Self-Determination Model Application

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Are people what the world have made them or are they the result of their own creation? This question, at the fundament of the nature versus nurture debate, is a key theme psychologists explore regularly, especially when questions of disorder are involved. While several studies have found evidence of a direct link between environmental factors, such as genes or caregiver characteristics, and dysfunctional behavior (Kim-Cohen, Moffitt, Taylor, Pawlby, & Caspi, 2005; Faraone & Biederman, 2005, theories for managing such problems commonly emphasize how individuals contribute to their own development. One such model is the self-determination theory of motivation. In this case study, the theory is applied to Cecilia, a single young woman who recently gave birth to an underweight preterm baby. As she grapples with the challenges of raising her child, working a minimum wage job, and getting an online degree, the self-determination theory may help her to muster the motivation necessary to be an effective mother for her child. 

Self-Determination Theory

In this theory of motivation, human beings are believed to possess an innate active tendency for integration and growth. Even though people are intrinsically self-unifying and self-actualizing, if they are not nurtured in this regard, social and contextual factors may inhibit this tendency (Deci & Ryan, 2002). For example, if a person is treated as an outcast from society, a possibility that Cecilia may face as an unwed mother, it is possible for them to become an outcast unto themselves due to psychological fragmentation that corresponds to the social kind. Conversely, those who are nurtured to see and follow their potential are more likely to gain the motivation necessary to realize their own integration and growth (Deci & Ryan, 2002). Nurturance should focus mainly on fostering an individual’s competence, relatedness, and autonomy, the three main needs self-determination theory identifies.

Cecilia’s Application

Self-determination theory may be used with Cecilia to reinforce her ability as a mother and a student within a therapeutic context. As a single mother with an underweight preterm, it is likely that she feels significant stress which could interfere not only with her plans for the school (growth) but also her psychological integration. For instance, after giving birth, mothers often face challenging circumstances such as postnatal depression. In therapy, it may be possible for her to discuss whatever concerns may be arising with a professional who may guide her through this highly tumultuous yet formative time of her life. 

The therapist’s role in treatment would be to foster Cecilia’s feelings of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Autonomy may be nurtured by encouraging Cecilia to express her views in therapy, reflect on the meaning of her perspective, and take affirmative action for herself. Throughout therapy, the counselor may give advice on how Cecilia may become more competent as a mother and student by providing her reflection for self-awareness and techniques for motherhood and school, such as applying the self-esteem enhancement theory. Finally, the counselor themselves may be a source of relatedness with Cecilia, however, she may also want to recommend her to single mother support groups. At such venues, Cecilia may not only bond with peers but gain insights into the struggles and strategies associated with motherhood. 


With the guiding principles established in self-determination theory, Cecilia will become a more confident and capable person throughout the course of her treatment. In so doing, her mothering will likely improve as well. As her daughter’s primary caregiver, this is the most effective treatment protocol that can be recommended.


Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (2002). Overview of self-determination theory: An organismic dialectical perspective. Handbook of Self-Determination Research, 3-33. 

Faraone, S.V., & Biederman, J. (2005). Nature, nurture, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(2), 173-181

Kim-Cohen, J., Moffitt, T.E., Taylor, A., Pawlby, S.J., & Caspi, A. (2005). Maternal depression and children’s antisocial behavior: nature and nurture effects. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(2), 173-181.