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It’s all about encouragement.

What motivates you? As adults, motivating factors for getting things done tend to be driven by responsibilities. If we don’t work, we can’t pay bills or afford to provide for ourselves or our families.

Children, however, don’t have these types of worries to be concerned with. And while it’s perfectly normal for children to lack motivation to do things they don’t enjoy, it’s not normal for a child to lack motivation to do anything at all.

How can you motivate an unmotivated child? In this article, we’ll explore the common characteristics of an unmotivated child, explore factors that can contribute to a child’s lack of motivation, coping mechanisms to help children and their parents and resources to help foster motivational growth. 

Characteristics of an Unmotivated Child

Lack of motivation is an issue that can impact anyone. However, an unmotivated child can be hard to motivate for obvious reasons. Trying to reason or level set with a child about why it’s important to do things like homework, clean up after themselves or eat a proper meal isn’t really an option. If a child decides they don’t want to do something, it can be very hard to motivate them to do otherwise. Here are a few other characteristics of an unmotivated child.

Your child chooses to engage in low-effort activities. If your child spends most of his or her time watching TV, playing video games or eating snacks, this can be a sign that your child lacks motivation.

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Your child lacks interest in almost everything. Your child questions the point of everything, from helping with tasks to doing their homework. Nothing is exciting to your child. 

They’re not paying attention in school. Not only do they lack focus in school but trying to talk to an unmotivated child about what they’re learning in school doesn’t yield any conversation. 

They blame others. Poor grades and lack of interest get blamed on their teachers, classmates or friends. An unmotivated child doesn’t take responsibility for their lack of motivation.

They have poor self-esteem. An unmotivated child may lack motivation due to the way they perceive themselves. For example, if they believe they are not smart, why should they try to excel at school? 

They constantly fight with you. Any request or suggestion made to your child ends up in a fight. An unmotivated child does not see the value in listening to instructions. This can also be present in their school environment as well. 

Why Is My Child Unmotivated?

Just like adults, sometimes a child lacks motivation simply because they don’t feel particularly motivated. However, there are some factors to consider that may be impacting your child’s motivation that deserve a closer look. Here are a few reasons why your child’s motivation may be lacking.

Stress

You may think that the stress of pushing your child to get good grades and excel would help motivate them. Actually, the opposite is true. An unmotivated child who’s under stress will feel unmotivated to make a change. This is due to the levels of dopamine in the brain that drop when we’re stressed out. Schoolwork, family issues, a new move or anything that’s disruptive to your child’s routine and environment can be a source of stress. The pandemic was one instance of stress that resulted in children becoming largely unmotivated. 

Learning disabilities

As a parent, it can be difficult to decipher whether children are not motivated to complete schoolwork because they don’t want to, or because they truly can’t. In some cases, unmotivated children are actually suffering from a learning disability that makes it difficult for them to excel at school. If your child has consistently underperformed at school, discussing evaluation options with their teacher may be a good step to take to help motivate an unmotivated child.

ADHD

Similarly, unmotivated children who have issues focusing on schoolwork as well as other activities at home may be suffering from ADHD. If your child consistently has trouble focusing on school, while playing and is easily distracted when trying to complete tasks, it may be beneficial to have them evaluated.

Sleep issues

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Now more than ever children are spending a large amount of time in front of screens. Whether it’s a TV, phone, iPad or video game, too much screen time during the day can lead to sleep issues at night. Not getting adequate sleep each night can lead to having an unmotivated child. 

Parenting issues

No parent likes to hear that they’re the cause of an issue with their children. However, controlling parenting styles have been linked to having unmotivated children. Children need encouragement, but they also need to learn how to be self-motivated. Being too controlling or overbearing can have the opposite effect. 

Lack of skills or understanding

If a task seems too arduous for a child, it can make a child feel unmotivated. After all, why start something when it seems impossible to finish? An unmotivated child may not feel motivated because they believe they lack the competency to complete the task – whether it’s a school assignment or even playing a game with their peers.

