Common Problems With Motivation In Kids AND Their Solutions

This is Part 1 in a series on motivation and kids. For Part 2 click HERE and for Part 3 click HERE.

So many parents I work with in the clinic over the years, and many of my parenting friends, often ask me for tips about how to better motivate their kids. These questions seem to involve two different types of motivation concerns – 1) motivation for kids to perform basic personal skills and tasks (i.e. showering every day – yes! I get this question a lot!), and 2) motivation to pursue personal interests and passions on their own.

The focus of this article is on the second category of child – the child who shows little interest in hobbies or passions. In the next few days, I will post an article addressing the other type of child – the one who has difficulty finding motivation for everyday chores and/or personal-care skills.

My goal for this article is to give you a quick overview of motivation so you know what to expect from your child and then to offer you some tips on how you can help to inspire motivation in your child.


The Three Factors That Comprise Motivation

Motivation is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” That is only a partial description of what motivation actually entails. In psychology, we are interested a bit more in the PROCESS behind motivation; therefore, a more thorough definition includes, “the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors.” Basically, motivation is the power behind our goals and dreams.

It’s at this point that some people get confused between motivation and desire. Desire plays a part in completing our goal-directed behavior, but it is quite different from motivation. Desire is a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen. Having the desire for a goal or dream is the precursor for motivation.

Just having the desire to do something is not enough. For example, how many times have we wanted to lose weight? Just wanting to lose weight didn’t magically make us 20 pounds lighter – we needed to tap into the motivation behind our desire. To lose weight, we needed to make a plan, be consistent with the plan, and actually carry out the plan.

This is the point where I see kids struggling the most. They might want better grades, or to join the new school play, or to be nicer to their sibling, but it’s the next step – motivation – that is a lot harder to carry out.

So let’s break down the three components of motivation so that we can formulate a plan to help your child based upon their specific motivation hurdles. The three components of motivation are activation, persistence, and intensity.

  • Activation involves both the decision to begin a task or goal, as well as the knowledge and ability to begin that task or goal.
  • Persistence is the continued effort toward completing a goal even though obstacles may exist – it requires a significant investment of time, energy, and resources.
  • Intensity is the earnestness and amount of energy that goes into pursuing a goal.

For example, if your child has the desire to be in the school play, they need to figure out how to sign up for an audition (activation), learn the lines and practice the desired part as needed (persistence), and spend time with drama class peers or ask for pointers from the drama teacher (intensity). As you can see, all of these components need to be addressed in order for motivation to power your child toward their goal.


The Activation Stage

You can tell your child is stuck in the activation stage when your child has expressed a strong desire to begin a task, but has not moved on from this point. Many kids get stuck in this stage for several reasons. They might have fears regarding the task, they might not have the skills or abilities to begin the task, or they never really wanted to perform the task in the first place.

Kids of all ages get stuck here. Of course it makes sense that young kids might have fears or lack the necessary knowledge to start a project that is new to them, but even pre-teens and teenagers have a difficult time at this stage. Let’s discuss all three possibilities and their solutions.

Solution: Your child has fears regarding either beginning, carrying out, or completing the task. This is normal, especially if your child is a little shy already. As the parent, you can have a big impact on helping your child conquer this stage. You can:

  • Talk to your child about their fears. Try not to TELL them how them SHOULD feel in this instance (i.e. “Trying out for a play isn’t scary”). Instead, let them know that it’s understandable that they should have some fears (even if you don’t understand their fear). You might share with them a time in your life when you were scared and how you fought through your fears to succeed (you had to have been scared of something at some point in your life). You can also brainstorm with your child several ideas on how your child can conquer their own fear.
  • Be INTENTIONAL in the praise and reinforcement for your child at this stage – just make sure the praise is not “hollow.” When praising your child for a job well done, be specific (“That’s great that you want to be part of that play – that’s one of my favorite plays too”), be sincere (“I haven’t heard of that play before – can you tell me more?”), and be warm in your praise (“you went up and wrote down your name on the play sign-up form yourself? That must have been scary, and I am proud of your for doing it anyway!”).
  • Offer to start the task with your child, but then back off as they gain mastery of the task. Sometimes kids just need us to help them get started, and then they gain the necessary confidence and skills to continue on their own. This is not “babying” your child; rather, it is providing the necessary support required with the understanding that is it temporary.
  • If you notice that you have been putting pressure on your child to succeed in or complete this task, try backing off a little bit. Sometimes reducing the pressure for your child to succeed is all your child needs to motivate them to continue on in the task.

Solution: Your child lacks the ability, skill, or knowledge to complete the task. This is very common – especially with older kids. As parents, we take for granted that age equals competency and this just isn’t always the case. Some kids are born with the inherent ability to easily understand how to complete every-day tasks, while other kids struggle with this. Don’t worry – with some coaching from you, your child can learn how to be more competent.

  • If your child seems “stuck” completing a goal that they have set for themselves (like auditioning for the school play), try assessing to see if your child knows how to complete the task. Sometimes, the only understanding of a task that kids have is knowledge of the first and last steps – this is often developmentally appropriate.
  • Provide your child guidance in figuring out the in-between steps needed to complete the goal. You can do this by asking your child what they have done so far and what step they think they should do next. Do this until all of the little in-between steps have been identified.
  • Always remember that just because you provided this instruction once doesn’t necessarily mean that your child will be able to generalize this to other goals and tasks in the future. Be prepared to guide your child in identifying all of the steps needed to complete a goal the NEXT time they have a new goal – especially if that task is more complicated.

