Parenting

How to Motivate a Child Who Is Unmotivated

Lack of motivation is a concern that affects everyone, but it can be especially difficult to deal with in kids.

Here are some approaches on how to motivate an unmotivated child, as discussed by experts:

Dr. Sam Marzouk, Ph.D., L.P.

Sam Marzouk

Licensed Psychologist, Promethean Psychology

In order to motivate a child who appears unmotivated, it is first essential to better understand the underlying reasons behind the apparent lack of motivation.

More often than not, occasional dips in a child’s motivational level are normal and not reflective of an underlying mental health concern.

More stable and enduring patterns of low motivation, however, may indicate an array of difficulties in certain areas such as self-regulation, diminished attention capacity, depression, or anxiety.

It’s every parent’s dream for their child to exhibit intrinsic (i.e., internal) motivation toward every task they face. The truth is that children are still forming their ability to self-regulate their motivation.

Below are a few ways parents can help nurture growth in this area and enhance a child’s intrinsic motivation.

It starts with awareness

Children who appear unmotivated often have trouble monitoring their own behavior and motivational level. It can be helpful for parents to periodically have their child evaluate their own behavior or work productivity as a way to promote greater self-awareness.

Break it up

When a child has little internal motivation to embark on a particular task, it often helps for a parent to break the task down into short, manageable steps, with frequent breaks provided.

Make time external

Children who appear unmotivated may have difficulty with their internal concept of time. Having a physical timer or clock of some sort can help kids better manage their attention and motivation throughout a particular task.

Positive reinforcement

Whether we want to admit or not, we all run on some form of positive reinforcement. Contingency procedures are a great way to spark motivation in children.

This involves the parent or caregiver making more favorable activities (e.g., video games, social media time, etc.) contingent on the completion of a less favorable task (e.g., homework).

Rule out the possibility that your child is depressed and/or anxious

As mentioned above, the lack of motivation in children can sometimes reflect underlying depression or anxiety concerns.

Children who are depressed often withdraw from their environment and lose interest and motivation in things they once enjoyed.

Likewise, children who appear unmotivated may actually be actively avoiding a task, activity, or situation that elicits significant anxiety.

In both cases, it is best to seek help from a mental health professional in your community to address these possible underlying issues.

Related: How to Help Your Child With Anxiety – Using the Parental Intelligence Way

Clarify values

Older children who are transitioning into adolescence are beginning the challenging developmental task for forming their own unique identity. Clarifying one’s core values is a key part of this identity formation.

Rather than lecturing or nagging a child who appears unmotivated, it may be more fruitful to help your child understand their values and allow their values to serve as the guiding fuel behind their motivation.

Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline

Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Author, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew

When kids are unmotivated, it’s often because the task at hand seems uninteresting, unrewarding, or overwhelming. If something seems unappealing, kids will turn away from it–even if the consequences are serious.

When a task has meaningful deadlines or immediate consequences to get us started (i.e. your history project is due tomorrow), it has external motivation.

When a task is fundamentally unrewarding or uninteresting with no deadlines (i.e. cleaning the litter box), we are not very compelled to do it. We lack internal motivation.

Most kids have to rely on external motivation to rouse themselves; internal motivation, and the satisfaction a person receives when a dreaded task is completed, comes later– in early adulthood.

Children and teens need help from adults in their lives to create external incentives or rewards that are both meaningful and encouraging to get them going until the internal motivation kicks in as they mature.

These rewards are not bribes. You connect something kids have to do to something they want to do: they earn desired privileges by completing the tough stuff.

Break the task into smaller pieces

Procrastination usually occurs when kids dislike the task at hand or think it needs to be perfect and feel daunted by the prospect of starting it. They’ll freeze and unwittingly become masters of avoidance.

The best solution to feeling overwhelmed by a project, task or chore is to break it down into smaller pieces–sometimes really small pieces. We want your child or teen to be able to accomplish at least one step towards completion and no step is too little in this process.

With the confidence of doing something instead of worrying and negative self-talk, they will be moving along towards the goal at hand. It’s this movement that builds confidence and further action.

Related: 23 Best Tips on How to Stop Procrastinating

Explain motivation and how it works to your child or teen

Most kids will acknowledge what tasks lack inherent interest or value for them and when they are struggling.

Ask them what has helped them in the past to get started and what would entice them to do them now. Together, decide in advance what the incentives will be for finishing something that is difficult to do.

