“My child is not motivated to do anything” is a common complaint from frustrated parents. Although it is typical for kids to be unmotivated about things they don’t like, it is not normal for them to be unmotivated to do anything. Let’s find out the reasons behind and what parents can do to help.
Why my child is unmotivated
There are many reasons why a child is completely not motivated, but “lazy” is usually NOT one of them. Science tells us that a lack of motivation has something to do with insufficient impact of neurotransmitters called dopamine1.
Things that can lower the effectiveness of the dopamine system include:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)3
- Mental disorders such as depression4,5
- Substance abuse6
How to motivate a child who doesn’t care
First, find out if your child doesn’t care about only certain things, or most things
If your kid is not motivated only about certain things, e.g. doing homework, but otherwise engages in healthy pastimes, then you can help them discover what motivates them and make the best use of their passion to boost their dopamine level.
Second, rule out the possibilities of mental disorders or drug abuse
If your child is not motivated about anything, pay attention to their behavior and mental states. If you suspect mental issues or substance abuse, seek professional help as soon as possible. It is very hard, if not impossible, for your child to “pull themselves together” if they’re dealing with these issues.
Third, help reduce the stress in your child’s life
Even if your child isn’t visibly stressed, they can still be dealing with any number of stressors internally. Find out what those stressors are and help your child remove them.
Here are some common stressors kids face.
1. Chronic stress from parent’s nagging and yelling
Unfortunately, the most common stress for kids comes from their well-intentioned parents.
This is how it usually starts…
When a child appears unmotivated, their concerned parents try to fix it. They may start with encouraging and nudging, which quickly turns into nagging and then punishing. A child who only dislikes homework at the beginning now struggles to find motivation to do anything because of the chronic stress.
This problem is rampant during distance learning.
In March of 2020, the world went upside down when schools were suddenly closed and students forced to start distance learning with no preparation. They couldn’t go outside to play or see their friends. It was a very stressful experience for children.
Many kids were unmotivated and couldn’t focus in class. Anxious parents started hovering over their zoom classes, monitoring their homework and nagging them to study. Imagine the amount of stress they experienced. Eventually, they lost interest in almost everything. When parents tried even harder to fix it, the kids became more withdrawn. It was a vicious cycle.
If you have been hovering over your child’s shoulders during distance learning, you already know that does not motivate your child.
Parents should RELAX and LET GO.
Decades of studies have confirmed that autonomy is an innate biological need in humans7. Your child will not develop intrinsic motivation they need to succeed in life as long as you keep trying to control their learning and stressing them out.
Not only will they fail in school, the chronic stress will make them lose motivation in doing anything. In the long term, chronic stress can lead to depressive and anxiety symptoms8.
It is scary for parents to let go.
When you let go, your kid may fail for a semester, or for the academic year. But the temporary setback will allow your child to exercise their autonomy and learn the real consequence of their action.
Failing sooner is always better than later. That’s when they can own their education. Your child cannot do that if you keep making decisions for them, not to mention the stress depleting their motivation.
How to Motivate Kids in Distance Learning
Distance Learning Resources
2. School performance stress
Falling behind in school is already stressful enough even though your child may not show it. If that happens, don’t add onto it by micro-managing your child’s study.
Research has found that children view parental involvement such as helping, monitoring, and decision making as indicative of incompetence leading to a loss in self-confidence, which again is stressful and doesn’t help the situation9.
Be a supportive parent who provides encouragement and guidance when needed.
If your child is struggling in school, the best thing to do is to talk to them. Find out if there’s anything you can help them with. Do they need your help in removing distractions, time management, organization, etc.? Offer help and accept it if they refuse. They need to be in the driver’s seat of their future.
Also find out if they are having trouble in school. Do they not get along with a particular teacher or classmate? Is your child being bullied? All these problems can affect your child’s motivation, too.
3. Social stress
For many children, especially adolescent girls, navigating the intricate social scene is a huge stressor.
Because of the amount of time spent with peers and the importance of close interpersonal relationships during early adolescence, social stress becomes particularly salient as a threat to not only motivation, but also psychological well-being10.
Social stress can come from peers or from the experience of pubertal changes. Peer rejection and victimization have been consistently associated with psychological issues in adolescents11.
While parents cannot alleviate their child’s social stress directly, they can certainly lend a sympathetic ear. Being able to hear your child and be there for them no matter what is a huge part of raising well-adjusted children. You can also monitor your child’s social circle in a non-intrusive way to make sure they friends are not associated with deviant behavior such as delinquency, drinking, drug abuse, etc.12.
Allow dopamine-promoting activities
Remember the video games that you hate seeing your child play all the time? It’s actually your kid’s unconscious attempt to boost the dopamine level in their brain13. It makes them feel better. That’s why when you nag about your kid’s gaming, they will play more to replenish their lost motivation. So don’t counteract that good effect by nagging about it.
Parents are often worried about their kids’ addiction to video games. An addiction involves a lack of control over a particular activity to the point of causing harms. If your kid can put down the game console and join the family for dinner, then your child is not addicted.
Video gaming is not bad when done in moderation. A study conducted at Oxford University has found that a moderate level of video game playing (less than 3 hours) does not pose negative effects14.
Besides basic needs such as food and safety, humans are motivated by the desire to have autonomy, competence and relatedness15. Video games, especially multiplayer games, can provide all of those. Players have complete control over the character, they feel accomplished through winning and they can relate to other players.
If you are worried about their excessive playing (more than 3 hours a day), discuss with your child rationally about overuse. Ask your child to come up with a reasonable limit. They have to know that this is done for their well-being, not your need to control.
You can also help your child find other passion and hobbies to get those dopamine boosters. The keyword here is “help”, not “make”. Ultimately, our goal in parenting is to help kids learn to self-regulate so that they will do the right thing even when we’re not around. Allow your child to have control over their own lives and they’ll regain motivation to engage in everyday activities.
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