Skip to main content

Tips and Strategies to Help Motivate an Unmotivated Kid

Skip the “motivational talk” and try these effective strategies instead

Published on: March 29, 2021

an unmotivated child

Have you ever spent more hours than you should putting off something you hate doing? We all have. The truth is, lack of motivation is an issue that affects everyone, but it can be particularly difficult to deal with in kids. The problem is, the absence of motivation in children gets worse with time and can follow them into adulthood.

It is said that motivation must originate from the heart, and that most of the attempts to motivate kids actually demotivate them. While the latter is true, the former has been proven wrong on many occasions. Researchers and psychologists such as Carol Dweck have shown that the use of certain words and the adoption of certain practices can help the unmotivated child.

If you are struggling with unmotivated kids, you know by now that telling them that they “need to work harder” does not increase their motivation. However, years of research on motivation have resulted in some useful strategies every parent with an unmotivated child needs to know about:

1. Take an interest in your child’s interests.

We all like doing things we find interesting, and children are no different. They will be more motivated when pursuing activities they enjoy.

  • Observe your kids to discover where their interests lie.
  • Show interest in their interests, even if those enthusiams differ from what you would like them to be interested in.
  • Find ways to link their interests with the other skills you would like them to develop. For instance, comics can be a great way to practice reading skills and gain new knowledge; or encouraging your child to practice music lessons with a friend can help motivate an unmotivated child.

2. Remember that success is everyone’s innate desire.

Unless they’re dealing with specific and often undetected disabilities, most people want to succeed in the activities they undertake. Repeated failure can therefore give rise to frustration and discouragement and can lead to behavior such as tantrums or even constant anger and anxiety.

Children who encounter too much failure can develop learned helplessness, which means that they may learn to perceive themselves as failures. In other words, children may lose their motivation because of a lack of confidence in their ability to achieve specific goals. It is this lack of confidence that can drive behavior such as avoidance, stress, “laziness” and an apathetic attitude.

  • Ensure that your kids have opportunities for success.
  • Help your children view themselves as a successful person by talking about their successes.
  • Set reasonable expectations with challenging but achievable tasks.
  • Make sure your children know exactly what is expected of them. For instance, if your unmotivated kids often struggle with homework, make it a habit to go over and explain what is expected every time they have homework.

3. Provide opportunities to motivate your child.

My son developed an interest in creating video games after watching videos developed by kids his age. 

  • Exposing your children to others’ achievements in their fields of interest is a good way to motivate them. However, this does not mean comparing your kids to others or expecting them to achieve the same goals as others.
  • Remember that providing opportunities to see others succeed — which can be achieved through watching movies, reading books and stories, etc. — can help reduce your child’s lack of motivation.

4.  Don’t give them the “motivational talk.”

One thing science (and no doubt many parents!) has found over the years is that the “motivational talk” rarely works. Despite your best intentions, talking to your kids about the importance of effort is not likely to make them change their ways.

  • Instead of focusing on past performance, focus on future performance — “What do you think you can do differently?”
  • Instead of speaking for your children, encourage them to assess their performance by themselves. Remember that there are several age-appropriate resources capable of helping your children reflect on their performance and develop a growth mindset.
  • Instead of the motivational talk, let your children know that you know they have what it takes. You could say something like “You just haven’t figured it out yet, but I know you will.”

5. Offer encouragement and support.

It’s normal to get frustrated when our kids show a lack of motivation. Not knowing how to motivate them gets us even more frustrated! The important point to remember is that there may be a number of reasons for kids’ lack of motivation: lack of confidence, lack of participation in decisions concerning them (when homework should be done, when video games can be played, the consequences of not sticking with expectations, etc.), frustration, disappointment, among others.

  • Everyone experiences failure and most people experience failure repeatedly before they achieve success. Talk to your children about your own failures. Let them understand that failure is a part of life. Let them know that our failures do not define us — they make us stronger. Successful failures abound, such as those encountered by people who went on to become the celebrities they are today. Talk to your children about those failures. 
  • Comment on the positive changes you observe in your kids even if those changes do not immediately lead to an improvement. If you notice your children putting in greater effort, tell them. If you see them trying harder, acknowledge it. If you observe them trying a different approach, let them know you’ve noticed. Remember, though, to praise the effort and not the child.