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression don’t just present in adults. Children are also susceptible to these disorders and being unmotivated can be a result of having either. If you suspect that your child may be struggling with anxiety or depression, it’s important to seek the help of a professional. This can either be through your child’s school psychologist or working with a psychologist that specializes in adolescent behavior. 

How to Motivate an Unmotivated Child

With some effort, patience and time, it’s possible to motivate an unmotivated child. Here are some strategies to help jumpstart motivation in your child.

Believe that your child wants to be successful

Even if it seems like this is not the case, the truth is we all want to achieve success. However, if your child constantly encounters failure, whether it be earning poor grades at school, struggling to make friends, not excelling in team activities or having a hard time making friends, their motivation to do so can take a dip. Just because a child is unmotivated doesn’t mean they don’t want to succeed or do a good job. They may just need encouragement. 

In order to help motivate an unmotivated child, create tasks or challenges that are achievable for your kid. What is your child inherently good at? For example, maybe your child isn’t motivated to make friends – but they play well with their siblings. Reward this behavior and challenge them to teach their siblings something new.

Get involved in your child’s interests

It may seem like your unmotivated child isn’t interested in anything. But if you take a close look at the things that interest your child, you may notice that they do have motivations — even if these things are low activity. For example, if your child watches certain YouTube creators, ask them more questions and get interested in what it is they enjoy about the content they’re consuming. Then, find opportunities to link tasks and skills to these interests. For example, if your child watches YouTube videos because they’re funny, explore age-appropriate books (even comic books) that will hold your child’s attention while improving their reading capabilities and increasing their vocabulary.

Skip the motivational speech

Explaining to your child why it’s important for them to change their behavior and do better is not an effective tactic to motivate children. Instead of focusing on your child’s lack of motivation and trying to talk it out, explore ways to improve in the future. Don’t talk at your child, ask questions about their performance and what they think they could do differently. This can also help identify why your child is unmotivated. If you ask what they can do better next time and they say they don’t know, it might very well be that they don’t believe they can improve – or don’t know the proper steps to take in order to get motivated. If this is the case, provide your child with support, and let them know you believe in them. Just because they haven’t figured out a way to be successful doesn’t mean they can’t in the future.

Remember that they’re still kids

As adults, we know why learning is important. But for kids, being asked to study a certain topic that doesn’t interest them can feel pointless. If you want to motivate your kids to learn, think about switching up the way you teach them about certain topics. For example, history may seem like a boring class when your teacher is reading out of a textbook or asking you to complete homework on something that happened long before you were born. But watching a movie on the topic can make history feel exciting and interesting. If your child has felt down about their past performance or lacks self-esteem, watching a movie with them on a topic they’ll be learning soon in school not only puts them ahead – but allows them to position themselves as an expert on the topic in front of classmates. 

Provide encouragement

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Trying to motivate an unmotivated child can be a stressful, frustrating experience for parents. But in order to change the behavior of an unmotivated child, it’s important to approach the situation with empathy, understanding and patience. If your child is feeling unmotivated because they have failed in the past, consider telling them about a time when you failed when you were their age. Or find stories of influencers/celebrities they look up to who have shared stories of setbacks to show your child that even people they look at as successful now have had to overcome failures. 

When providing encouragement for your unmotivated child, look for small wins rather than success. For example, did your child try a different approach to solve a problem? Even if they weren’t successful, acknowledging they did a good job coming at the challenge from a different angle can help motivate your unmotivated child. Or, maybe they put more effort into a reading assignment – but their latest test score didn’t change as much as you hoped. Showing support and offering encouragement even if your child hasn’t gotten it exactly right yet will go a long way in motivating your child to continue trying to improve.

Be willing to give up control

Kids spend almost all of their day listening to adults. They listen to teachers at school, then come home and listen to parents tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Your child’s lack of motivation may be due to not having a voice in any of the decisions that get made for them day after day. Teaching your kids to become self-motivated starts with allowing them to have some independence and agency over the activities they engage in each day. If you want to sit and eat dinner, ask them what they think you should make — then see if they’re willing to help. 

