How To Motivate A Child Who Is Unmotivated

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It takes a mixture of many good parenting and teaching skills to help motivate a child who is unmotivated. In this post, I will be talking about general rules for motivating and inspiring your children. Some of the rules are more suitable for certain ages but the general principles can be adjusted to almost any age. The tips towards the end are more suitable for older kids/teens.

1- Build confidence and practice acceptance:

I remember reading a quote similar to “be your child’s biggest fan!”. We start off doing a good job when they are babies or toddlers. When they say their first word or walk their first few steps, we are amazed, we cheer on and celebrate. With time, we get a bit more critical and there is a lot more “parenting” and directing and less praise. The unmotivated child might have good reasons that they can't communicate or unaware of. Your child will notice when you your tone of voice changes, when you look at them differently, he or she is very sensitive when it comes to your opinion. Even if your kid says and acts like they don’t care about your opinion, they do. We all need to feel seen, heard and loved.
Let them know that you appreciate how hard they are working, tell your children you are proud of them    and focus on their strengths and build up on that. Not just through words but also through actions.

2- Give them rewards:

Reward them both emotionally and also by getting them gifts, stickers, buying them stuff, etc. Emotional rewards and praise are better. Keep in mind that if you reward everything with candy or toys, it might become a habit that is difficult to break. Using rewards all the time is probably risky and unhelpful on the long term.

3- Spend time together:

This is also related to the above point of showing them you appreciate them. Give them some of your most precious of all: time. Can you attend a game they are playing? Can you set some time for both of you to go out and have some fun? Can you spend some time when you are at home to LISTEN to what they want to say instead of being too busy watching the news?

4- What motivates your child?

Most children will have passions or things they get excited about. They are not just lazy. If they already have a healthy curiosity towards something, try to nurture this and encourage them to learn more about it and excel in it. It might become their profession or lifelong hobby! It is much easier this way as the motivation is already coming from within.

But some children are not easily motivated. In fact, because some children are rebellious by nature, trying to directly motivate them may backfire! As the leader of the (Learning how to learn) course, Barb Oakley told her story of when she engaged with maths in school, only when she was left to her own devices and other than that she would always do the opposite of whatever her teacher was saying. The best option in this case would be to use indirect ways and give the child a sense of choice to get them engaged. The more obvious and direct you are, the more those children might refuse or ignore the "task".

5- Lead by example:

When your child asks you a question, tell her “I don’t know the answer, but let’s find out”. Let them see you show curiosity and how you would go about finding your answer or trying to fix that toy, etc. This is very useful in everyday practical problems and you could also allow them to give you a hand.

Photo of school girl student writing on board
Photo by Nikhita S on Unsplash

 6- Help them set goals:

Does your kid dream of being an engineer, a writer,  a musician? Try help him set some goals both short term and long term and what he would do in order to achieve those goals. Help them set reminders (don’t do it for them) for themselves such as posters in their room or notes on their desks/phones, etc.  Don’t worry too much if they change their dreams when they are young. You can tell them to think of it as an experiment, you learn from it and you move on.
A word about studying: exams and marks are stressful for most kids. Even if you are not discussing it with them, they already have the stress from their teachers and peers.

Rather than focusing entirely on that end result, try to help them also focus on learning as a process and an experience in itself. See how they prefer to learn and do things and try to make it fun for them. Help them look at studying as a way to achieve their goals. It is also helpful to break goals goals into smaller ones and start with small realistic, achievable goals to build up confidence. Motivation comes from action, the satisfaction from achieving small goals will motivate your child.

7- Help build resilience:

We have been in situations or have seen other people fail not because they are incapable of doing something or lacking intelligence but because they can’t persevere. They break quickly and lack “grit” or resilience. If your child fails the first time at something but you know they can do it, do not do it for them. Acknowledge how difficult this is for them and that it must be frustrating, but encourage them and tell them you have confidence in them. Don’t rush in with solutions or to help them straight away and let them try again, maybe give a little push if they need it. You might have to eventually help them do it but at least they have done their bit.

8- Give them a choice:

Children like to feel in control, they mostly don’t like dealing with uncertainty. If your child is also particularly rebellious, it is going to be more difficult to convince them to do something someone else chose or suggested for them.
When you give them a choice you are allowing for autonomy but also giving them a chance to learn the process of analyzing different options and then learning from their choices (obviously, without allowing anything risky or dangerous).  For young children or when discussing things you cannot negotiate, you may not want to give too many or open choices. For example, if it is about tidying up their room, they can do it now, or in an hour, you get the idea.

9- Discuss values (teens/adolescents):

This will depend on how old is your child but in my opinion you could tweak this so it is suitable for different ages. What is THE most important thing (or 3, or 5 things!) that they care about? Family? Friend? Going to a specific university? Whenever they need to make a choice or they feel unmotivated, they can think about these values and decide based on this what they should do.

10- Make studying a habit:

If your aim is to motivate your child to study when she is unmotivated, you might find yourself having to argue or fight every time. Try to change the way you approach the subject and maybe sit with your child and agree a fixed daily time for studying in a certain place in the house. Then remind them about it until they get things done. You might have to do that every day, every time but without fighting. This helps create a habit.

I hope this helps. There isn't manual for raising kids and each of them is unique so please share with us in the comments below if you have any tips, ideas or questions about motivating children.

Thank you,


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