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Tips and Strategies to Help Motivate an Unmotivated Kid

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

Published on: February 18, 2021

Kid- at-home-bored

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. Problem is, children’s absence of motivation 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 an unmotivated child, you know by now that telling him he “needs to work harder” does not increase his motivation. However, years of motivation research have resulted in some useful strategies every parent with an unmotivated child needs to know about:

1. Get interested in your child’s interests.

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

  • Observe your child to discover where their interests lie
  • Show interest in their interests, even if they 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 their 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 can learn to perceive themselves as failures. In other words, a child 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 a “don’t care” attitude.

  • Ensure that your child has opportunities for success.
  • Help your child view themself as a successful person by talking about their successes.
  • Set reasonable expectations with challenging but achievable tasks.
  • Make sure your child knows exactly what is expected of them. For instance, if your unmotivated child often struggles with homework, make it a habit to go over and explain what is expected to do 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 child to others’ achievements in their fields of interest is a good way to motivate them. However, this does not mean comparing your child to others or expecting them to achieve the same things as others.
  • Remember that providing opportunities to see others succeed — which can be achieved through movies, books, stories, etc. — can help reduce your child’s lack of motivation.

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

One thing science (and no doubt many parents!) has found over the years is that the “motivation 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 child reflect on their performance and develop a growth mindset.
  • Instead of the “motivation talk,” let your child 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 thing to remember is that kids’ lack of motivation may often be explained by a number of things: lack of confidence, lack of participation in decisions concerning them (when homework should be done, when video games can be played, consequences of not sticking with expectations …), frustration, disappointment and so on.

  • Everyone experiences failure and most people experience failure repeatedly before they meet success. Talk to your child about your 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 — people who encountered many failures before becoming the celebrities they are today. Talk to your child about those failures. 
  • Comment on the positive changes you observe even if they do not immediately lead to an improvement. If you notice your child putting in greater effort, say it. If you see them trying harder, say it. If you see them trying a different approach, let him 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 we do. 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 child is 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 child 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 finding interest 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 child some slack and let them enjoy the things they like. Remember that expecting certain things from your child can cause more harm than good.
  • Don’t let criticism and disappointment be the only things your child remembers of their childhood.
  • Change your perception of your child’s behavior. Some amount of procrastination and a lack of motivation is 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 child’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 kids’ motivation is because we want to “dictate” everything that our child 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 them — you’ll only teach them to become dependent.
  • Letting your child 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 your non-negotiables.

Did you know that science has found that your expectations have a great impact on your child’s behavior and performance? 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 your non-negotiables 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, etc.), 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 also point to undiagnosed learning disorders or attention-related problems.

  • Certain disorders can manifest themselves in behavior such as lack of motivation, procrastination and major concentration difficulties. 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 them.

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.

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