If your son finishes his history project on time, maybe he can go out for pizza with his friends. That’s a big incentive. Or, if he works for 30 minutes, he can earn 10 minutes of social media or music time.

Do not remove the agreed-upon reward if he engages in a separate behavior that you don’t like. If he earned the reward for doing the agreed-upon activity, then he should have it.

Or, if your 10-year-old daughter’s room is a mess and you want her to pick it up, think realistically together with her about how long she can actually work before she gets tired and distracted. If that’s fifteen minutes, then set up two fifteen-minute work periods with a five-minute movement, snack or bathroom break in between. When she’s completed thirty minutes, she can earn a larger reward.

Remember that she may need help figuring out where to begin or she may want you to stay in her room and guide her through the process. Your support can be key to her success.

Marrissa Rhodes, M.A., PLPC, LPC, NCC

Marrissa Rhodes

Provisionally Licensed Professional Counselor, Integrated Spaces

Many children who appear unmotivated are often experiencing internal struggles that keep them feeling stuck.

Often, these children are feeling the anxiety that may not present themselves in ways that we might think are typical anxious behaviors. Instead, their anxiety is presented in a kind of “paralysis.”

The adolescents that I have worked with share that they feel pressured to perform really well, often in the eyes of their parents, teachers, or coaches, and believe that they somehow won’t measure up to their expectations.

Rather than attempt something that feels difficult, they would rather not try at all so as to avoid what they are ultimately fearing: failure.

Interestingly, this is a form of perfectionism, i.e. “If I can’t do it [well, the best], then I might as well not try at all.” They are trapped in what we tend to call black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking.

Related: Overcoming Fear of Failure (Avoid these 3 Mistakes)

Combating this always starts with safety and connection in the relationship – whether by a parent, teacher, or coach.

Connect with your child

Try to connect with the child in a way that shows that you “see” them. Complimenting them, even on the small or mundane things, helps them feel seen and offers a boost of confidence.

Look for clues

What is it that they seem to be “unmotivated” with. If it’s homework, connect by validating how big of a project or how hard it must seem.

The same goes for other things like practicing or even cleaning their room. We often avoid this out of fear that it will make them feel worse about the task at hand.

Actually, the opposite is true. We are only acknowledging what they already feel, which helps them feel seen, heard, and understood.

Join them

If you’re able to, explore ways that you can join them in their task, even for just a few minutes. Again, the emphasis here is connection. It opens the doorway to hear more about what they are afraid of.

Try saying something like “I wonder if it would be helpful if I [practiced with you, helped you do a few problems, sat beside you, etc].” This builds safety and helps them feel less pressure.

Remind them of what you truly expect

Children often imagine their caregivers’ expectations are unattainable. Help them understand, in a gentle and loving way, that we learn from our mistakes and that perfection is not attainable for anyone.

Celebrate their imperfections

It is important to remember that all of these practices will take consistency, intentionality, and effort. The reward will be a better connection to the child and increased self-esteem, which of course, leads to increased motivation.

Dr. Dace Tapley, DBH, MBA, LPC, NCC

Dace Tapley

Clinical Director, White Tiger Integrated Services, LLC

Parents tend to either use praise/reward to motivate children or lecturing to motivate children. Neither of these techniques works in the long term.

With praise or reward, parents are only able to elicit motivation as long as they have something the child wants or the child decides the reward or praise is worth the work associated with it.

Lecturing tends to focus on what the child hasn’t accomplished and spends a significant amount of energy on the child’s deficits.

This leads the child to feel inadequate at meeting the parents’ expectations. In both cases, the outcome is or becomes more important to the parent than it does for the child.

Encouragement is the key

Motivation has to be internally developed. This comes with encouragement rather than praise or reward. Encouragement from a parent doesn’t tie acceptance from the parent to the outcome but rather allows the child to develop their own sense of value on their effort.

For example; if Jill brings her mother a hand-drawn picture and asks her mother if she likes the picture, her mother is most likely to say “I love it, it is beautiful”. This is regardless of whether then picture is in fact a good picture.

This praise from her mother temporarily motivates her to continue to draw pictures to increase dopamine release in the brain as she continues to seek her mother’s approval.

In contrast, if her mother answered the question with a question such as, “What do you think about your drawing?”, now the child creates her own value of the product.

The mother can also get more details and ask her child to critique her own work by asking what she likes about the drawing so the child feels a sense of pride and accomplishment for her own efforts. This carries over to chores and other responsibilities.

Focus and appreciate your child’s strengths

Additionally, focusing on positives rather than highlighting failures or flaws also helps motivate a child.

