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Ask Debbie: How to Motivate Your Child to do Better in School

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

There’s almost nothing as frustrating as dealing with a child or teen who’s unmotivated. You reason, plead, threaten and even fight with them, but nothing you say seems to sink in or make a difference. In fact, the more you push, the less motivated they seem to become! Here’s a secret: Even though you can’t make your child care, as a parent, you can influence them to follow through on their responsibilities.

My number one rule for dealing with lack of motivation is, “Step back, stay in, and step out.”

Unmotivated Child? Join the Club!

One of the top things parents ask me about is how to motivate their kids who don’t seem to care about anything. This is a tough one, because it’s nerve-wracking and frustrating to see our kids “under-function.” We often feel their lack of motivation—about school, chores, responsibilities, you name it—is a poor reflection on our parenting. So we get reactive and shift into overdrive. We might come down harder on them or sometimes actually “over-function” by completing their work for them – anything to avoid our own feelings of shame, embarrassment, failure or fear.

And here’s the clincher – the more you react to your kid’s lack of motivation by jumping into a power struggle with him, the more he will react to your intensity, which causes things to go further and further downhill. As Bowen said about parenting, “You can’t get a bean to grow by pulling on it—you can provide sunshine and water, however.”

Once you recognize that your child’s lack of motivation is less of a “problem” in him and more a “problem” between you (as long as any mood disorders or medical issues have been ruled out) you can relax knowing it will be easier to change your behavior than to motivate him to change his.

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Ask Debbie: A Tale of Three Kids

My number one rule for dealing with lack of motivation is, “Step back, stay in, and step out.” This means you need to “step back” and realize where the problem and responsibility lie. “Stay in” by giving consequences and guiding your child toward better behavior. And finally, “step out” of your child’s box and let them make their own choices in life, as long as health and safety issues aren’t involved,even when you see they might be making a mistake.

Here are some recent questions I received from three sets of parents who are battling lack of motivation in their kids:

The Class Clown:

Dear Debbie,
All my 9-year-old son wants to do is play and goof around. He doesn’t care about school at all, and is basically the “class clown.” Last year, his teacher called me numerous times about my son’s behavior (he was disruptive, didn’t participate in class, and often disrespectful). How can I motivate a kid like this to care about school? Parents have warned me that the work will get harder this year (he’s going into 4th grade), and I’m concerned he’ll get left behind.

—Parents of the Class Clown

Dear Parents of the Class Clown: It’s hard when your child is rewarded for bad behavior—in this case, I’m guessing your son is being rewarded by the other kids who are laughing when he acts crazy in class. My advice is to let him know what you expect of him. (This is the “stay in” part.) Be clear, firm and matter of fact – take the emotionality out of the equation. Then provide the necessary consequences and back off. (“Step back.”) Always keep in mind that this is his life, not yours, and that you can’t control what he does—you can only control your response to his behavior. (Step out of his box.)

I would also advise that you avoid trying to get him to “care” about school. Even though it might feel like it’s your responsibility to do that, it’s not. You didn’t mention if you’d tried talking to him about his clowning behavior and the appropriate way to act in class. You might outline what respectful behavior looks like (not interrupting the teacher, not making jokes at others expense, knowing when it’s okay to act goofy and when you have to quiet down and be more focused, etc.) You might also ask him to write the teacher an apology when you get notes telling you he is disruptive in the classroom. And, also let him know that you expect him to show you his completed work before being allowed to play with friends.

Middle Schooler “Hates School”

Dear Debbie:
My daughter constantly says she “hates school.” She’s going into 7th grade, and has a bad reputation already with the teachers for being mouthy and defiant. The only thing she seems to care about is Twitter, Instagram and texting her friends. She won’t get up on time in the morning, drags her feet and then gets into fights with me because she says she doesn’t have anything to wear.  Last year, we had screaming fights almost every morning and I ended up driving her to school because she was always late for the bus. I’m a single working mom, so this is having a big impact on my job. I don’t want to repeat the pattern this year. What can I do?”

