How to motivate an inert child.

Snapshots of life at home.
May 31 2010 7:00 AM

Get Off Facebook and Do Something!

How to motivate an inert child.

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Also, in preadolescence and adolescence, a child is likely to show reduced interest in activities around the house. So much of a child's life at this stage is focused on peers who share the same music, clothes, jokes, and temporary disdain of adults that stage-related lack of motivation around the house is likely and normal. As adolescence approaches, ideally, you will have established some family rituals and routines—such as eating meals together when possible, time together in the course of shared chores, outings to concerts or games, volunteering, fishing or protesting against those who fish, whatever floats your boat. These are more easily continued if started early in childhood rather than starting fresh in adolescence, but even a late start is better than nothing at all, since these routines keep a child engaged with family life.

Possible concern. One situation that should cause concern is when a child who has been active, social, and routinely interested in things becomes mopey, sits around doing almost nothing, and expresses little interest in doing anything. These changes in behavior (like the headache) can occur for many reasons, of course, and they often show up with the coming of adolescence, but they can also be signs of depression. Other signs are negative comments about oneself (I can't do anything right) or the world (nothing is really that much fun anymore) and comments that reflect hopelessness about the future (this will just turn out bad like everything else does). The child may be more irritable and sensitive than usual, and you might also see changes in eating and sleeping. Even seemingly jokey comments along the lines of "I wish I was dead" should be taken seriously if they come up as part of this larger pattern, especially if they're repeated. If in doubt, see a mental health professional.

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It's also possible that your child cannot concentrate or focus, and that's what you may be seeing when you say he or she seems unmotivated. Here the problem is not necessarily disinterest or sadness but limits in sustained attention: The child can't stay with a task for more than a few minutes, shifts to a new one, then becomes distracted from that one. This can happen at home, at school, or both. Everyone has occasional problems in focusing, so here we are looking for whether it recurs in a pattern. It may look like boredom to you—and to your child—but the problem may have more to do with ability to focus or concentrate. Parents and school officials are often quick to jump to a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, but ADHD is not the only cause of such a recurring inability. If the lack of focus is interfering with performance at home or at school, if the child is having trouble meeting reasonable expectations, it would be worth seeing a mental health professional.

Stress. Apparent lack of motivation can also be a reaction to stress. Adults have a natural tendency to dismiss the notion that children can be stressed. After all, it's just childhood, with no threat of losing one's job or failing to make mortgage payments.

Your child's portfolio of life activities is probably more restricted than yours, and that can actually increase the stress on him. Kids have school all day and a relatively fixed set of peers, so if something goes wrong with one of their emotional stocks, their emotional stock market can be quick to collapse. Children's reaction to stress may look like depression, and it often occurs in reaction to a specific event related to peers, like an important relationship breaking off. Even without the specter of divorce, litigation, or prenuptial agreements, a break in a friendship or romance can be momentarily traumatic. Add to that a little peer ridicule for the usual things—being overweight, for instance, or being in the low reading group—and a seemingly minor event can turn into a significant problem.

Specific or general lack of motivation? Lack of motivation and seeming laziness can be specific to an area of the child's life, rather than across the board.

Children who are bullied at school, for instance, may be very slow to get ready for school and express disinterest in it. Foot-dragging and a seeming inability to get their acts together to go to school are obvious and irksome to parents, but take them as an invitation to consider whether the child is generally unmotivated or more specifically shying away from school because something bad is going on there.

Another common school-related example: Children who are having trouble with academics, in general or in specific domains (reading is a typical one), may look like they are not trying. In fact, they may no longer be trying. They don't want to read; they don't want to do homework; and, when forced to, they dawdle, do not get it done, or do it poorly. If young, they may cry and have tantrums. Your natural view might be that insufficient motivation is the cause of their problem when in fact it is the result. Small deficiencies or deficits in specific skills could be the problem. In the U.S., approximately 15 percent of the population has some type of learning disability. Consequently, when there's a school-related lack of motivation, it's worth looking into the possibility of problems in one of the core academic areas. Much can be done to address such problems, but first they have to be identified so that remedial programs can be started.

OK, we've gone over the process of identifying the problem. (Here's a summary of guiding questions.) Now, let's consider what to do about it.

Doing Something
Telling your child over and over to stop sitting around and do something probably hasn't worked very well, but that doesn't mean a parent's behavior can't make a difference. The quality of home life you help to orchestrate can play an important role in prying your child away from her bed, computer, or cell phone.