How Science Can Help You Relate To Your Young Person

The teenage years can be a terrifying time. Suddenly you are navigating uncharted and murky waters as your young person suddenly stops communicating, faces the many challenges of high school and you’re just not sure what to do or how to reach them.

Well, reaching and connecting with young people is a part of of the fabric of what we do at Burn Bright, and we’ve put together our years of research into the best evidence-based approaches for you to do the same.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is one of the best and most well-researched theories of human motivation.

When we hear the words motivation, we might think of rah rah motivational speakers who make you feel good for a few days before everything returns to normal.

However, self-determination theory is a theory of motivation and growth that leads to sustainability.

All humans have a base set of psychological needs, and satisfying these needs is essential for healthy development, engagement with the world around us, effective behaviour and psychological wellbeing.

SDT tells us that a person is able to become self-determined when their needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence are fulfilled. We’ll dive into what these mean in a moment. It also tells us that people are happier when they are able to pursue things that are in line with their own goals and values. This makes them feel responsible for the outcomes of the goals and has a huge impact on a person’s mental health and vitality.

“The term self-determination refers to a person’s own ability to manage themselves, to make confident choices, and to think on their own” Deci, 1971.

SDT was originally theorised by Deci and Ryan and you can find extensive research and further information on their website –

What are the 3 Core Components of SDT and How Do They Relate To Us?

Let’s explore three components of SDT and how they can relate to our young people.

  1. Autonomy
    • Autonomy is feeling in control of one’s behaviour and being able to self-initiate and self-regulate their own behaviour. For young people to gain this autonomy, they need the freedom to choose to become more self-regulated.
  2. Competence
    • Young people need to believe they have the necessary skills and abilities to exercise and expand their capacities. We need to have the basic skills, judgement, and strength to be able to achieve the goals or tasks we are working towards.
  3. Relatedness
    • Young people need to feel connected to others as they live and work. This takes the form of being involved in social groups, communities, and shared initiatives with other people. This feeling of connection, not only to other people, but also to groups and causes that they are passionate about creates a sense of fulfilment that promotes intrinsic motivation in positive behaviours.

How to Use This Theory

So what does all of this mean for us as parents?

The more internal a goal is, the more autonomy a young person has. When young people are more connected at home and with peers, and when a young person feels like they have a basic level of skill, they achieve more success in the tasks they are trying to complete.  

The more autonomy, competence and relatedness they have, the more a young persons wellbeing increases.

Autonomy without accountability is anarchy (especially with teenagers).

When we talk about giving young people autonomy the first reaction is always, “well if I give them autonomy then they won’t do anything useful or helpful for their lives”. But providing autonomy doesn’t mean handing over the keys to the kingdom and telling your teenager to do whatever they want. It means working with them to set autonomous goals and helping them to establish how they might be accountable to those goals. We need to teach our young people to self-regulate without their parents’ intervention.

How Do We Teach Them? – The Coaching Approach

It’s important to take what we at Burn Bright call a ‘coaching approach’. Essentially this means 2 key things:

  • Ask, don’t tell
    • This goes back to the origins of coaching psychology as we know it.
    • Learning to be a great question asker and asking questions that help young people explore and reflect on their own emotions, feelings, thoughts and behaviours is better for a young person’s self-efficacy and autonomy.
  •  Help to set goals
    • Coaching is all about helping people to set goals and work towards them. So how are you supporting your young person to set goals?
    • Remember that goals don’t need to be big lofty things and may be short term or long term. They may be weekly or they may be for ten years’ time.
    • Remember that some goals may not be helpful for young people, so ensure you are listening to what they are wanting from their goals.
    • Sometimes starting with small goals and building them up to bigger ones is a great way to start with goal setting.

