A note from Delaney Ruston, MD -
I totally get if it has felt very triggering when you see articles about titles like, “What your kids should be doing right now,” — implying that you should make sure they get off screens and do exercise, art, etc.
I think about a mom who told me not that long ago how she got her 11-year-old daughter to go on a hike with her, and the daughter complained so much that the mom said, “I am definitely not going to do that again. In the future, If she doesn’t want to go, I won’t make her.”
As a parent, I have experienced similar feelings of exacerbation. In fact, hiking has been one of those, but there have been plenty of others.
There are definitely parents right now who are not facing motivational challenges with their child, but for others, particularly now with COVID, it can be a significant issue.
In the medical field, we know low motivation can be a hallmark of depression. When we screen for depression, we start with two questions. Do you know what those two questions are? Do your kids? I believe all kids should know them. Have them take a stab (I share them in this TTT).
Meanwhile, how do we help any youth who is facing motivational challenges?
Today I look at those questions and offer some strategies to help when you're challenged by your kids or teens’ lack of motivation. And even if you have a highly motivated child, I cover ways to help that can relate to all young people.
Let me start with what science has uncovered about motivation. You probably have heard too many times by now that dopamine is the chemical in the brain that gets secreted when we do something rewarding such as eating sugar. Researchers using MRI brain imaging machines see that the nucleus accumbens — the brain’s reward center — where dopamine is the neurotransmitter at play- lights up when we eat that delicious substance. (Same for playing video games, watching Youtube videos, and the list goes on.)
Here is the twist — it turns out that even in anticipation of doing something fun, dopamine begins to get secreted. In Bill Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s book, The Self Driven Child, they give a great example illustrating this. They talk about the fact that a dog gets excited when the human picks up the leash. This signal of an imminent fun walk instigates the dopamine flow in the dog’s brain’s reward center.
The dopamine is part of what is needed for motivation. For kids with low motivation to do something, say like exercise, what is happening is that their brain is not secreting enough dopamine to get them out of their current at-rest, comfortable position.
Of course, there are other things at play, but this is part of the scenario from a biological perspective. What is key here is that we can validate to our kids like, “I get it, you don’t feel like doing the exercise, and that makes biological sense!”
Before I get to some strategies about working with your kids on this, let's turn to clinical depression for a moment.
In clinic, as part of the visit, a patient will often get a screening form that asks, “Over the last two weeks, how often have you been bothered by any of the following problems?”
Little interest or pleasure in doing things
Feeling down, depressed, or hopeless
If the answer is that they are not bothered by either, the chances that they have clinical depression go way down. It does not eliminate the possibility but makes it far less likely. I want all kids to know that with depression, people might not even be aware of feeling sad but that they may primarily feel low motivation. Talking with them about whether they ever find that they, or a friend, has lost interest in things that they used to find pleasurable, and it is ongoing, is concerning.
And we are not just talking about depression. I know we parents can feel emotionally unhinged, sad, frustrated, and a host of other feelings when our kids are not intrinsically motivated, in ways we would hope for them. So let's get into ways that we can help our kids and help us feel better as well.
Ideas to help our kids around motivational issues
1. Behavioral Activation is an approach used in mental health to help those suffering from depression. The way it works can also help people who do not have depression but who are not feeling motivated in different areas of their lives At its core is the idea that one can’t wait to have the feeling to want to do something because that feeling might not come. From a physiological standpoint, it could have to do in part with dopamine, as I mentioned above.
Behavioral activation is about getting help to a person to do small actions towards a goal or engage in things they used to like to do. From there, the hope is that the experiences will elicit some positive emotions.
While doing these things, the person is reminded to try and be aware of the moments they do get some pleasure or feel good afterward, knowing you have achieved the goal. Even just being aware of a few minutes of laughing with a person they are with.
It is not like a person with depression to go to the movies with a friend and suddenly feel happy. Usually, this much of an outing would be really hard for them because the negative self-talk would be active, and they would have low energy. Over time, having more and more activation helps to lift the depression.
2. Don’t give up on the dance
Parenting is such a challenging dance of when to push our kids and when not to. So thinking back to the parent who said, “I am definitely not going to do that again. In the future, if she doesn’t want to go, I won’t make her.” I talked with her about how I can relate because this was the same with our daughter. I told her about the many ways we learned to compromise with our daughter to get her to come hike with us, such as choosing shorter routes. She still would do some groaning, but there were smiles along the trail as well. It paid off. Tessa eventually joined her high school’s outdoor club and even went on to help to run it.