—Mom at the End of Her Rope

Dear Mom at the End of Her Rope:  The first thing you need to let go of is trying to get your daughter to “like” school. That’s in her court. (Here’s where you “step out.”—it’s not your responsibility to make her like it.) But you can hold her accountable to “do school” whether she likes it or not. (“Stay in” by holding her accountable.) By calming down about her negative behaviors—along with having clear, well thought-out consequences—it will help her to be responsible and accountable. Your calm guidance will prevent her from being a recipient of your anxiety. (This is how you “step back.”) Always keep in mind that this is her life—and in the end she’s the one who has to live with the consequences of her choices.

Suggestion: You might choose to take away her electronics if she is using them in place of getting her work done. “Doing school” means putting a reasonable amount of effort in to her studies. That means going to her teachers for extra help, turning in assignments on time, bringing home necessary books, studying for tests, and being respectful in class. When this effort is made, then she is free to go to social events or whatever else she would like—but not until.

For the trouble with the morning routine, remember that generally she needs to sweat more than you in the mornings. She has to live with the consequence of being late to school if she decides to drag her feet – you should not suffer the consequence by being late to work!

What this means: If she is not at the car by the time you expect, she either has to walk, get a ride from a friend’s parent, take a taxi (if available) or finish getting dressed in the car. None of this should become a battle—remember, “you don’t have to attend every fight you’re invited to,” as James Lehman says. Stay calm and avoid getting sucked into the power struggle.

Finally, work on developing a relationship with your daughter in which you discuss and plan together how to make the mornings work better while being clear and calm about your bottom line.

Father of a Smart but Unmotivated Teen

Dear Debbie:
My 16-year-old son is smart as a whip but lacks motivation. He’s always saying “Why should I do my homework, I’m going to be a video game developer” but he doesn’t see the connection between doing math and science and getting into college and getting a job someday. I was the first person to go to college in my family, and I know the value of working hard for what you want in life, so this kills me. My wife says I’m too hard on him and that I criticize him too much, but it’s hard to keep my mouth shut. He’s going into his junior year, which is the time he really has to start thinking about taking his SATs and applying to college, but he just shrugs when we mention it. How can we make him start applying himself and trying harder?”

—Frustrated Dad

Dear Frustrated Dad:
I can hear the frustration in your voice—part of that might be some unfinished business you’re bringing to the table. Since you were the first one to go to college in your family, you probably can’t understand why your son doesn’t see the value of a good education. As hard as it will be at first, “Step out” by letting go of your end of the tug of war rope. Don’t try to “get” him motivated—that’s up to him. It won’t work and will probably just backfire if you try to make him care. Instead, “stay in” by letting him know your hopes for his future. Find out what his own goals are and help him make a plan as to how he can reach them. Appeal to his self-interests. If you can, try to arrange for him to talk to someone in the video game field, or take him to a conference where he might meet some software developers. (His school guidance counselor might have some ideas about this, too.) You want to remind your son that you are there to support his dreams. “Step back” by letting him know what he can expect from you financially (and otherwise) if he decides not to apply himself toward a job or college in the future.

At the same time, let him know your expectations in the present while he’s in high school and living under your roof. You might expect that he puts a certain amount of time and effort into his work each day, for example—otherwise he will not have use of your car, money or electronics. In this way, you’re setting up realistic expectations for him now and for the future.

Try to calm your own anxiety around this, too. Stay away from criticisms of your son and instead accentuate his strengths. Reflected back through your eyes, he should see your deep belief and faith in him.

I always say, “Guide kids, don’t ride them.” If your reaction to your child’s lack of caring is to try to get him to care – stop trying. Get busy caring more about your own goals and direction. Show your child how to achieve his dreams by realistically setting goals and following through on them in your own life.

Frustrated with Your Unmotivated Child? Ask Yourself These Questions:

To get out of this power struggle with your child and help motivate her to manage her life and responsibilities, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Am I caring and worrying about things that my child should be caring and worrying about? Is he a recipient of the anxiety I’m carrying, and does that contribute to his acting out?
  2. How can I get calmer about her and her schoolwork? What will it take for me to get off her back and instead relate to her?
  3. Is there any evidence that the way I am reacting to his lack of motivation is actually helping him?
  4. Is there any unfinished business in my life that’s causing me to overinvest my energy toward her?

Kids will get more motivated when you “step out,” and they will grow up when you get out of their way. They will learn to manage themselves, their lives and their responsibilities when they really “get” that their life belongs to them and to no one else.

2 comments

About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

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.

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