other environmental adjustments. As with psychological testing, I work closely with skilled psychiatrists.

School consultation

Although information from the school can be very useful, often, I find that adolescents prefer to keep their evaluation process private. Consequently, I ask the teen and parent share school records with me instead of having me talk with the school.

Consent to talk with the pediatrician, the psychological tester, the psychiatrist

After meeting with you and  your teenager, I ask for written consent to speak with these consultants.


I meet with you and your adolescent and I describe how I understand your teenager’s lack of motivation. Then, I delineate what sort of help I think would be most useful. This may entail external changes with regard to school or family or it may entail some sort of psychotherapy.

Feel free to call for a consultation

If you are interested in a consultation, feel free to call me at: 301.656.9650. Please streamline this process by making it easy for me to reach you. Leave your day and evening numbers and the time that it’s best to reach you. I welcome your call.


Dr. Lynn Friedman

Dr. Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., FABP, is a Clinical Psychologist, a Supervising and Training Analyst, and a Clinical Supervisor in full-time, private practice. She provides evaluation, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as supervision to psychoanalysts-in-training and other mental health professionals. Beyond this, she is a board certified, psychoanalyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

I'm interested in exploring a consultation with you, what's my next step?

I provide psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, clinical consultation, supervision & executive coaching. If you are seeking consultation from a psychologist, psychoanalyst, in DC, feel free to call me: 240.483.3530.