Many parents wonder how to motivate a child who is unmotivated. Trying different motivational strategies sometimes feels like throwing spaghetti at the wall. But if you understand how motivation is formed in the brain, you can systematically identify what can motivate your child.
Why is my child unmotivated
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. 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
- Traumas such as abuse, natural disasters, violence and death of a loved one4.
- Mental disorders such as depression5,6
- Substance addiction7
My son (or daughter) is not motivated to do anything
1) Find out if they have no motivation to do anything or just something
If your child is not motivated to do anything, first, find out if they are really not interested in anything, or if they are just not interested in things you want them to be interested in.
If your child doesn’t care about doing homework or household chores but otherwise engages in other activities such as chatting with friends or playing video games, then you do have a real motivation problem here.
However, if indeed your child doesn’t want to do anything, especially hygiene, then something else might be going on and you need to pay more attention to figure out what’s causing it.
2) Observe your child’s mental state
If your child lacks motivation in everything, spend some time observing their behavior.
Look for signs of mental issues such as depression or anxiety.
Anhedonia, the lack of interest or pleasure in response to pleasant experiences, is a symptom of depression.
If you suspect your child has mental issues, 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. No motivational strategy or pep talk will work with these medical conditions.
3) Pay attention to your child’s behavior
Find out if drug addiction plays a role in your child’s lack of motivation.
Also find out if they are dealing with issues such as abuse or violence that you are not aware of. Sometimes, kids are too afraid to tell their parents when they encounter these situations. They may also be threatened by the abuser to not tell anyone.
If a child is dealing with problems like these, schoolwork will not be something they care about at all.
4) Check your child’s ability to concentrate
Children who have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) often come off as lazy and unmotivated.
Not every kid with ADHD shows symptoms of hyperactivity. Some ADHD kids are predominantly inattentive and they are harder to spot, and therefore usually don’t get the help they need.
Therefore, if you notice your child has problem focusing, check with a psychiatrist or your child’s physician. Lack of concentration can also be a symptom of depression8. You can also ask the teachers in school to screen for any learning disorders.
Motivation strategies alone will likely be ineffective for ADHD children or those with learning difficulties.
5) Reduce stress in your child’s life
Stress is the most common demotivator.
After #1-4 are checked and ruled out, work on reducing stress in the family life. Also, equip your child with coping skills.
Even if your child isn’t visibly stressed, they can still be dealing with any number of stressors internally.
Here are some common stressors kids face in daily life.
a. 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, punishing or giving artificial consequences. 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 either engaged in power struggles or became more withdrawn. It gets worse and worse.
If you have been hovering over your child’s shoulders during distance learning, you already know that does not motivate your child.
Adopt a RELAX and LET GO parenting approach.
Decades of studies have confirmed that autonomy is an innate biological need in humans9. 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 symptoms10.
It is scary for parents to let go.
Your child may experience setbacks. But the temporary setback will allow your kid 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.
b. 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 studying.
Researchers have 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 situation11.
Be a supportive parent and raise your child’s self-esteem by praising or providing 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.
c. 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-being12.
Social stress can come from peer pressure or from the experience of pubertal changes. Peer rejection and victimization have been consistently associated with psychological issues in adolescents13.
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.14.
6) Find out what motivates your child
Motivation is complicated because…
human brains are complex!
If you search on the Internet, you will find list after list of things that you can try to see if they will motivate your child. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the wall to see which sticks.
This approach most likely won’t work and will create frustration for you and your child.
Instead, you can systematically find out which motivates your child.
7) 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 brain15. 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 effects16.
Besides basic needs such as food and safety, humans are motivated by the desire to have autonomy, competence and relatedness17. 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 goals 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 become motivated to engage in everyday activities.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate in learning.
Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.
- 1.Wise RA. Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nat Rev Neurosci. Published online June 2004:483-494. doi:10.1038/nrn1406
- 2.Di Chiara G, Loddo P, Tanda G. Reciprocal changes in prefrontal and limbic dopamine responsiveness to aversive and rewarding stimuli after chronic mild stress: implications for the psychobiology of depression. Biological Psychiatry. Published online December 1999:1624-1633. doi:10.1016/s0006-3223(99)00236-x
- 3.Swanson JM, Flodman P, Kennedy J, et al. Dopamine genes and ADHD. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Published online January 2000:21-25. doi:10.1016/s0149-7634(99)00062-7
- 4.Dyregrov A. Educational consequences of loss and trauma. Educational and child psychology. Published online 2004.
- 5.Dailly E, Chenu F, Renard CE, Bourin M. Dopamine, depression and antidepressants. Fundam Clin Pharmacol. Published online December 2004:601-607. doi:10.1111/j.1472-8206.2004.00287.x
- 6.Nestler EJ, Carlezon WA Jr. The Mesolimbic Dopamine Reward Circuit in Depression. Biological Psychiatry. Published online June 2006:1151-1159. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2005.09.018
- 7.Volkow ND, Fowler JS, Wang G-J, Swanson JM. Dopamine in drug abuse and addiction: results from imaging studies and treatment implications. Mol Psychiatry. Published online April 6, 2004:557-569. doi:10.1038/sj.mp.4001507
- 8.Boschloo L, van Borkulo CD, Borsboom D, Schoevers RA. A Prospective Study on How Symptoms in a Network Predict the Onset of Depression. Psychother Psychosom. Published online 2016:183-184. doi:10.1159/000442001
- 9.Vlachopoulos SP, Michailidou S. Development and Initial Validation of a Measure of Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness in Exercise: The Basic Psychological Needs in Exercise Scale. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science. Published online September 2006:179-201. doi:10.1207/s15327841mpee1003_4
- 10.Parihar VK, Hattiangady B, Kuruba R, Shuai B, Shetty AK. Predictable chronic mild stress improves mood, hippocampal neurogenesis and memory. Mol Psychiatry. Published online December 15, 2009:171-183. doi:10.1038/mp.2009.130
- 11.Pomerantz EM, Eaton MM. Developmental differences in children’s conceptions of parental control: “They love me, but they make me feel incompetent.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly. 2000;46(1):140–167.
- 12.Sontag LM, Graber JA, Brooks-Gunn J, Warren MP. Coping with Social Stress: Implications for Psychopathology in Young Adolescent Girls. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online May 9, 2008:1159-1174. doi:10.1007/s10802-008-9239-3
- 13.Deater‐Deckard K. Annotation: Recent Research Examining the Role of Peer Relationships in the Development of Psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online July 2001:565-579. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00753
- 14.Brown BB, Mounts N, Lamborn SD, Steinberg L. Parenting Practices and Peer Group Affiliation in Adolescence. Child Development. Published online April 1993:467. doi:10.2307/1131263
- 15.Koepp MJ, Gunn RN, Lawrence AD, et al. Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature. Published online May 1998:266-268. doi:10.1038/30498
- 16.Przybylski AK. Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Adjustment. PEDIATRICS. Published online August 4, 2014:e716-e722. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-4021
- 17.Deci EL, Ryan RM. The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry. Published online October 2000:227-268. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli1104_01