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Motivating the Unmotivated Child

One of the most frustrating things parents, teachers, or other adults deal with is helping an unmotivated child; seeing the potential or ability of a child that is refusing to use it. This can lead to power struggles, acting out from the child, and frustration or anger from the parent, all of which furthers nothing but to push the child farther away from motivation. These children are often unique in their needs for structure and therefore traditional techniques will not work, but there are techniques that will work. It can be a process of trial and error as you find what works for both you and the child, but it is possible.

Address One Behavior at a Time

Attempting to change all of a child’s behaviors at once would be just as overwhelming for them and you as changing all of your behaviors. In order to be the most successful you must ease into a plan. Identify one key behavior that is the most problematic or impacts their life the most. Then address that. As you both build success in improving this one target area, add another one. Add things in a way that show success and build motivation intrinsically. If you are setting a goal to get homework done at an assigned time or in a certain amount of time, don’t also add chores at the same time. Adding too much responsibility and by default removing too much freedom at once feels like a punishment, overwhelms a child, and works against building motivation because they will rebel to gain that freedom back that they want.

Identify and Address What the Child is Trying to Say with the Behavior

Kids behavior often speaks louder than their words. They are driven by their emotions and cannot always express them verbally. The only option left is through actions. Take the time to try to understand what is driving the lack of motivation. A lack of motivation to do what you want them to, i.e. homework, could be because they want power and are in fact motivated to resist. It is a way of them gaining some sense of control in a life they have very little control over as a child. They could be struggling to do the work but not want to admit it. They could be being bullied at school. They could be anxious or depressed. They could like seeing the result of refusing or appearing unmotivated and just want to take in any attention they can get. Finding the root cause of the lack of motivation will help figure out a path to tackle it and build motivation.

Don’t Criticize

A lack of motivation in a child can be extremely frustrating for an adult, which can lead to the adult not always doing or saying the right thing. This is okay, we are only human after all. However, as hard as it is not to lapse into criticism, it is vital not too. One episode of criticism can derail any and all progress that has been being made. These can come in the form of put downs, name calling, negative directions, or accusations. No matter the form, they break down a child’s self-esteem and deteriorate motivation because they don’t believe they can do better. An adult criticizing simply reinforces their internal doubts and negative beliefs.

Corrections are needed at times and it can be perceived by a child as a criticism. In order to balance this, it is important to praise and offer positive feedback whenever possible. This way, when appropriate critique, correction, or direction is given, it will minimize the negative impact on the child’s self-esteem.

Correct Negative Behavior AND Reward Positive Behavior

It is important to find a healthy balance between correcting or consequencing negative behavior and rewarding positive behavior. It is one thing to have a child lose television time because they did not follow through on getting their homework done, but to balance that out, successes, even small ones, need to be rewarded. Rewards will build motivation because as the child sees success their self-esteem builds up and they want to continue to build and feel that positive feeling. To learn more on this read: Balancing Rewards and Consequences in Parenting

Be Patient

Raising kids, teaching kids, or even just helping kids is rewarding and wonderful, it is also a very difficult job. Give yourself come credit and remember that nobody expects you to be perfect. You will make mistakes but you will also have many successes. That being said, patience is key, with yourself and with the child. Becoming angry at either will only work against you. Allow room for both of you to make mistakes and build back up. It’s a team effort, even if it feels like as the adult you are doing all the work.

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