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Unmotivated Child? 6 Ways to Get Your Child Going

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Unmotivated Child? 6 Ways to Get Your Child Going

Why is it so hard to motivate kids? As parents, we often have a funny, inaccurate belief that our children won’t care unless we twist their arms. But the simple truth is that your attempts to motivate your child are probably working against you. You can’t make your child care just because you do—in fact, you might actually get in the way of their motivation. What’s worse, the push-pull of trying to motivate your child usually turns into a power struggle. There’s something wrong with the picture if you care more about your child’s grades than he does.

Thereís something wrong with the picture if you care more about your childís grades than he does.

If you’ve been getting in your child’s “box” and trying to make him care because you do, it’s important to stop and ask yourself this question, “What’s my child’s responsibility here? What’s mine?” If your child isn’t getting his work done, your job as a parent is to hold him accountable and teach him how the real world works. In the real world, if you don’t finish your work, you won’t get paid. Give consequences to show your child what the result of his poor choices are, but don’t confuse the reason for doing this with thinking you’ll make him care about his math homework simply because you care about it. Consequences aren’t there to create motivation; you give them because you’re doing your job as a parent. The bottom line is that you can't motivate another person to care. Your role, rather, is to inspire and influence.

Related: How to be a calmer parent.

As parents, we often feel responsible for our child’s outcome in life, but understand that this is never the case—ultimately, your child is responsible for his own choices. But because we think our kids’ success depends on us, we step into a place where we don’t belong. We’re taught that we need to somehow control our kids, so we often jump in their box without a second thought. We think we’re supposed to motivate our children to want certain things in life, but that only causes them to function in reaction to you. Your child might comply to get you off his back or even to please you, but that doesn’t help him get self-motivated. Again, you definitely want to inspire and influence your child. The goal is the same: we want our kids to be motivated—it’s how we get there that makes the difference.

I’m Trying to Motivate Him. Why Isn’t It Working?

The truth of the matter is, some children are less motivated than others. There are kids who are smart as a whip but who get report cards with D’s and F’s. Some sit in the classroom gazing into space despite the teacher’s—and your—best efforts. Maybe you have a child who forgets his assignments or worse, does them and never turns them in. Or you might have a pre-teen who doesn’t seem interested in anything and has no real hobbies or passions. Maybe your teen gives up easily or doesn’t want to try. In spite of your best efforts, he remains stuck or is starting to fall behind. (If you have other concerns, be sure to have the school and/or your child’s pediatrician rule out learning disabilities, ADHD/ADD, depression, addictions and other conditions.)

If your child is one of the less motivated, it can be a source of great worry and frustration and sometimes even despair—and that’s where the trouble can begin. The trouble in this case is your reaction to your child’s lack of motivation, not the lack of motivation itself. When you get nervous about him, you try to motivate him from the grip of your own anxiety, and forget that it's just not possible to make someone care.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does your worry compel you to nag, hover, push, cajole, or over-function for your child?
  • Does your frustration cause you to yell, scream, beg, punish, and throw your hands up in despair?
  • Does your helplessness cause you to start fighting with your spouse, who never seems to do as much as you think he or she should do to get your child motivated?
  • Does your fear about your child’s underachieving cause you to keep trying to get him to change and to be more motivated?

If you find yourself doing any of the above, you’ve probably seen your child resist, comply to get you off his back, rebel, or dig in his heels harder. Let me be clear: Whether he fights you or goes along with what you want, the end result is that he will be no more motivated than he was before. You might eventually get him to do what you want, but your goal of helping him be self-motivated is still a far away reality.

Related: Does your child fight with you any time you ask him to do something?

My child just isn’t motivated to do anything.

If you’ve ruled out learning disabilities and behavioral disorders and your child still isn’t participating in family life, and isn’t doing chores or homework, somehow you probably aren’t holding him to the line. In that case, you need to hold him accountable and provide the consequences that will guide him to the right place. You’ll get the video game once you get your homework and chores done. Do this along with standing back enough to find out who your child is. If he doesn’t seem to get up on time, step back a little bit and see what his sleep patterns seem to be. If there’s a particular chore he dislikes, you might talk to him and see if he and a sibling could switch tasks. I’m not saying we have to suit everybody’s desires but it’s not bad to check in and see what they might do better with. Maybe your son hates loading the dishwasher but would like to cook dinner because he’s interested in becoming a chef. In this way, you’re helping your child see himself and define himself. Get out of his way and really see him, and then get out of his head so he can think for himself. At the same time, hold him accountable to the basic things that he needs to do in life.

How do you inspire your kids to motivate themselves? (Here are a few tips to help you influence them towards self-motivation.)