6. Don’t forget that kids will be kids.

Wouldn’t it be great if our kids responded to our every instruction and did things exactly (or even better) than expected? The reality is that kids do not have the same conception of things as adults. They do not necessarily understand why they have to learn about certain things and telling them those things are important is unlikely to change their perception.

  • Find ways to make whatever your children are learning interesting. If they're taking music lessons for example, working on a song they like may be more motivating than having to stick to a specific workbook.
  • There are so many ways to learn the same thing. There are good movies that teach history; your kids can be taught to count using Legos; children’s executive function skills can be developed through fun “color, cut and glue” activities. If your child has a hard time staying focused or interested in a particular activity, try different ways to tackle the same activity.
  • Remember that kids will always be more motivated by things they enjoy, and that’s hardly surprising. Cut your children some slack and let them enjoy the things they like. Remember that expecting certain things from your kids can cause more harm than good.
  • Don’t let criticism and disappointment be the only things your children remember of their childhood.
  • Change your perception of your child’s behavior. Some procrastination and a lack of motivation are normal in kids and adults alike. Why would your child be any different?

7. Focus on your child’s strengths.

There is evidence that strength-based parenting can help increase your child’s happiness and satisfaction in ways you never thought possible.

  • Place your child’s strengths at the center of your parenting approach. Remember that children need to encounter success (even in a few fields) rather than to perceive themselves as mediocre in all fields.
  • Even the most destructive children can undergo a transformation once they find where their strengths lie. Do not forget that recognizing your children’s strengths helps build their self-esteem.

8. Be willing to give up the driver’s seat.

Why is kids’ motivation such a big issue? Why do teachers and parents struggle to motivate kids? Science says that one of the main reasons we struggle with our children’s motivation is because we want to “dictate” everything that they should do. We want to dictate when they should do their homework, when they can watch TV or play video games, when they can see friends and so on. But here’s the thing: The more kids feel that they have no say in decisions that concern them directly, the less likely they are to stick to those decisions, and there is evidence to prove that.

  • Don’t do everything for your kids — you’ll only teach them to become dependent.
  • Letting your children participate in the decision-making process will work wonders for their motivation.
  • Remember that negotiation is a powerful tool that can help resolve your family’s conflicts and reduce power struggles.

9. Be clear about what is non-negotiable.

Did you know that science has found that your expectations have a great impact on your child’s behavior and performance? The problem is, our kids do not always know what is expected of them because we don’t always clearly voice our expectations.

  • Be clear about what is non-negotiable and let your children know what is expected of them. If they are not allowed to drop an activity until a specific period is over (for instance one semester/one school year), let them know before they sign up. However, be flexible — if the activity is really making them miserable, be willing to negotiate.
  • If you expect your children to participate in household chores, let them know, but remember that you’re bound to get more by allowing them to choose, to a certain extent, the chores they take on.

10. Seek professional help.

One thing we rarely hear about concerning kids’ lack of motivation is that it may point to undiagnosed learning disorders or attention-related problems.

  • Certain disorders can manifest themselves in behavior such as lack of motivation, procrastination and major difficulties in concentration. The problem with these disorders is that they can lead your child to give up because of constant failure.

Do not hesitate to contact a professional if you feel overwhelmed by your child’s lack of motivation. A professional will help you determine whether or not your child has a learning disorder or other issues and, more importantly, how you can help that child.

No one said motivating your child will be easy, especially if you are dealing with a long-existing problem. Do not forget that changing habits takes time. Celebrate your successes and don’t lose heart when progress seems slow.

Editor’s note: This article was first published several years ago and was most recently updated in January 2024. 

Get our weekly roundup of Seattle-area outings and parenting tips straight to your inbox.

Related Topics

Share this resource with your friends!