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Encouraging a Self-Motivated Child

After a well-deserved summer break, the return to school required everyone to get back to structure and routines. This left many students, teachers, and possibly parents in a complete brain fog as the shift happened so quickly. And, as the excitement of the new school year drifts away and schedules get filled, some parents might find themselves back in the cycle of frequently reminding their children what needs to be done, even for the simplest of tasks.

The reality is, parenting can sometimes feel like nagging, hounding, or maybe you prefer to call it “motivational speaking”. Getting children to do things without hounding them can seem impossible…but is it? While it may seem to be the only way to get things done, this is not fun for anyone. Not for you. Not for your children. When you begin or end your days and weeks like this, it is time to make a change; the perfect time to make those changes is when structures are being reintroduced, such as the beginning of the school year.

Before making changes, start by asking yourself “Why do I nag?” or “What do I want from it?” Maybe you are hoping they develop a life skill for later in life. Maybe you want them to avoid a difficult situation or event. Sometimes we nag because we want to prevent what will be a hassle for us later. According to experts, to break this cycle, different responses are recommended based on the intent behind it.

If you are wanting to develop a life skill, Dr. Lisa Damour speaks about handling the situation similar to how professors might start a school term…with a “syllabus” or list of expectations. For younger kids, adults might assume this is a sticker chart BUT sticker charts can be difficult to maintain for both the child and the parent. Instead, Dr. Damour encourages parents to make and display simple one-page lists of tasks (for younger kids, use pictures). If your child finishes their list in a timely manner, they can engage in a preferred activity. If they don’t, try asking them “Where are you on the list?” or “Are you done with your list?” instead of telling them what to do.

No matter how fantastic the list is, our tweens and teens might continue to struggle. They might appear less motivated to do…well, anything really. Within a limit, their lack of motivation could be developmentally appropriate. And if they are having difficulty getting through their lists, recommended statements with teens are “You and I both know you need to get that list done and you and I both know you have 10 minutes” or “You know me, you know I’m going to be frustrated, I don’t want that and I would just prefer we had a better start to the day.” If for some reason it still doesn’t get done, talk with them when everyone is calm to figure out a better way. The idea is to let the list speak for you.

When we find ourselves reminding children what to do so they avoid something difficult, the recommended response seems simple…just stop. For instance, maybe your child has a messy room and you are constantly telling them to clean it so they don’t damage their belongings. However, the second you ask for something, they know exactly where that item is and it is in decent condition. Is it necessary to argue with them about a messy room if they are functioning well? On the other hand, maybe they are struggling to find things and constantly lose or break items. Then yes, they need a new system. However, until they figure out that system (with your encouragement), allow for natural or logical consequences to follow. Missing something from school, let them get a poor grade. Something broken, figure out a way for them to earn or pay for a new one. Lost a coat, maybe don’t replace it. Yes, it is difficult to watch your child struggle, especially when we “know” how to fix things. BUT if we want them to figure out what works best for them (not us), you need to let them feel it.

It takes time for children to adapt to expectations and new routines. When we become impatient with this process, we are not always at our best. Instead of jumping in, slow it down, create systems and structures, and continue to reorientate them so it becomes their job, not yours. Getting yourself out of the position of saying “it is my job to tell you this thing” and putting yourself in the position of saying “I know you know this” puts the right type of pressure on them and motivates them by what they themselves know needs to happen.

Recommended parent resource, Dr. Lisa Damour, psychologist and author, https://drlisadamour.com/resources/
Always feel free to contact your AAS school counselor if you need more ideas or resources.

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