1. Don’t let your anxiety push them to get motivated. You will only motivate them to resist you or to comply to calm you down because they want you to leave them alone. This won’t motivate them as much as teaching them how to appease or resist you. It then becomes about reacting to you instead of focusing on themselves and finding some internal motivation. Your anxiety and need for them to care will just create a power struggle between you and your child.

2. Be inspiring. The only way to motivate is to stop trying to motivate. Instead, work towards inspiring your child. How do you do that? Be an inspiring person. Ask yourself if your behaviors are inspiring or controlling. Understand that your kids will want to run the other way if you're too controlling. Think about someone in your own life who is inspiring to you, and work towards that goal. Remember, the only thing you’ll motivate if you’re pushing your child is the motivation to resist you.

3. Let your child make his own choices—and face the consequences. Let your child make his own choices. When it’s a poor choice, hold him accountable by letting him face the natural consequences that come with it. If the consequence of not doing his homework is that the computer is taken away, put the need to get that computer time back in his hands. If he finishes his work, he gets the time on the computer you’ve agreed upon. That will be a motivation for him in the right direction without you telling him what to do, how to do it, and lecturing him on why he should care. As a parent, what you're actually doing is asking yourself, "What will I put up with? What are my values and principles?" and you're sticking to them.

4. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What motivates my child?
  • What does he really want?
  • What questions can I ask that will help him discover and explore his interests?
  • What are his goals and ambitions?

Step far enough away to see your child as a separate person. Then observe what you see. Talk to him to find the answers to the questions above. And then listen—not to what you want the answers to be, but to what your child is saying. Just listen to him. Respect his answers, even if you disagree.

5. Choose which door you want to enter. Imagine two doors. Door number one is for the parent who wants to get their kids motivated and do the right thing in life: Get up, go to school, get their work done, be successful. Door number two is for parents who want their kids to be self-motivated to do those things. They want to influence their child to work toward the things they’re interested in. To not only do the right thing but to want to do the right things.

Which door would you enter? If it’s door number one, then the way to achieve that goal is push, punish, beg, nag, bribe, reward, and cajole. If you decide on door number two, then you'll reach that goal by asking different kinds of questions. Rather than, “Did you get your homework done?” you might say, “Why did you decide to do your homework today and not yesterday? I noticed you chose not to do geometry yesterday, but you’re doing your history homework today. What’s the difference?” Be an investigator, exploring and uncovering, helping your child discover his own motivations and sticking points.

Related: How to stop nagging, yelling and fighting with your unmotivated child.

6. It’s not your fault. Remember, your child’s lack of motivation is not your fault, so don’t personalize it. When you do this, you may actually contribute to the underachieving by creating more resistance.

Look at it this way. If you look too closely in the mirror, you can’t really see yourself—it’s just a blur. But when you get farther away, you actually see yourself more clearly. Do the same thing with your child. Sometimes we’re just so close, so enmeshed, that we just can’t see them as separate from us. But if you can stand back far enough, you can actually start to see your child as his own person and start to find out what makes him tick—and then you’ll be able to help him understand himself as well. When you step back and observe, you’ll know what works for him, why he’s reaching for certain things and what really gets him moving. There will be things he’s never going to be motivated to do but is still required to them. He may hate doing his chores and try to get out of it, and that’s when you give him consequences.

The goal is to influence your child when he has to do something he doesn’t want to do, and get to know him well enough to figure out what his own desires might be. As a parent, you want to strengthen his skills in defining what’s important to him. You want to help your child define for himself who he is, what’s important to him and what he’s going to do to make those things happen. Our responsibility is to help our kids do that, not to do it for them. We need to stay out of their way enough so they can figure out who they are, what they think and where their own interests lie.


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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

READER'S COMMENTS

very informative! Thank you so much.

Comment By : Alyce

I like your idea and it is very knowledge suggestion, I'll try to calm myself and motivated him. However, every time when he is not doing his homework and get low grade, I'll be very frustrated and not able to control myself and scream at him. Because I feel it is my fault not able to raise a responsible and wise kid. I worry about his future.

Comment By : worried mom

I feel I have been going in the wrong direction when trying to motivate my son. I get so frustrated. Thank you for some insight.

Comment By : danamcd

This article didn't mention giving a reward for the child being self motivated. If kids are young, K and 2nd grade, is is wrong to reward them for a good report card? Are they old enough to see the future habit of getting "bad grades"?

Comment By : AZmomma

Thank you, Debbie, so much for this article! It is just what I needed to "hear" with regard to my unmotivated older teen. It was so helpful to realize that I need to inspire instead of trying to motivate. I was also greatly helped by your advice to not personalize my child's lack of motivation. I realize that I do consider his lack of motivation to be my fault. Thanks for giving me guidance when I needed it.