Identify your child’s strengths

What is your child inherently good at? It’s possible that you and your child are spending so much time on their shortcomings, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on what they are good at. When motivating an unmotivated child, this can be a powerful place to start. Acknowledging the talents or skills your child is good at — then leveraging them into other areas like certain school subjects — can help get your child motivated and interested in acting. 

Reduce the stress in your child’s environment

Stress is a demotivating factor – and if things have been stressful either at home or at school, this can be the issue that’s causing your child to become unmotivated. It’s not always possible to completely remove stress from a child’s life. But take a look at situations that are stressful for your child from day to day and see if there’s a way to reduce these stressors. This may involve changing your own behavior as a parent. As tempting as it can be to yell and nag when your child doesn’t do something they’re supposed to, this type of reaction can actually have the opposite effect on your child’s motivation. 

If you feel that you may be contributing to a stressful environment at home for your child, take some time to identify what things you can let go of that you’re demanding of your kid. Yes, it’s important to get good grades and excel at school. But if you remove the pressure you’re placing on your kid to do well, it’s possible that the motivation to want to keep up with their peers might be enough of a motivator to reignite their interests. 

After all, you won’t always be there to demand your child to do better. They have to learn self-motivation at some point. Taking a step back and allowing them to navigate the consequences of falling behind in school on their own can be a powerful lesson. 

What Motivates Children?

Each child is different, but there are a few commonalities when it comes to motivating kids that could be beneficial for parents to know. Here are a few insights on what motivates children.

Kids are motivated by what they enjoy. Even if these things don’t seem interesting or worthwhile to you, recognizing the activities and interests your child has — and allowing them time to engage in them – can be a powerful motivator. For example, you may think that your child playing video games is a waste of time. However, most video games do offer positives for children. Video games allow children to be in control, and to develop problem solving skills. If you show an interest in the games your child plays, you may be able to find ways to leverage these interests to motivate your child in other areas of his or her life. 

Kids are motivated by positive reinforcement. If you’re always nagging your child to do better or pointing out tasks they haven’t completed, your child doesn’t have any motivation to improve. In fact, they can feel like it’s pointless to try and put more effort into anything when you’re always calling out their flaws. Instead, try pointing out at least one thing they’ve done well each day. 

Kids are motivated to learn – but in a way that’s fun for them. If your child isn’t interested in completing homework or reading about a certain topic, explore learning opportunities that are engaging to them. Visiting a museum, watching a movie or working on a creative project related to the topic may all be more intriguing to your child than the traditional way of learning. 

Help for Parents Who Want to Motivate Unmotivated Kids

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If you’re struggling to motivate your unmotivated child, there are resources that can help. If you feel overwhelmed trying to help your child grow and succeed, explore resources in your area that can help.

If you feel that your child may have a learning disability, one powerful place to start can be speaking with your school’s psychologist. These are trained professionals hired to evaluate students, identify issues and help work closely with parents, students and teachers to formulate a plan to help students excel. 

Children want to succeed, grow and learn. But continuing to persevere during stressful times can be exhausting for children. Sometimes, you have to remember that kids are kids. They may not be excelling at school, but don’t lose sight of other areas of your child’s life that are important. For example, maybe they aren’t earning straight A’s – but your child’s teacher constantly compliments the way they play and share with others. The opposite is also true of students who excel at their studies but aren’t motivated to make friends or join social activities such as sports.

Meet your child where their interests lie and use these interests as tools to help motivate your child in other areas. All children are motivated differently and can struggle with lack of motivation for different reasons. Understand that sometimes, especially during times of stress such as a pandemic, children will feel unmotivated. And that is normal. Lack of motivation can and may be temporary. It’s possible that with time, your child’s lack of motivation will resolve itself. Remember to let your child enjoy being a kid – and encourage them to pursue their own interests and problem solve on their own. This is how self-motivation gets built and cultivated.