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Motivating a Child Who Says “I Don’t Care”

“I don’t care.”  Those three words can fill a parent with dread and frustration when spoken by their seemingly unmotivated or underachieving pre-teen or teenager, especially when it relates to something as important as education.  In first of a two part series by James Lehman, MSW entitled “Motivation Underachievers Part I: When Your Child Says ‘I Don’t Care’” , Lehman says that the problem isn’t actually that the child is unmotivated, it is that the child is “motivated to resist, withdraw, and under-perform” instead of the alternative.  In essence, the child is motivated to do nothing, and he or she puts a lot of energy into doing just that: nothing.

When talking to a child who is underachieving, they may make comments that suggest many errors in thinking, such as “I can’t; it’s too hard; it doesn’t matter; I don’t care.”  These comments are used to shield them from pressure and give them a sense of control and empowerment.  It’s true that you can’t make your child care, however, Dr. Lehman does suggest nine techniques to get through to your underachieving child:

  1. Look at What Your Child Likes – Look for things your child does enjoy doing by looking at his actions.  Things such as video games, texting, fishing, going to movies – all of these things can be used as incentives.
  2. Take the Goodies out of Your Child’s Room – Computers, video games, televisions, etc. should be in social areas, making the bedroom simply a place to withdraw and rest.
  3. Make Sure Everything is Earned Each Day – Children who are unmotivated need to be held accountable.   Each day, they should need to earn use of their cell phone, or video games by doing homework and their chores.
  4. Have Conversations about What Your Child Wants – When times are good, have conversations about what kinds of things and what kind of life your child would like to have someday, and what it takes to attain these things.  However, try not to lecture in these situations – instead, try to make them see that completing their responsibilities is in their best interest and leads to the life they’d like to have.
  5. Don’t Shout, Argue, Beg, or Plead – These things just aren’t effective when your child is using withholding as their relationship strategy.
  6. “It Matters to Me” – Parents should be very clear and tell their children that what they do really matters to them.  However, even though parents should personalize the statement, they should also try not to take it personally: your child’s inappropriate behavior is not directed at you, it’s just their overall strategy to deal with life’s stressors.
  7. Stop Doing Your Child’s Tasks for Him – “Learned helplessness” can be a very destructive pattern, and when used by children, they don’t learn independence.
  8. Learn How to Be a Coach – Always keep your child looking forward and comment on his or her progress instead of telling them how great they are when they haven’t really put forth effort.
  9. Set Deadline and Use Structure – Clearly tell your child what needs to be done and when you want it done by.

One important note: there is a difference between being motivated to do nothing and being completely withdrawn.  If your child won’t come out of his or her room, is often isolated or withdrawn, and doesn’t seem to care even if you take away their favorite things, your child may be depressed and you should get them professional help.

Parenting a child who is underachieving and who has an “I don’t care” attitude can be difficult and exasperating.  Keep in mind that this behavior gives the child a sense of control and power and a way to avoid the anxiety of failure and keeping up with other children or meeting challenging responsibilities.  Your job as a parent is to help your child by coaching him or her to meet these responsibilities in spite of his or her negative or frightening feelings about them.  The Kidtelligent assessment can help make this job a little easier by giving you additional insight into your child’s unique personality type, and then providing you with tips and information specific to your child’s type.  To learn more about Kidtelligent, go to, or follow us on Facebook at

Sarah is a guest mom writer for Kidtelligent. If you are interested in submitting an article to be shared on the Kidtelligent Blog and Facebook please email us at