Comment By : TechMom

I love this article. The only issue I have is my son has been in resource since he was brought into foster care. With the No Child Left Behind laws there aren't any natural consequences. The teachers just adjust their grades and push them through school. As a adoptive parent we feel helpless. I will definitely try to inspire him but there isn't much that motivates this child.

Comment By : AdoptMom

I agree with AdoptMom, I've had guardianship of this child for 4 yrs. now. He is so used to his past guardian doing his work for him. With the No Child Left Behind a child can fail and never see the any consequences unless it comes from home. He has had an IEP since he was in 4th grade. Now in 10th. I go to the school to talk to teachers as the school wants us involved, but from this it seens I'm doing wrong when there are missing or failing grades. I'm just at wits end knowing what to do. As you said I just want the best for him. (I'm not doing his schoolwork for him as past guardians have!!!!!)

Comment By : The5thGuardian

* Dear AZmomma: I'm not a fan of star charts and rewards. However, I don't see anything wrong with saying to your child , "You put lots of effort into your schoolwork, you hung in there even when it was tough, and it paid off. You got good grades and you feel proud of yourself. Would you like to do something special to celebrate?" Keep in mind that the reward or celebration is just that - a celebration. It is not to be confused with the idea that by giving him this reward it will get him to be motivated. In my opinion, if a reward is after the fact, that's okay. A bribe, on the other hand, is attempting to get your kid to do something by hanging an award at the end of the stick - but that won't help him to develop intrinsic motivation. I hope this helps!

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

* To ĎBrynnsmomí: Thank you for your question. Debbieís idea that you canít motivate a child to care certainly applies to kids with ADHD. Itís still important to hold your son accountable just as you would if he did not have ADHD. Regarding kids with ADHD, Debbie stresses the importance of really understanding your child and his specific needs, and keeping your expectations of him realistic. Itís also important to coach your child and to help him recognize his own needs, limits, and triggers. For example, itís important to help him recognize how much stimulation is too much for him to handle, when he needs to stop and take a break from it, etc. On a final note, ďself-motivated rather than mom-motivatedĒ was very well put. What a great way to say it! Keep up all the great work and take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

* To "The 5th Guardian": This is a common difficulty. I can empathize with the struggle that often happens: the responsibility for the childís work keeps getting laid on someone elseóand in this case, it sounds like itís you. I think that, along with holding your foster son accountable, you can hold the school accountable in some ways, too. When they call you in, you can insist that your foster child comes with you so you can all talk about whatís going on. This way, the responsibility isnít just put on you. Look at the IEP and see what he realistically has problems withóand work with the school to help him where he needs help. Part of what the meeting should cover is what the expectations are for your foster son. Talk about what the school will do, what your son will do, and what you will do. Maybe youíll decide to check in with your foster childís teachers every week to see how itís going. You might check off his assignments each day on a special form, for example. Work with the teachers, who should be doing the same on their end. In this way youíre helping your foster son be more organized, but youíre not doing his homework for him. When he hasnít completed assignments, there will hopefully be a consequence from the school. On your end, set up a plan that heís clear on. Let him know what the consequences will be if he doesnít study or complete assignments. Letís say he wonít get his weekend time, cell phone time or computer time until his homework is doneóand follow through. Remember, now that you have this child, you have to work to change this system. He will probably fight back as you start holding him accountable, since in the past other foster parents havenít done so. But itís now your chance to take charge. Your job is to help him do his job.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

My son is currently a Freshman in HS. He is so unmotivated!! He is in several honors classes and is very smart when he wants to be. However for the last several years he will not do his homework and many times does it, but never turns it in. Therefore his grades suffer accordingly. His test scores and assignments he chooses to do all reflect A and B grades. Same thing, no consequences at school only at home. He is involved in sports but seems to skate by when they check grades. Finally in HS on the Football team I am hoping he will keep his grades up but NO.....he breaks his leg in a pre season game so not being elegible is no big deal for him cuz he can't play anyway. I can't keep worrying about him can I? BTW, he is a good kid who gets occasional D's when I know he is capable of much more. Maybe I am just expecting too much of my teenager.

Comment By : Mama B

I do all the things you've told parents not to do. I can understand exactly how Mama B's feeling. My husband keeps advising me to stop trying to 'talk' our son into doing things and that he has to find his own fire. I am writing to you to commit myself to follow your suggestions and my husband's advise. Thank you for a very insightful article.

