What's Behind an Unmotivated Child?

What's behind an unmotivated child, for example, one who refuses to do their homework? It may not just be bad behavior. Sometimes, the child may be hiding an emotional void, which may originate from anxiety, bullying, or educational needs that aren't being met.
What's Behind an Unmotivated Child?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 27 June, 2022

Is your child unmotivated? If you have a child who doesn’t want to do their homework or chores, or who responds apathetically to your demands, you might not understand the entire situation. It may be easier to resort to just telling them off for their behavior. However, before you do that, you need to take something into account.

Behind the lack of motivation, the child may be hiding something. This may be an emotional void, negative emotions, or other underlying problems. You’ll need to discover what’s causing it.

Let’s admit it. Many unmotivated children and teens end up becoming adults who also lack motivation. What happens if a child becomes used to constant frustration early in life? Additionally, what if everyone in their environment only responds to them with criticism and threats? The person will end up with a chronic sense of failure. Their self-esteem will be undermined from an early age and it’ll be almost impossible to improve later down the road.

A lack of motivation or interest is really just a mask, an attitude to the world that’s hiding a deeper problem. It’s a reflection of an internal state, and it’s necessary to discern the causes as soon as possible. Why?

It’s because there’s nothing more dangerous and devastating than discouragement. That lack of motivation can send the child spiraling into a lack of interest in life itself. That constant frustration and the resulting behavior usually provoke negative reactions in others, rather than understanding.

“If I remember correctly, childhood involved wanting everything that was out of my reach.”

-Audur Ava Olafsdottir-

A boy sitting at a piano.

An unmotivated child: what can explain their attitude?

You probably agree on the fact that most people enjoy seeing a curious child. It’s fascinating to watch children who relate to their environment, who ask questions and enjoy playing, and who are constantly moving, touching, and experimenting. Childhood is full of movement and energy. It involves the desire to understand yourself and your position in a reality where you continuously feel acceptance and affection.

Perhaps that’s why you might be so surprised at seeing an unmotivated child. The child may be just lying on their desk or their bed. They might not only choose to be still instead of active but also refuse defiantly to carry out any tasks you might ask of them.

If you face this situation frequently, here’s something you should understand. As Adele Gottfried explained in an article published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, motivation is driven by emotion.

If a child, adolescent, or adult is discouraged, there’s likely a complex emotional reality underlying the situation. That being said, if you limit your reaction to punishing the child for their attitude, you’ll only make them feel worse.

A little girl feeling unmotivated.

What might be behind an unmotivated child?

There may be infinite possibilities behind a child’s lack of motivation. With that in mind, you should be aware of this important fact. Children don’t always have the capability to explain exactly what’s happening to them. Therefore, you should have a close relationship with the child to make their opening up to you easier.

Let’s now take a look at some specifics on what can cause a child to lose motivation:

  • Frustration due to learning problems. Don’t forget that there may be a large number of children in the classroom with special educational needs that haven’t been detected. An inability to pay attention, dyslexia, or even being intellectually ahead of the class can all lead to a lack of motivation in children.
  • Bullying is also a common problem. Some families may not be aware of the daily trauma their children have to go through at school. Don’t rule out this possibility.
  • Constant frustration is another common occurrence. Some children and adolescents go from thinking “I can’t do it” to “I don’t want to do it” in just a short time. Teaching them early to handle and tolerate frustration, anxiety, and feelings of failure will help them to mature in this regard.
  • Don’t forget about another potential problem. Many children feel stressed. And even more than that, they demand their parents’ attention. How can you help your child to cultivate positive emotions so they can regain their motivation? Offering to share playtime and other moments with the family where the child feels cared for, heard, and validated will contribute.

How can you treat your child or teen’s lack of motivation?

An unmotivated child doesn’t need more rebukes or criticism. Rather, they need your attention. Try for a moment to put yourself in your child’s shoes. Remember what it feels like when you’re overwhelmed by discouragement and apathy. It’s not a pleasant sensation, right?

Of course, it’s true that, as adults, experience reminds us of what we can do to change our situation. However, children have neither the ability nor the experience to know how to react.

Some strategies to try out

  • Be empathetic. Have a close relationship with your child, where they feel welcome instead of judged. The ideal situation is where your child will feel comfortable enough to be able to tell you about their emotions, what they feel, and what happens to them.
  • Positive speech. Using emotionally positive communication will also make your connection with your child easier. Also, try to focus on encouraging feelings that will motivate your child. You can remind them of the good in themselves, their potential, and their possibilities. Create an emotional haven so your child will feel comfortable communicating with you. This way, you can also help them to find a fresh perspective for their problems.
  • Restart. Sometimes, you may need to start from scratch to regain lost motivation. You could do something as simple as changing up the daily routine and giving your child some encouragement, new challenges, and suggestions. This can help your child put aside frustration or negativity while they find new interests. Discovering something they like (such as playing a sport, music, or a hobby) can act as a trigger for renewed motivation. You may also find new activities to help you connect with your child.
A sad boy playing a guitar.

In short, an unmotivated child doesn’t need criticism; they need attention. Don’t put off until tomorrow investigating any signs such as a dull look, strange behavior, a word out of place, or that “I can’t”. Motivation is what makes life meaningful. Therefore, don’t allow your child to lose that powerful force in their life.

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The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.