Motivating your child with ADHD

Motivating your child with ADHD

Meghan is the director of Family Kinnections, an organization providing counselling and support to children and their families.  Meghan holds an M.A. in Counselling Psychology, and specializes in treating children who exhibit behavioural challenges, learning difficulties, and mental health concerns.

“My child always takes the easy route”, “My child is fine with ‘good enough'”, “My child can do so much better than they are doing, but he doesn’t try”.  These are concerns that parents present to me, almost on a daily basis.  They tell me that they’ve used stickers and rewards, and threats and punishment, but nothing seems to motivate their child to strive for better grades, try harder at sports, or even complete daily tasks and chores.

These observations don’t surprise me; in fact I’ve come to expect them.  ADHD is characterized by challenges with focus, attention, and impulse control.  These skills fall into a category of skills that are managed predominantly by the brain’s frontal lobe.  This is also the region of the brain that manages executive functioning (planning, memory, self-control, initiation), motivation, decision making, drive or interest, evaluation of rewards, control of emotional responses.  [Stay tuned for our upcoming articles on Executive Functioning and Emotional Dysregulation!]

Since these skill areas are closely related and are a part of the systems of the brain that contribute to a diagnosis of ADHD, it makes sense to me that children effected by ADHD might struggle with what appears to be low motivation.  Given the challenges children with ADHD have in the reward center of their brain, they often struggle with what looks like, or is, low motivation.  Children with ADHD tend to perform best when rewards are immediate and meaningful to them (this often means that the rewards are tangible and concrete).  Parents often struggle with the idea of rewarding children as a means of intervention.  I often point out that everybody works on some sort of reward system – we go to work, we are rewarded with pay; we follow traffic laws, we are rewarded with an absence of fines and high insurance rates; we buy 10 slices of pizza, we get one for free; we do something nice for someone, we feel warm and fuzzy.  The world operates on a reward based system – whether that be extrinsic (paycheque, no traffic ticket, free pizza, public praise) or intrinsic (warm- fuzzy feeling, pride, happiness).  Children are no different.

The difference for children impacted with ADHD are generally 1 or more of the following:

1.  Internal motivation system is muted – What I mean by this is that given a child’s “wiring”, they don’t experience motivation with the same vigor or clarity that others might.  With some children, this becomes so pronounced that it even impacts their inherent biological and emotional drives (such as for food, drink, and social relationships).  These are typically children that appear apathetic and complacent regardless of the reward, consequence, or motivation.  Typically speaking though, even children who struggle with a muted motivation system have or can find things that motivate them.  These do seem to most often be extrinsic rewards, and tend to have the most success on a frequent delivery.

2.  Lagging Skills make it hard!  The strong connection between ADHD and the frontal lobe of a child’s brain means that a child will struggle with the skills that are stereotypical of ADHD (attention, focus, self-control) and a wide range of other skill sets that often don’t get the same level of acknowledgement of the previously mentioned skills.  When a child struggles with a skill that they need for a given situation, it makes the task that much harder, or sometimes even impossible.  Harder things take more energy.  More energy means more motivation is needed.  There is a chance that there are so many tasks in a day that require increased energy, energy stores and motivation become depleted.  Other skills area challenges that are often associated with ADHD include: processing information (verbal, visual, social), expressive language (forming and expressing a thought), shifting from one thought or action to another, planning, self-control, memory, organization, reasoning, problem solving, abstract thinking, decision making, self-monitoring (assessing self/output for appropriateness and/or correctness), emotional regulation, processing sensory stimuli, flexibility in thinking and actions, goal setting, and selective attention (what to attend to and what to block out).  As you can see, the skill sets that can be impacted are quite extensive, and permeate every component of living.  Multiple skills are required for even the most basic task.  The more skills required, the more energy required, the more energy required the harder it becomes to feel motivated.  The reward we experience most often needs to match the energy required for us to sustain motivation.  Now, you may argue that you go to work everyday, and it is hard.  It takes a lot of skill and energy, and maybe you aren’t rewarded with the pay that you deserve, but you still do it because you ‘have’ to.  Well… you don’t actually ‘have’ to.  You choose to based on the information that you have.  You know that you need to pay the bills and if you don’t, you will have bigger problems, so you choose to.  In this process you demonstrate the skills to plan ahead, problem solve, have self control (so you don’t just quit), set goals, tolerate a delayed reward, reason with yourself and persist despite things being challenging.  While it is likely that your child is able to do some or all of these things they do require substantially more effort if they are impacted by ADHD.