When Jill comes home with a mix of grades, if the parent spends more time focused on the F’s or D’s then Jill is likely to attribute her sense of accomplishment to those grades.

Likewise, if the mother focuses on the A’s and B’s and asks Jill questions about how she was able to get the A or B now Jill’s sense of identity is focused on what she did well rather than what she failed.

What we focus on is what we’ll inevitably multiply in our lives. Parents who are strength-based even with their critique will have more motivated children.

Katie Ziskind, LMFT, RYT500

Katie Ziskind

Holistic Marriage and Family Therapist |
Owner, Wisdom Within Counseling

Motivating children is not as much as a reward system as it is about building up your attachment and genuine trust.

If you have a bond based on trust and love with your child, you have more of an influence when it comes to asking them to do something because they respect you, because you set boundaries, because you love them, and because you help them when they get hurt.

If you try to lure your child to do something, that relationship is no longer being built on trust but is now being built upon a privilege or an item.

Teach your child that when they do good things, they get love in return, not things

Instead of rewarding your children with food, toys, or candy which might create more of a problem for you as a parent long-term, focus on setting healthy boundaries, building trust and attachment, giving hugs, give undivided attention, and helping your child understand what it means to listen empathetically by modeling this as a parent as well.

Do not reward your child with food or candy regardless if you choose to do a reward system.

Try to understand the lack of motivation

Also, if your child is not motivated, I encourage you to try to understand the root of the lack of motivation, rather than seeing your child as simply miss behaving because they want to misbehave.

Typically, children have a lack of motivation around the loss of a loved one, loss of a sibling, loss of a pet, a moving, divorce, and family conflict.

Instead of punishing your child for lack of motivation or getting frustrated, start to think about the root and the source of what might be impacting your child emotionally and causing them sadness or irritability.

Seek professional child therapy as well as using play therapy to help your child express their emotions under their lack of motivation.

Ridhima Ohri, MS, LMHC-LP, NCC

Ridhima Ohri

Psychotherapist, Bethany Medical Clinic

The first and most important step is to understand that children are entitled to feeling big emotions just like adults and should never be made to feel otherwise. Try the following techniques to assist the child feel more motivated:

Validate, validate, and validate

The importance of validating a children’s emotional experience especially when they are experiencing uncomfortable emotions cannot be emphasized enough.

Communicating validation will make the child feel heard and seen which will help with building trust and confidence.

Get engaged in their daily lives

Get in the habit of asking the child about what they learned in school and how their day was. By demonstrating your interest in your child’s life, you’re showing them that their life is exciting and interesting which can help with increasing intrinsic motivation.

Do not forget to share details about your day as well, as a conversation will always have better results as compared to an interrogation

Use reinforcements

Use social reinforcements rather than physical reinforcements as children respond better to hugs, high fives, and praises. These extrinsic rewards will help the child with increasing their intrinsic motivation

Communicate empathy

Making the child feel heard and wanted even when they are making mistakes can do wonders for the child’s motivation and self-esteem. Verbalize it for them, that feeling unmotivated is an unsettling feeling but is normal

Reward effort instead of the result

Praising kids for following through when things get difficult, for trying things they’re not sure they can do successfully, can all help teach them the pleasure of continuously trying.

Theresa Bertuzzi

Theresa Bertuzzi

Chief Program Development Officer |
Co-Owner & Co-Founder, Tiny Hoppers

Motivating the unmotivated child can sometimes seem like an impossible task — but there are ways to do it.

  • For starters, you need to understand the proper balance between telling a child what to do, and letting them do what they want. If you only give orders and directions to an unmotivated child, they most likely won’t be too thrilled to listen to you.
  • Find a way to get them to open up. If they bring up an activity or two that they would potentially enjoy, encourage those ideas — not your own.
  • Never be too harsh with them either, but let them know what they’re potentially missing out on if they continue to lack enthusiasm or be lethargic.
  • Most importantly, don’t stress about the situation if the child doesn’t seem to be budging from his stance. The more upset you get, the more adamant they might become. Let them figure out that they’re not helping their own self by not doing anything.

