Understanding Motivation

Understanding Motivation

Throughout my years as a clinician working with children, parents have often asked, “how can I motivate my child?” Most of us misunderstand motivation. We think what motivates us will also motivate our children.  However, that’s not necessarily the case.

A one-size-fits-all approach does not work for every child. As parents, we often believe in the power of incentives or punishments to motivate our children, believing that an appeal to the child’s common sense will help them “see the light.”

When parents want to motivate their children, they tend to support them with a lot of enthusiasm. They become cheerleaders using statements such as, “I know you can do it!” and “get in there and make it happen.”  Parents try complimenting their children by listing skills and positive attributes or telling them how smart they are. Parents have also been known to share their own inspirational stories or relate a personal anecdote describing how they prevailed in a similar circumstance.

However, the reaction to this kind of over-enthusiastic cheerleading, especially for people who are demoralized or disheartened is the opposite. Because the person you are trying to motivate with these efforts does not believe the positive things being said about them, these efforts become not only demotivating but can also make the recipient feel guilty. In these situations, the child does not feel the parent is validating them, which can result in the parent being viewed as patronizing instead of empathic.

It is not uncommon for unmotivated children to feel overwhelmed or anxious regarding their academics or social relationships. They tend to mask these feelings by withdrawing from others and disengaging from daily responsibilities.

Another common approach by parents that I often encounter is to impart unpleasant consequences when their children do not meet expected outcomes. Their hope is these consequences will lead to better outcomes, however there is little evidence to support this notion.

The first step in proper motivation is to establish a relationship between parent and child based on empathy and understanding of a common shared goal. Once that is established, you can then more effectively communicate with each other and achieve what both parties desire.

Motivation is primarily internal, not external, and we can only succeed in motivating our children by having an open and honest conversation that results in compromise. Motivational relationships are partnerships, where both parent and child have equal standing.

Authored by:  Oona Caplan, LCSW