6 Ways You Can Use Self-Determination Theory at Home with Your Young Person

  1. Change the way we have the conversation around home chores and tasks
    • Instead of nagging and asking over and over again for chores to be done, sit down with your young person and have a conversation along these lines: “We need chores to be completed for the effective functioning of this household and it’s important for us to all contribute. Its over to you to choose which chores you would like to do and what time frames you would like to do them in.”
  2. Self-determination theory tells us that external rewards aren’t sustainable
    • Motivating through bribery may seem easy in the short term and it probably is! However, SDT shows us that external rewards or goals created for us are less motivating and aren’t good for our wellbeing.
    • This may mean you need to avoid the temptation of short term rewards in favour of helping your young people to set goals that align with their values, what’s important to them and their ideal self. This may be more challenging then the short term win but trust us in the long term gain!
  3. Make sure home is a place of relatedness
    • We know how important connection is to our basic needs and at Burn Bright we say your wellbeing starts at home! Often young people spell love T-I-M-E even if they don’t look like it they are craving connecting, so find the best ways of supporting that.
  4. If your young person doesn’t have the competence for a task then help them to find it for themselves.
    • Rather than showing them what to do or telling them what to do, help your young person to find out the information for themselves. Maybe it’s watching a YouTube video together, or driving them to a workshop or a course, maybe it’s doing something together so you’re both learning.
  5. Keep accountability through question asking as opposed to telling
    • It can be quite tempting to just dish out how you are feeling to your young person by telling them everything they have done wrong.Try instead asking questions and get them to tell you what might have gone wrong in a situation. This may help your young person to have a greater autonomy over that behaviour in the future.  9/10 times they will know what has happened and what needs to be changed for next time.
  6. Don’t reward success – celebrate effort
    • Lots of research shows us that celebrating effort increases goal achievement in the long run. Even if your young person wasn’t successful in the first instance, working with them to celebrate the effort they put in will help them to try again. If they were successful celebrating the effort, that will help to see that goal progress is as important as the success of the goal for their wellbeing.

So next time you’re about to react to something your young person has done, remember the science. Give your young person the autonomy, the keys to competence, and the relatedness they need and crave.

Our evidence-based work with young people has spanned over 7 years, working with more than 77,000 young people across Australia and New Zealand. Our team is passionate about developing and backing the potential of all young people, and we are always learning and creating new ways to do that.

One of the ways we aim to achieve this is by packaging our learning, knowledge, and experience into interactive and easy-to-use digital courses that you can use with your young person. If you want to learn more about our evidence-based work with young people and how you can introduce this to them, click here to take a look at our courses.



Continue your student’s leadership or wellbeing journey with our digital programs. Specifically designed to be flexibly implemented into your wellbeing or leadership programs, these courses can be completed at any time in any place, providing a self-paced option for students to explore in class or on their own. These modules include individual student logins, a teacher dashboard to track student progress and lesson plans with follow up face to face resources.

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Facilitator in Laptop Screen

I found Burn Bright in the midst of studying civil engineering at the University of Wollongong, just as I wanted a richer, deeper, more full experience of life.

Through Burn Bright, I have met many students and volunteers who are all seeking to find their place in the world. When we come together at NLC or SLC, no matter our age, we begin on the same page, of wanting to do good for ourselves, our community, and the world. And then we are thrown into a program that brings us closer to each other, our purpose, and how to bring forth this impact. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

Volunteering with Burn Bright stoked a fire in me – It helped me feel comfortable in myself and made me realise life isn’t just about work, study, or productivity, but our relationships and how we connect with others along the way.

I have learned skills in videography, worked for a top-tier corporation in marketing, and most recently published a book called “18 and lost? So were we” 

I have a passion for storytelling, bring loads of energy wherever I go, and am dedicated to helping young people move through the initiation of leaving high school and going into the ‘real world’. 

The best part for me is being able to stay connected to the latest generation growing through high school. To see them grow, expand and express more of themselves is like watching an artwork paint itself. It’s magic.

I am Simon Thurston, a Kiwi based in Perth. I work as an Instructional Designer and in my spare time I enjoy reading, running, and board games.

Since my initial connection to Burn Bright I have been onboard with their mission. Burn Bright’s focus on building the capabilities enables students of all ages to see how they can shape their world through connections with others and their own self discovery.

Seeing others grow, learn, and open up is what keeps me coming back, to help others realise their potential and how they can influence their future and their community is a definite highlight. It’s infectious, the atmosphere when they run a program or camp is welcoming, exciting, emotional, and rewarding all in one.



Hi, friends! I’m Kelsie, a psychologist from central QLD working in private practice. I got involved with Burn Bright officially in 2016, but the journey started long before that. I attended the National Leadership Camp (now hosted annually by Burn Bright) in 2009. It had such a profound impact on me that I returned as a mentor and volunteer. Those connections ultimately lead me to joining the Burn Bright team as an adult.

When I transitioned from facilitating with the Burn Bright team to working as a psychologist, I was so grateful for an incredible foundation of skills (particularly facilitation, communication and interpersonal skills) along with a strong grounding in positive psychology that Burn Bright integrates into their ethos.