Morgan Champion

Morgan Champion

Manager of Counseling, Connections Academy Schools

  • Allow children to help plan their schedule/day. Giving them ownership and autonomy can help them buy-in to what they need to accomplish.
  • Set reasonable, attainable goals with your child to ensure they can feel good at the end of the day that they were able to accomplish something.
  • Ask your child if they’d like to choose their favorite subject to start or end the day with—leave it up to them to choose when they want their favorite time to be.
  • Mix in some fun with schoolwork—if there is a game or puzzle they like to do to break up the day, be sure to incorporate that.
  • Take frequent breaks and keep learning time to 30-50 minutes depending on age.
  • Try something new—remember, building skills and new learning can come from a variety of activities. You can teach fractions through baking. You can teach compare/contrast by walking outside and exploring. You can practice times tables while you’re playing hopscotch.

Dr. Chris Norris

Chris Norris

Chartered Physiotherapist | Neurologist |
Founder and Managing Editor, Sleep Standards

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”

This saying is apt to boost a child who lacks motivation and zeal in life. The problem of “lack of motivation” in children is the problem of demoralization, whether overt or disguised.

The first and foremost thing to be done is to ask yourself these questions:

  • What could motivate my child?
  • What is that he really wants?
  • What actions I should take and what questions can I ask that will help him discover and explore his interests?
  • What are his interests, inspiring role models and behaviors, goals, and ambitions?

Don’t blame yourself for the lack of motivation in your child. Don’t personalize it. When you do this, you may actually contribute to the underachieving by creating more resistance.

Get involved with our child

Talk to your child and try to understand what do they need to enhance their confidence and motivation. Provide opportunities that appear interesting to your child. However, do not ever try to make a comparison with other children.

Have an open conversation about his strengths and achievements

Help your child views herself or himself as a successful person by conversing about his or her achievements. Make your child believe that he or she has all the abilities to become successful in whatever he or she does.

Keep your child engrossed with challenging but achievable tasks

Make sure your child knows exactly what she is expected to do. For example, if your unmotivated child often struggles with homework, make it a habit to go over and explain what he or she is expected to do every time he or she has homework. This boosts your child’s confidence and zeal.

Get involved in your child’s interests even if those are not your interests

Try to find what does he like the most. For example, if he likes reading, sit with your child, and read a storybook with him. This will help your child in enhancing his or her reading skills and gain new knowledge.

Don’t yell, argue or fight with your child about motivation

Be gentle. Offer rewards to children whenever your child gives his or her 100% in some activity. This encourages him or her to experience the natural consequences of his or her decisions.

Be patient and persistent in dealing with your unmotivated child

Be calm and consistent using effective consequences to get your child to learn better problem – solving skills and become motivated.

Inspire your child rather than controlling him. Talk about the behaviors or people whom you find could become your child’s role model and inspire him.

The goal is to influence your child when he or she has to do something he or she doesn’t want to do and get to know him or her well enough to figure out what his or her own desires might be.

Related: How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen

Claire Barber

claire barber

Certified Mental Health Consultant | Relationship Expert, Treeological

Ask them what they enjoy

Many children seem to be unmotivated when, in reality, they’re simply selectively motivated. Before labeling a child, have a conversation with them, starting with what interests them and why they have an interest in a particular topic or activity.

Engage them allowing them to express passion for their interest. From there, it’s easier to expand their interests to that which may not have been presented in a way that they were able to grasp.

You need to make it accessible

Much of motivating children has to begin with how things are presented. For some children, certain concepts may be dismissed as being “useless” or “stupid”, when actually the concepts may just not be fully understood.

This is common with school lessons that children may fear asking for help and then it gets too complicated leading to the appearance of a lack of motivation but is masked intimidation to ask questions.

A great way to help motivate children is mostly through communication and making sure there is no underlying issue holding them back.

Robert F. DeFinis, Ed.D.

Robert F. DeFinis

Author | Educator

Exposure to many areas and fields

In motivational theory, we tend to lean heavily on intrinsic motivators rather than extrinsic ones. Mainly because we want our motivation to be driven by things that are important to us; such as to cause, relationships, status, and self-worth. This will produce long-term results.

Extrinsic motivators, or the “carrot and the stick approach” can fade fast. This is also true with children. The piece of chocolate or new toy might work today, but then you have to replace it with something new and shiny when it loses its ability to motivate.

I find with children, that they sometimes are still searching for their internal gift. Parents might believe that they should play football, or take up the piano because that’s how they envision their child being successful or fulfilling some artificial need.

What really needs to happen, at a very young age and fostered through the early stages of child development, is exploration. After a time, they will develop their own passions which will turn into intrinsic motivators.

Leann Poston M.D., M.B.A., M.Ed.