Comment By : NagMom

Thank you so much for your article. It is very informative and gave me alot of pointers on going about a more positive way to motivate my child. Can a child be unmotivated even at the age of 8 or 9? May the lack of motivation for school be because he/she has a difficult time with a specific subject(s)and feels frustrated to accomplish the assignments asked to do? Do you see this unmotivation for school more in boys than girls? My son is 8 and he would rather play or get distracted with something before doing his work. I know school doesn't come easy for him. There is a lot of work and doing more at home is tiresome and frustrating to him. Consequences are given when he doesn't get his work done, and he seems to do better when he knows there is a reward at the end of the semester, year, etc. I am just worried that if he is feeling like this at 8 will it get worse as he gets older and the work gets harder. Thanks for taking the time to help me out with these questions. Jus reading your article made me feel better about what I am already doing and what I need to work on.

Comment By : aworriedmom

When my 13 year old son came to live with me at age 2, he could barely walk and was non-verbal. Life has been one struggle after another for him. After primary grades, school wore him down because he just didn't understand. I am starting to believe his lack of motivation has become a habit born of his inability to achieve success in most of the childhood opportunities. I have tried sports, school, social activities, arts, etc., all to no avail. I think I need to work harder at being a stronger role model and encouraging him to work alongside me until he builds a sense of his own ability to accomplish tasks. What we previously called "creative non-compliance" in his early years is heading down the line to passive-aggression in adulthood.

Comment By : Mamajen

I am thankful I found this site and helpful articles. I have a son who is nearly 13 and we have run out of ideas on how to motivate him. We have tried a reward system which did not work, taking things away (electronics), and making him earn things. He is very smart, but similar to another post, either doesn't want to do his homework or doesn't turn it in. He does not have many friends and he basically refuses to do any chores. Every time there is something asked of him, it is a fight. He is a good boy, just lacks motivation for anything it seems. He doesn't want to be in any sports because he doesn't want to practice. The last few weeks he has seemed to become almost obsessed with food. As soon as he gets home he asks what's for dinner and then asks at least two times more before dinner. He eats more than he should, although we have been cutting down his portion sizes to be healthier for his age. We have had a problem with lying also. Laziness, lying, and disrespect are huge issues. When we take electronics away, it doesn't even seem to bother him. He reads or plays with other things. We are out of ideas on how to motivate him. When I ask why he didn't turn something in, he says, "I don't know" and he doesn't care. We have five kids in all and he is the oldest. He misbehavior is showing in the younger children. He calls names and now his 2 year old sister is repeating those things and a 4 year old sister began asking the other day "What's for dinner?" and she asked over and over all day. Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Comment By : stressedoutmom

* To 'stressedoutmom': The teen years can be such a struggle for many families. It sounds like you are dealing with a lot of issues with your son, with his schoolwork, chores, lying and disrespect. We do hear from many families who are trying to tackle the same issues, and it can be overwhelming to try to work on all of these at the same time. We advise parents to focus on one, or at most two, of the most pressing behavior issues you are dealing with. That way, you can concentrate on the biggest issue without feeling overwhelmed, and your son doesnít feel overwhelmed either. For example, if you wanted to focus on his lack of motivation, we do recommend having incentives for completing homework or chores, and holding him accountable to that. If he completes a chore without a fight, then he earns an incentive; if he doesnít, he doesnít. It is important to keep in mind that you are probably not going to be able to ďmake him care.Ē Rather, your focus should remain on holding him accountable for his choices with rewards and consequences. In terms of his eating patterns, overall, it is normal for an adolescent boy to seem to have nothing else on his mind other than food. If you are concerned about the amount of food he is eating, we encourage you to consult with his doctor. For more information about motivating kids, please see these articles:
Motivating Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says "I Don't Care"
Motivating Underachievers II: Get Your Unmotivated Child on Track before School Starts
"I'll Do It Later!"6 Ways to Get Kids to Do Chores Now
Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I enjoyed this article - very helpful. I am an academic tutor and addressing the motivation issue with my students is always a challenge. I do believe that there are ways to help a student care (though I agree with Ms. Wolfenden, you can't "make them"). My particularly satisfying tutoring experiences have been with the unmotivated ones who end up slowly coming around as we work. For some it has been helping them find their strengths with school work so they see themselves differently around academics. For others it has been taking apart the depth and beauty of an assigned poem or book passage together until they really get it and even (gasp!) like it. That can help light a small spark of interest - a place to begin.

Comment By : Sara Carbone

western society kids are very spoiled and self absorbed they have more stuff then people in their entire lives or entire families have in 3rd world countries want to motivate your child? stop giving them stuff! families that work, pray and do for others!!! stay together and are healthy minded individuals! kids that help the eldrely, volunteer will be naturally successful meaning happy as adults!

Comment By : karenl1234

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