I can’t imagine my life without volunteering for Burn Bright. I have met some of my dearest friends through the Burn Bright crew. I’ve found that volunteering for BB is rewarding, humbling, and often brings as much personal growth for the volunteer as it does for the young person.

From a professional perspective, I love that Burn Bright programs/camps support the adolescent individuation process by providing an exciting and supportive environment for teens to explore their own sense of self, personality, identify and values alongside other young people.

Imagine this POV: you’re back at school wanting to figure everything out and fit in – and you find
yourself in a room with amazing music that uplifts you and hooks you in. You meet the team of
dynamic, interesting, caring facilitators whose own friendships inspire you. Their facilitation skills bring about amazing light-bulb moments and lessons that light a fire inside you… It makes me want to feel that for myself again. The next best thing, for me, is volunteering for the team who passes that on to other young people.

My start at Burn Bright is one of the best cases of one door closing and another door opening. After losing my job at a local pub while on uni holidays, I started looking for new opportunities that were different and decided to volunteer. Searching for opportunities, I found working bees, community driving and nursing home visits, but the chance to become a National Leadership Camp intern stood out. Over nearly six months, I worked with the team to pull off Burn Bright’s first National Leadership Camp, and had an absolute blast in the process. After camp, I started working for Burn Bright while studying, doing anything and everything — data analysis, hiring strategy and even picking up furniture.

Finishing up working for Burn Bright in 2019, I am still actively involved with the Burn Bright volunteer community. I’ve found that the emphasis placed on investing in your relationships, understanding your values and making an impact allow you to be accepted for you. This has given me the tools needed to make the difficult decisions that life will inevitably throw at you. Besides all that, I’ve had a ton of fun and formed life-long friendships with people I may have never crossed paths with otherwise. “Get involved — you’ll change your life for the better and make life‑long friends in the process”.

I am a health science student from Perth wanting to get into the mental health realm of occupational therapy. In the meantime, I work as a barista and supervisor at a beachside café. In my spare time, I love to play netball, be around my friends and I have just gotten into crocheting. I went to Perth College where I was lucky enough to go to the first Perth College Leadership Camp in 2018 as a student and absolutely loved it. What really drew me in was the atmosphere that was created, the open conversations, and the lasting relationships formed.

Since then I have been a mentor for the Perth College Leadership Camp in 2019, 2020, and 2021 and had the opportunity to go to the National Leadership Camp in 2019. When Burn Bright comes to Perth I also love helping out at their programs as much as I can.

Volunteering for Burn Bright has given me so much that I could never have imagined. I have learned so much about myself and I have so much more confidence in myself and my abilities that I know I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t exposed to the amazing opportunities volunteering for Burn Bright has given me. Before being involved I would never have seen myself being a mentor, role model, and facilitator to students, but now I can confidently say that I am, and I have made an impact on others that I am proud of. I have also made so many meaningful connections to so many amazing people from all around Australia through Burn Bright. I get asked quite a bit why I keep coming back to my old school to volunteer and it’s simply because I was given this amazing opportunity to be a part of the Burn Bright programs and if I can help facilitate that experience to someone else then why wouldn’t I?

I was born in Perth and moved to Sydney in my early 20’s to continue work as a youth worker and surfboard maker. This was followed by 30 years working in IT as a computer programmer.

Following retirement in 2016 I searched for an organisation that was aligned with my values of servant leadership and service, especially in the youth space. This search led to Burn Bright where I am now volunteering one day a week and mentoring at the National Leadership Camp. Volunteering with Burn Bright gives me a great deal of hope and confidence in the next generation of leaders. It is a pleasure to be a part of the Burn Bright family.

I have been married to Denise for 41 years and we both very much feel part of the Burn Bright team.

When not at Burn Bright you may find me running along Manly beach, riding my mountain bike or indulging in my passion for photography.











Hi! I’m Rosie, a 20-something full-time public servant, part-time Tassie tourism advocate.

I am passionate about seeing young people succeed, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching them become the next generation of change-makers.

I have been a champion of the ethos and work of Burn Bright since its inception in 2014, and consider them to be the leading experts in their field. By delivering impactful leadership and wellbeing programs to students across Australia, they offer the knowledge, skills and engagement to invoke lasting positive change in school communities.

The Burn Bright team are dedicated, inclusive and values-driven, which is why I love working with them.