Leann

Licensed Physician, Invigor Medical

As a pediatrician and an educator, I have been asked this question many times from parents. I do not think any child is intentionally unmotivated. So the question becomes why is the child not doing what they are asked to do or meeting expectations.

Possible explanations may include:

They do not have the necessary tools. They may lack the education, background, intellectual power, or confidence to achieve the goal.

They may not know how to get started. Some children are easily overwhelmed. They are given instructions but never taught how to manage a project.

For these children, parents need to break the project down into smaller steps and teach the child how to accomplish smaller goals first and then how to put these goals together.

There may be other priorities. Many children I taught, in whom I thought motivation may be the issue, had family lives that required them to shoulder burdens well beyond their capabilities.

Ask questions, see how the child spends his or her time, provide support before launching into a lecture.

Immaturity. Some children are not at a maturity level that is necessary to meet the goal that is put on them. These children need more than the average amount of guidance.

For these children, parents may need to restrict technology, supervise homework, and provide a schedule. Try to catch these children being “good.” Reward the behavior you are looking for and the maturity will come much faster.

Make sure that what you are motivating the child to do is age-appropriate and is a goal that suits them not your goal. Many parents have dreams for their children that they were not able to achieve. These may not be the child’s dreams.

The parent needs to come to terms with that and mourn the loss of the illusion they were carrying in their head.

Christopher Delaney

chris delaney

Hypnotherapist | Author

Children fear the unknown and get demotivated if they believe they will fail at a task

To motivate children, you need to give them a small initial easy to complete tasks as this gains commitment. Once the opener task has been completed, you offer a second task, and so on with each task becoming bigger and takes a longer duration.

The theory here is that we all like to be consistent with our identity. as the child becomes ‘active’ or ‘a doer’ they are more likely to keep taking action to stay true to how they see themselves.

To help kick start the motivation, you can use social proof.

We generally do things if we believe other people are doing them. By explaining that the neighbors (or any related group of children) have done something, the child, not wanting to miss out or to be outside the social group, will want to get involved as well.

Kate Deshmukh

Kate Deshmukh

Educator | Admissions Director, Pono

When I talk about motivating my students, it’s easiest to start with what I don’t do. At Pono, teachers don’t use rewards to motivate our students. We don’t assign grades to children’s work, so from the start, we remove a common motivation for students in traditional schools.

In addition, we avoid phrases such as “Good job!” or “Great work!” We may instead respond, “The colors in your painting make me feel happy,” or “How do you feel about finishing your essay?”

Ask the children what they want to learn

But if students don’t have the “reward” of high grades or praise, why would they want to put thought into their artwork or finish their essays? What motivation do they have to participate in lessons or complete assignments?

Pono follows the democratic education model, trusting that students know best what they should learn. We ask for their interests and develop a curriculum based on what they’ve requested to learn.

When students know they have a voice that is heard and valued, they are invested in their learning and motivated to do their work.

But of course, there are still moments when my students may feel unmotivated. During a weekly fictional narrative writing class, one of my students stared at his blank paper and told me he had nothing to say.

For weeks, he barely wrote more than one or two sentences. “I’m not a writer!” he would protest. I kept thinking about his comment, “I’m not a writer.” What did being a writer mean to him?

When I asked why he wasn’t a writer, he began sharing his insecurities. To him, being a writer meant not making mistakes, always knowing what to say, and never struggling with a turn of phrase. I encouraged him to think of a writer not as someone who’s perfect, but simply someone who has a story to tell.

At the beginning of the term, this student had brainstormed a list of imaginative characters and an action-filled science fiction plot. I began asking him about his characters and what he’d like to see them do.

He had ideas, and I invited him to write down what he was telling me. He was excited to see what direction his story would take, and before long, he had finished his narrative.

This experience reinforced for me the benefits of self-directed learning. My students already have everything they need to learn–they are born with a natural curiosity and drive to understand the world around them.

If they begin to doubt themselves or compare themselves to others, I can remind them that they can trust themselves, and that is a great motivation.

Jefra Rees (M.Ed)

Jefra Rees

Full-time Educator, Pono

The best motivation is trusting that your child knows himself and his instincts

No amount of coaxing, rewards, incentives, or punishment will truly motivate a child to do something they do not want to do.

I will never be able to motivate my 11-year-old son to do virtual school during a pandemic. However, by hearing his ideas and using a collaborative problem-solving approach we have come up with a system that works for everyone in the household.

The trust I have in my son that he knows what he needs to do to learn and feel healthy is what motivates him.

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