Motivation:  What Is It, Why Doesn’t My Neurodivergent Kid Have It, and What Can We Do?

“My 3-year-old won’t do anything that I ask them!”

“My 7-year-old won’t do any homework or chores!”

“My teen doesn’t take their grades seriously!  They just don’t care about their future!”

These sentiments are just a few that I hear on a regular basis from parents. Nothing is more infuriating than knowing that your child has tons of potential, that you’ve tried to communicate the importance of school or kindness or participating in the home, and that your efforts have been ineffective.

Sound familiar?  Read on…

What Is Motivation, Anyway?

Motivation is the force that drives us to perform a task or behavior. There are many different types of motivation – intrinsic (internal, self-driven), incentive (sticker charts, rewards, paychecks), fear motivation (threats, consequences), power motivation (helping others, having control over your own life), and social motivation (wanting to fit into a group, wanting to be thought of in a positive way).  

Put another way, motivation is the thing that gets us up in the morning and out of bed and to work. Some days that might be easier than others. Some days we might have more internal motivation because we’re excited about what we’re working on. On other days, the idea of a paycheck or seeing a friend or fear of what would happen if we were fired might be our motivating factors. It’s never just one thing!

Our kids are the same way.

Why Isn’t My Kid Motivated?!

I’m betting your kid is motivated. They’re just not motivated to do the things you want them to do. Kids can be incredibly motivated to reach the next level of a video game or watch every single episode of “Wednesday” in one weekend or to become a YouTube star. These are goals and they likely have an incredible drive to reach them.  

So where does that motivation go when it comes to homework or chores? Adult-led agendas are just that – adult-led. We are choosing the what, when, where, how, and why, and that invites opposition. Our agendas often overlook the child’s agendas and are created without the child’s input.  

And I know what you’re thinking… “I just came home and did my homework every afternoon. And when my parents asked me to set the table, I did it. No one asked for my input!” And you’re not alone in thinking this way. But the reasons that we did that may not have been healthy – Were you afraid of getting in trouble? Were you getting rewarded for good grades? Were you more concerned about pleasing others than pleasing yourself?

The other thing to keep in mind is that kids lack the maturity and “big picture thinking” that helps them to plan for the future. Children are not really able to consider every possibility before making an informed decision. They don’t understand that poor grades in high school means limited college options, or that if they don’t help with chores around the house, it means extra work for you. Their brains won’t finish growing and maturing until they’re in their mid-20s. And for our neurodiverse kiddos, this process can take even longer.      

What can I do?

  • Get Curious. You may think that you know what’s going on with your child’s lack of motivation, but there’s usually so much more to it than meets the eye. In a moment of calm, ask your child about the issue. “Hey, I’ve noticed that you have a hard time getting your math homework done after school. What’s up?” And really listen to the responses without judgment or defensiveness. Empathize, and ask more questions. Really try to understand your child’s point of view.
  • Think about what underlying skills your child may not yet have. Before you can begin any task, you need to have a foundation of impulse control, emotional regulation, and flexibility. Without those skills, accomplishing homework or chores is going to be an uphill battle. And even if you’ve chosen a moment when your child is regulated and flexible, they also need to be able to plan and prioritize, self-monitor, initiate, organize, and have a good working memory. If your child doesn’t have these skills, is all hope lost? Of course not. But it does mean that they will need extra support before, during, and after to get their work done.  
  • Connect connect connect. Regulated and connected kids do well. Before giving a direction, sit next to your kid and chat for 10 minutes. Show genuine interest in whatever they’re doing. It can make the transition from fun activity to a hard/boring activity a little easier.  
  • Help your child to see the big picture. Not through lectures. Although I’m certain your points are excellent, your child isn’t interested in a lecture about how practicing a musical instrument will teach them discipline that will serve them throughout life. Instead, consider these questions:
  1. What does “done” look like for this assignment or chore? Does your child need to answer all 20 math questions, or just a few? Does this reading response need to be three words, three sentences, or three paragraphs? And what happens after the work is complete? Does “done” include putting the work in the folder and putting the folder in your child’s backpack? For a chore – what does a clean room look like? Take a picture of the room when it’s clean and show it to your child so that they know what they’re aiming towards.
  2. What does your child have to actually “do” to complete the task? List out the steps, and be specific. Clear expectations are the best way to make sure that you are all on the same page about what needs to happen. That might mean writing down “stuffed animals put away, train tracks into their bin, socks put in the hamper, and slime put back in the container.”
  3. What does your child need to do to “get ready” to complete the work? Do they need to sharpen a pencil? Do they need a snack or to refill their water bottle? Do they need to clear a space at the table in order to work?  

Although it seems counterintuitive, planning backward (starting with “done,” then moving to “do,” and then working on “get ready”) can actually set your child up for success.  

  • Help your child reflect. What was the best part of this task? What was the worst part? What part was hard? What would they like to do differently next time? This type of reflection helps kids move out of good/bad thinking, and into a more nuanced way of looking at their work.  

Motivation is a process, and intrinsic motivation doesn’t happen overnight. However, with some support and coaching, your child can learn to believe in themselves, face challenges with confidence, and use mistakes as opportunities to grow!

About the author: Amy Weber is a licensed clinical social worker in Brooklyn, New York. She is co-leading a workshop on March 3, 2023 (with Kate Lynch) all about motivation:  

Unstuck and Understood: How to use connection to motivate your neurodivergent kid.