Are you facing the new school year with dread because you have an unmotivated or underachieving teen or pre-teen? Is your child's answer to everything, "I don't care" or "It doesn't matter?" I will explain why your child does have motivation--and how you can coach them to better behavior.
The first thing to understand about teens and pre-teens who seem to have no motivation is this simple truth: It's impossible to have no motivation. Everybody is motivated--it just depends on what they're motivated to do. I think it's helpful to see that rather than being unmotivated, these kids are actually motivated to not perform and to resist their parents. In other words, they're motivated to do nothing.
Parents often think that if they can find a new way to encourage their child, he or she will magically start achieving more. I don't think it's like that at all. In fact, I think the problem is that these kids are motivated to resist, withdraw and under-perform. In effect, instead of acting out, they're acting in.
Think of lack of motivation as an action problem--and the action is to resist. These kids are making excuses; they're pushing their parents away. At school, they're motivated to resist studying and homework. They're also motivated to resist their teachers. Look at it this way: these kids are motivated to say "I don't care," either with their words or with their actions. They're saying those words; they're telling you what they're doing--they're not caring.
How Can Parents Motivate Their Teen or Pre-teen?
Once you realize that your adolescent is motivated to do nothing, it will become obvious to you right away that he actually puts a lot of energy into doing that "nothing." He puts a lot of energy into resisting you, to withdrawing from you, to making complaints. When you talk to an adolescent who's an underachiever, what you hear are a lot of errors in thinking. "I can't; it's too hard; it doesn't matter; I don't care." In fact, "I don't care" is their magic wand and their shield--it takes off pressure and makes them feel in control all at the same time. The words "I don't care" empower them. When they start feeling anxious about their place in life, it soothes them to say it doesn't matter; they use it like a soporific or a drug. "I don't care" also helps them deal with their anxiety. Fear of failure? "I don't care." It's hard to do? "I don't care." It dismisses everything.
Frankly, you can't make your child care. Let's be honest, the old saying, "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" is true. But understand that while we can't make our kids drink, we can certainly try to make them thirsty.
9 Ways to Get through to Your Underachieving Child or Teen
I also want to be clear and state that it's important to realize that there's a difference between being motivated to do nothing and being completely withdrawn. A child who won't attend to his work or do his chores is different from someone who's depressed. If your child won't come out of his room, doesn't seem to care no matter what you take away, and is often isolated and withdrawn, you have to take that seriously and seek professional help.
As a parent, I'd be talking this way to your child from pre-adolescence. You can say things like, "Just think, some day you're going to have your own place. What kind of place would you like?" That's the type of thing you use to motivate adolescents because that's what is real to them: they want to get an apartment, they want to have a girlfriend or boyfriend, they want to get a car. So have conversations about what it takes to attain those things. And don't forget, it's a mistake to give your teen or pre-teen lectures when you want them to do something--instead, make them see that completing their responsibilities is in their best interests, because it leads to the life they'd like to have in the future.
In my opinion, you can try almost anything within reason for five minutes. So you can negotiate, you can reason, you can ask your child about their feelings. It's fine to say, "Is something wrong?" Just be aware that a chronic withholder will be motivated not to answer you.
By the way, when I tell parents to personalize it by saying "It matters to me," that doesn't mean you should take it personally. Taking something personally means believing that your child's inappropriate behavior is directed at you. It's not--in reality, it's their overall strategy to deal with the stresses of life. The concept of "It Matters to Me" helps because relationships can be motivating, but your child is his own person. It's no reflection on you if he doesn't want to perform. You just have to set up the scenario and enhance the probability that he's going to do what he needs to do. But don't take it personally, as if somehow you have to make him do it. The truth is, you can't.
Regardless of why your child might have an attitude of learned helplessness, as a parent, it's important to stop doing things that he needs to do for himself. Don't do his homework--let him do it. You can be available for help if necessary, but don't take on his tasks. I believe one of the most important things an adolescent has to learn is independence, and if you take on his responsibilities, you're robbing him of this chance to develop.
For me, it's not about who's to blame; it's about who's going to take responsibility. A kid who's an underachiever is motivated to do less--or to do nothing--because it gives him a sense of power and it gets him out of the stress of having to meet responsibilities. Your job as a parent is to help him by coaching him to meet those responsibilities in spite of his anxiety, fear or apathy.
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