While this doesn’t mean that your child will never develop these skills, or that they should be excused from any task requiring them; it does mean that we need to be cognoscente of these challenges and work with your child to develop strategies to shrink these hurdles.

3.  Self-Confidence Unfortunately, ADHD often travels with other challenges such as learning disabilities, behaviour problems, social skills problems, academic underachievement, and sensory motor challenges (in addition to the skill sets mentioned above).  These challenges tend to increase the frequency of a child’s perceived or actual failures, disciplinary action, correction and exclusion.  Children effected by ADHD can often have far more negative interactions than positive ones.  Over time, this wears away at a child’s perception of themselves, their abilities, and their strengths.  It is not uncommon for me to chat with a child who has had these experiences, and who believes that they have no strengths or skills areas; while many are able to identify a strength or skill, it is not necessarily something that they believe is necessarily valued (or it actually isn’t something that is highly valued) – i.e. most parents and teachers find it difficult to find value in a being excellent at playing video games.  The result of this is a child who has difficulty in finding the value in trying if the outcome is likely that they won’t measure up, will be corrected, will have to do it again, or in whatever way be unsuccessful.

So what do we do?!?

All of this information may paint a grim picture for your child, but it doesn’t need to be that way.  There are things that you can do to give your child the boost they need!

  1. Reward and praise frequently and in a meaningful way.  
    1. Try to reward and praise as frequently, if not more frequently, as you correct.
    2. Be specific with your praise so your child knows exactly why they are being acknowledged.
    3. Be as immediate as possible.
    4. Use rewards that are meaningful to your child.  Remember, they don’t necessarily have to be extravagant, or even store bought.  Rewards such as a special snack, choice of movie on movie night, extra computer time, later weekend bedtime, or undivided play time with mom or dad can be just as powerful.
    5. Catch your child in the behaviour you want to see.  I’m a big fan of “gotcha” token behaviour programs (check them out on Pinterest or Google).  This allows you to reward your child in a tangible way for positive actions.
    6. Praise and reward for effort.  It doesn’t always need to be about the end result.  The effort involved needs to be acknowledged as well.
    7. Pair your rewards with actions that might elicit intrinsic reward for your child – things that make them feel proud, loved, and warm and fuzzy -i.e. affection, bragging about them to someone in a manner that your child can overhear, time spent with you.
  2. Consider your child’s lagging skills and build in supports.
    1. Teach your child how to do things more efficiently.
    2. Help your child to develop the skills they lag in -i.e. teach them what to do to manage their emotions, or to remember things.
    3. Adjust the structure or delivery of expectations [see our article on structure and our upcoming article on executive functioning]
    4. Involve your child in problem solving for the tasks that involve use of skills they struggle with.
  3. Find your child’s strengths and use them!
    1. Is your child a wiz on the computer?  How can you harness that to build your child up and streamline the use of skills?  Could your child teach younger children how to use programs?  Could your child become dedicated tech support in your home?  Does it lessen the impact of lagging skills for your child to complete school work on the computer?
    2. Give your child’s strengths value and importance.
    3. Help your child develop a role and identity around their strengths, not their weaknesses.
    4. Having a hard time finding your child’s strengths?  Think about what they enjoy, or the positives others have to say about them.  Strengths can be extrapolated from even the most challenging child.
  4. Start small and build up.
    1. Think about where your child is right now, focus on creating small steps to success and enjoy and appreciate even the smallest movement in the right direction.
    2. Consider error-free learning – check out this web page for more info!
    3. Set goals that are attainable.
    4. Think about how to create successes with your child.
    5. Think about how to shift your child’s identity and role to be one of success, rather than one of failure.

Sometimes motivating a child impacted by ADHD can be difficult, but it is not impossible!


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