Solution: Your child never really wanted to perform this task in the first place. There are tasks that we assign to our kids because it is necessary (i.e. take a shower every day, clean your room, family chores, etc.) and there are goals or dreams that our kids might talk about but aren’t really serious about completing (i.e. learning a new instrument, starting a dog-walking business, etc.).

For situations where the child has expressed an interest in tackling a new hobby or goal, but never started the goal, try assessing whether or not they still want to pursue this task. Ask questions such as what initially interested them about this new hobby? What do they want to get out of it? How would they feel while they put in the time learning and/or practicing the new hobby?

If your child can’t provide good answers to these questions, then they might not really have the desire to pursue that goal. Its ok for kids to express their interest in a lot of things because they are spreading their wings and figuring out who they are as individuals. My advice is to wait until they can answer the above questions before spending a lot of time and money on a new hobby for your child.


The Persistence Stage

“The most interesting thing about a postage stamp is its persistence with which it sticks to a job” – Napoleon Hill

During this stage, your child might give up on a task or goal because they find it too hard or it seems to be taking longer than they thought it would. This might be the first time in your child’s life that they have had to work hard toward a long-term goal. As the parent, there are several things you can do to help your child to be persistent and to assist them in not giving up too soon.

It is also during this stage that your child might want to give up because they have encountered an obstacle that they did not anticipate. You can help guide your child through this stage by keeping in mind several important points.

  • Help your child keep their goal in mind – have them visualize it if possible. When you notice a lack of excitement about the new task, try reminding your child how awesome they will feel when it is complete (“You may be tired of practicing your lines for the play now, but won’t it be great to take your bow on stage after the play is over?”).
  • Acknowledge small successes. Every large task usually has several small steps in the middle. When you point out the success or completion of the small steps, it allows your child to see that they are making progress (“Wow! You memorized 3 pages of your lines already? That means you only have 2 more pages to go!”). The key to persistence is the accumulation of the small steps in the middle of the goal.
  • Have a discussion with your child about short-term verses long-term rewards. Be honest about the benefits and disadvantages to both.
  • If your child encounters an obstacle, brainstorm ideas with your child about how to overcome this challenge. It is best to develop several ideas on how to tackle this stumbling block, as the first solution might not work.
  • Try to point out to your child that obstacles don’t mean that they are a failure. Share with them a time in your life that you had to overcome an obstacle and how you did it. It’s not that we have obstacles in our lives – its how we handle those obstacles (link to previous article).
  • Make working on the task or goal a habit. When your child knows that at 5:00 every night they practice their lines for the school play audition, they are more likely to complete this task daily. As the parent, you can help with this step by making sure you are available if your child needs your assistance during this time.


The Intensity Stage

In this stage, your child will continue to be motivated for their new hobby or goal if they remain intense in their passion for it. People are passionate about something if they are excited about it, think about it often, and find opportunities to be involved in this hobby or with other people who share the same passion.

As the parent, you can be supportive of your child’s passion by:

  • Being available – take them to practices, meeting, and activities,
  • Being knowledgeable about your child’s interest yourself – read up on their passion and have a discussion with your child about their new hobby,
  • Have a positive attitude – even if you don’t like your child’s interest for yourself, encourage your child to pursue their goal anyway (i.e. you don’t like to act, but you are proud of your child who likes to perform in plays).

Remember, you are not in charge of CREATING your child’s passion for this interest; rather, your job is to be SUPPORTIVE of their goal.

An important point during this stage is to monitor your child’s intensity level. If you notice that your child is too intense (i.e. they focus only on their passion and let their grades drop or they become too anxious or self-deprecating if they are not succeeding like they would like), then it is your job to help your child balance their passion with other important life choices. Get help from a mental health provider if you feel you child needs to learn some coping skills to manage their perfectionistic tendencies (put link here).



Finally, I cannot give you a complete picture of motivation without explaining EXTRINSIC versus INTRINSIC motivation. Extrinsic motivation is the incentive or inspiration for completing a goal that arise from outside the child and often involves rewards such as trophies, money, social recognition or praise. Intrinsic motivation is the drive to complete a goal that comes from within the child, such as doing a complicated math problem for the personal gratification of solving a problem.

Is one type of motivation better than the other – No! Most people use both types of motivations to complete tasks. For example, paychecks are an extrinsic motivator for many people to go to a job every day that they do not like. Many parents are able to provide food and shelter for their children based on this extrinsic motivator; however, the intrinsic reward of being loved and appreciated by their kids is another factor that plays into parents suffering through a job that they do not like.

It is easier to motivate kids through extrinsic motivators, so it is our job as a parent to teach intrinsic motivation if we see that our kids don’t naturally understand this. This can be done by taking part in our own passions and hobbies and explaining to our kids how these passions and hobbies make us better people.


Take Home Message

The good news is that you CAN work with your child in increasing their motivation for interests and passions that they enjoy. It takes some time and patience, but it can be done.

Remember that this is not about MAKING your child interested in one of YOUR passions, but helping your child turn a childhood interest into a life-long pursuit.

This post starts a week long series regarding motivation and kids. The topic of today’s post concerned the child that already has an interest, but had difficulty pursuing that interest.

The next article topic will be about kids who lack motivation for daily life skills. Parents CAN influence their child’s motivation for completing family chores, homework, and personal living skills.

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