Motivating Your Unmotivated Child
Motivating your unmotivated child can sometimes be a losing battle. When teens lose motivation, over-parenting is sometimes the cause. Concerned parents who try to oversee their teens with nagging, nudging, lecturing, and sometimes threatening, are counterproductive. This approach never works.
The more a parent hovers over their student, the more the child is less likely to do what is asked, and may even shut down.
A far better approach is to step back, assess what is going on with your child, and ensure that they have the skills, tools, and strategies they need to do well in school or determine if there is another reason that is causing the lack of motivation.
Here are some considerations to determine what is causing your child to be unmotivated.
Students, like adults, operate within a hierarchy of needs. Even the most academically-minded students will have difficulty focusing on school work if they are overwhelmed, struggling with mental health, have ADD/ADHD, or lack executive functions.
Before concluding that your student lacks motivation, it may be helpful to collect a bit of data.
• Has there been a recent shift in your student’s work, or has this been a persistent trouble?
• Does your student perform better in some of their classes than others?
• Have you noticed any recent changes in your student’s sleeping, eating, mood, or self-esteem?
Children often lack the vocabulary to identify and articulate complex emotions. Asking open-ended questions can help them feel more comfortable opening up and give them an avenue to use as they decipher their feelings.
Identify the Root Cause
Often, what presents as a lack of motivation, is rooted in anxiety or fear of failure.
As your child progresses through school, each grade requires an increased level of independence and organization. In many cases, these skills have not been taught in school.
When children feel like they do not have the tools they need or that they don’t know how to approach a task, it is easy to become overwhelmed and frustrated. However, learning how to learn, and study skills, are not often explicitly taught. The result is that students may not recognize or be able to articulate exactly what gaps they are struggling to overcome.
Try to watch how your student approaches their work.
• Do they have a hard time getting started?
• Do they routinely avoid or give up on a particular subject or type of assignment?
• Are they perfectionists?
Noticing these patterns and then discussing them with students in a frank but non-judgmental manner can help you identify areas needing strengthening.
Focus on Progress
Many students feel it’s safer not to try than to truly give a task their all and fail. Help your teen shift their focus from grades and test scores to the trial-and-error process of improvement.
Praise the effort: “You worked really hard on that paper”, as opposed to the grade.
Point out resilience whenever you see it: “I know you were disappointed with your last exam but you took the initiative to talk to the teacher and are focused on better understanding the concept.”
Productive struggle strengthens perseverance and problem-solving. It is important that children not equate struggling with failure and lack of intelligence. Reinforcing the process and not the end product reminds students that they have skills and the agency needed to improve.
Emphasizing the effort also helps to lower the stress surrounding high-stakes assignments. How a student approaches a problem speaks more to their abilities than the outcome. Progress, not perfection, should be the goal.
Set Reachable Goals
Just as perceived agency is critical for motivation, so too is confidence.
Work with your child to create reachable goals, that can be used to mark their progress.
This process can be modeled for reluctant students using an extracurricular or interest of their choice. For example, if a child is hoping to make the varsity soccer team, what skill will they need to strengthen or practice? How will they know when they have mastered it?
Creating concrete, smaller, attainable goals, allows students to build self-esteem as they accrue small victories. It also helps students learn to break large, potentially overwhelming tasks into more manageable chunks.
Acknowledge and celebrate goals that are met to show the child what they are capable of accomplishing.
For goals not met, talk openly with your child. Ask them in a non-judgmental manner what may have prevented them from meeting their target. Ask them to try and identify any areas in which they need help and what they will do differently moving forward.
Build Intrinsic Motivation
When students move to college and beyond, their intrinsic motivation will be one of the most important tools at their disposal.
For children who appear unmotivated in their schoolwork, ask them:
• What things outside of school do they find motivating?
• What is something they care about and willingly work hard at?
This may be a friendship, a videogame, or a passion; whatever it is, help them to identify both the activity itself and how it makes them feel:
• Why is it that in this area they are willing to put in the work?
• How do they feel when they succeed?
Tying school to long-term goals or interests can help academics feel less rote and more applicable.
Questions such as “I know this isn’t your favorite subject but what skills can you pull from it that can help you achieve your goal?” can reframe even the most disliked classes.
Finally, while reward systems, such as a little treat in exchange for a good grade, may temporarily produce the desired results, long term, they can lead students to value external validation over taking pride in their work.
Instead, reward your student with a small surprise when you notice they’ve been working hard, showing them that their effort and determination are seen.
It is important to discover if motivation is truly the problem at hand. There may be other issues to address before schoolwork can become the priority.
For those students who are struggling with motivation, helping them build self-confidence and independence by setting and achieving goals can initiate a self-perpetuating cycle in which students enjoy success and will work for it to continue.
Focusing on hard work and improvement over results diminishes the anxiety of failure. Approaching conversations with the assumption that each child wants to do well can help the discussions remain open and productive. The key is to help your child discover what inspires them to work hard and make sure they have the skills and support they need to do well.
Finally, a key lesson here is that the most important thing is that your student gets the support they need and it’s ok if it doesn’t come from you. Sometimes it’s more effective if it doesn’t.
If you think your child would benefit from support, reach out to their guidance counselor, or ask them to self-advocate and reach out themselves. Or get an outside tutor who can teach your child how to study and use executive functions, as well as their cheerleader.