Motivating the Unmotivated Child

By Katrina Rozga, MA

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Parents often complain to me that their child just isn’t motivated to do school work, whether it be in class or at home. Their child is “lazy” or “bored”, they tell me, and needs help improving his or her attitude towards school and learning. In my experience, this is rarely the case.

Children are naturally curious and try to do well. It is when they become discouraged that they give up and sink into what appears to be a state of bored indifference. Often, an apathetic child is actually a child who has lost belief in themselves, who feels overwhelmed, who has suffered a series of failures, or who has been told, in one way or another, that they can’t do it.

The solution, then, is to understand that these children need encouragement, not an old-fashioned attitude adjustment.

Constant criticism simply leads to a more demoralized child. They may try to hide their discouragement with defiant or rebellious behavior, shifting parent focus to behavioral matters, instead of to the root of the problem. Often, the child is blamed for their choices, such as prioritizing video games or cell phone usage, and other distractions from school work. Unfortunately, these diversionary tactics usually lead to punishment and further exacerbates the original problem.

Instead, encourage your child with realistic praise. Ensure your words of encouragement are based on fact, and are believable and achievable. Praise the work and the results you have seen, so your child to feels proud of what they have accomplished. Avoid listing all their positive attributes, telling them how smart they are, and constantly complimenting them. A demoralized child may not believe your effusive words and possibly feel worse for not living up to what they believe are your expectations.

It is important to find the underlying problem that has lead to your child feeling discouraged. Listen, and pay close attention to what your child is saying. Are they feeling self-critical or lacking the confidence to put in the effort? Or, do they feel guilty for not living up to expectations? It’s important for parents to see a lack of motivation as a symptom of discouragement, not laziness, so that whatever has caused it can be addressed.

Do a little detective work into their school work. Take a look at their academic successes and failures in recent months. If they’ve had a string of difficulties, interrupt that cycle and find a way for the child to have a positive academic experience where the praise will be accurate and earned. Make the experience interesting for the child, since interest is one of the greatest motivators out there.

Children are not inherently lazy. Most seek the praise and acceptance of their parents and want to do well in school and otherwise. So if your child appears unmotivated, consider the possibility that they are actually struggling, and need extra support and encouragement.

Parents also need to remain knowledgeable and open to signs of something deeper at play, such as anxiety, depression or learning difficulties, which can sometimes be masked by similar symptoms. A child with an underlying attention, mood or learning problem can feel like they’re putting in a large amount of effort but getting nowhere. If you have any suspicions that your child may need help, seek a professional’s advice. The well-being of your child is the most important factor in the end.

This article was originally published in the SCMP Education Post.