Feelings of obligation
Sometimes children experience difficulty when it comes to feeling motivated. They lack a sense of internal drive. When they feel like this they can even find it hard to approach tasks that give them feelings of pleasure or fun. This means they often don’t use “approach-related” behaviors.
Even if they go on to start a task then they may have only started it because they felt like they had to. They may have felt like they had no choice but to complete the task. They may have spent time worrying about the consequences of not completing the activity. When a child feels like this they might say, for example: “I should do this, otherwise my younger sister will have to do it” or “I ought to get this done, otherwise mom will get worried”. They may pressure themselves into doing what they think is required. These behaviors are sometimes referred to as “avoidance-related” behaviors.
When children feel obligated to do a task they can experience feelings of anxiety, distress or worry. They feel like they have little choice because of internally imposed rules. These negative feelings can then also influence the way that the child assesses their levels of competence. They may evaluate their performance negatively, for example. They may end up thinking that they didn’t do a good-enough job.
Tips for parents: changing “I should” to “I want to”
In these situations, children feel as though they have little choice and often parents can find it hard to help. The following four tips for parents can be useful. These tips relate to decision-making participation, self-determination, collaboration and persistence.
1. Optimize decision-making participation
The first tip for parents involves optimizing opportunities for decision-making participation. That is, make sure that your child has opportunities to make choices.
This can be achieved by giving your child an opportunity to make a choice when any decision-making opportunity arises. Then, help them participate in making the decision. For example, when your child is faced with a new task ask them: “What do you think we should do?” or “Let’s make this decision together. What are your ideas?”
2. Emphasize self-determination over obedience
The second tip for parents is to enable feelings of self-determination in your child as this will help them own the task. Self-determination begins to be developed in childhood and it continues to be developed throughout your lifespan. Self-determination involves self-directed behavior, including goal setting, choice-making and target-directed behavior.
3. Collaborate on setting limits and rules
The third tip for parents involves collaboration when it comes to setting limits and rules. Sharing the responsibility for this with your child can help reduce the pressure on them. Reducing pressure is important as it helps reduce any anxiety, distress or worry they may feel in relation to the task. It also helps reduce fears about not performing well.
This can be achieved by asking questions such as: “What rules should we agree upon in relation to this?” or “What behaviors are allowed here?” or “What rules do we need to put in place to make this safe for everyone?”
Questions like these can help you highlight to your child what might need to be considered. Asking these questions also provides you with the opportunity to let your child know what might be required of them in a non-threatening way.
After these factors and limits have been identified, everyone can modify the rules so that they are mutually acceptable. Everyone can agree on working within the rules that have been collaboratively developed. This approach can help take the pressure off everyone.
4. Develop persistence and intentionality
When children find it difficult to engage in a task or they are fearful of not doing well, they may also find it quite difficult to sustain their focus. Helping your child stick with a task for a certain period of time in order to promote their interest in the task can be useful in these situations.
This can be facilitated by using a number of strategies. Time-boxing is one of them. Time-boxing is when you allocate a fixed period of time for an activity. To begin, start your child off with a small time box. Then, slowly increase the amount of time that they need to focus on the task. This can help them develop perseverance. For example, start with a five-minute time box and then build up the allocated period of time gradually.
The snowball effect
Once a child becomes interested in a task, their relationship with the task will probably change into one that will help them engage in the task more easily, rather than continuing to avoid the activity. Therefore, over time, these tips can help change your child’s behaviors from avoidance-related behaviors into approach-related behaviors and this is when your child really does want to participate.
Ziviani J. Poulsen AA. M Cuskelly M. (2013). The Art and Science of Motivation. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.