For some things saying you won’t make them do it anymore makes sense, but other times, making compromises and finding different ways to stay on the dance floor with them, will pay off.
3. Admit when you stepped on their toes
I am thinking about a mistake I made regarding trying to get Tessa interested in something she didn’t want to do. I always told my kids how I wished my high school had had a debate team and thought all kids should participate at least once in a debate club or team. (Such cool communication skills to be learned, in my humble opinion).
When Tessa was in high school, they had such a club. I was, of course, super eager to have her consider getting involved. She went one time but missed the next couple of meetings. I was biting at the chomps; I really wanted her to do this. I kept telling her that she needed to give it more of a chance. At one point, I even called the organizer of the club, thinking I might get some little bit of info that could entice her. My calling the club was the final straw. Tessa announced that now there was no way she would go. In fact, you can hear Tessa describe this in her own words in Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER.
I felt bad about calling and how pushy I was and told Tessa that I was really sorry. From there on out, I started working harder not to overstep my bounds. The dance is never easy and never foolproof, that is for sure.
4. William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s do an excellent job in their book, The Self-Driven Child, examining motivation in youth and the role that a sense of control has in fostering intrinsic motivation. They review the well-known theory of self-determination humans have three key basic needs: a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness (feeling love and connection).
Many studies have shown that when kids have these elements, particularly autonomy, this “will stimulate much more motivation than rewards or punishments.” So in this regard, the more we can have our kids make lists of things they are motivated to try and do, the more they will be motivated to try them.
I often say to my kids that life is hard and, at times, unfair. It is hard that we have to do so much to clean our home, but we do. Here are things that have to be done, which one will you choose? They might not be motivated to do anything in the house, but at least I am working to give them a choice. I also make sure they have a full day to get them done so they can choose when they want to do them.
5. Another key tool is the idea of “Not yet.” This has been an anchor thought for me over the years with my kids. If one of them were not liking a particular subject in school, I would remind myself, “Not yet.”
To bring up this idea, you can consider talking with your child about the things YOU used not to be motivated to do and how that changed or did not change for you.
6. In The Self Driven Child, this point is particularly helpful: We must remember it is good when our kids enjoy doing things where they find themselves focused and engaged. This means they are in a “flow state,” which will then cross over into other things down the line. Flow is about being challenged and lost in time.
Stixrud states in The Self-Driven Child, “When you are in flow, levels of neuro chemicals in your brain, including dopamine spike … so when you see an eight-year-old highly focused on building a lego castle, lips pressed in concentration, what she is actually doing is getting her brain used to be motivated. She is conditioning her brain to associate intense enjoyment with highly focused attention, practice, and hard work.”
Stixrud writes how he had a 2.8-grade point average in high school. He was not motivated in academics, but playing in his band was his passion. He feels that the experience of flow in his music practice eventually made him able to “...put the pedal to the metal when he found an academic discipline — and later a career — that turned him on.” He earned a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, focused on children.
Stixrud by no means is saying just to let your kids do whatever they want and just care if they are not doing well in school. Not at all. Indeed Stixrud and Johnson offer a multitude of strategies to help youth who are struggling academically. I only bring this up to explain the idea of flow and ways we can think about how learning to do challenging things with full attention is training the brain to be able to do this in other situations.
I am not talking about video games. Yes, there is some challenge to the games, but the hurdles of challenges and attention are minuscule in these fun, adrenaline-fueled games. It is vital our kids also learn to do things that challenge them and that they can practice being in a flow state in other ways beyond just video games.
Ideas to get the conversation started:
What are we all feeling interested in these days?
What are some examples of things we have no desire to start doing, but actually, once we start (or sometime after finishing), we feel better in some ways?
It can be hard to know if feeling low motivation ongoing is a sign of something more serious, such as clinical depression. What are other signs to look for? (Check out this TTT for more of the questions we ask in clinic when evaluating for depression)
As a parent, what was something you hated doing in the past and now really like doing? (one of my examples is that I really didn’t like hiking when I was a little girl — like mother like daughter — now I love it).
Click here for information aboutDr. Ruston’s new book, Parenting in the Screen Age
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