Why do some bright kids develop an “I don’t care” attitude? What are the underlying causes? What approaches can help rekindle their motivation?
On this episode of Menninger’s Mind Dive podcast, child psychologist, Harvard Medical School associate professor and author Ellen Braaten, PhD, has studied this issue in-depth and worked through this with children and their parents in her therapy practice. In her new book, “Bright Kids Who Couldn’t Care Less,” she dives into this complex issue and provides a guide for parents on how to better understand and help their apathetic child.
Dr. Braaten says that while children with processing challenges, such as ADHD or autism, can develop indifference because their learning challenges can lead them to feel overwhelmed, there are also children without any learning issues who develop profound apathy toward school, extracurricular activities and life in general. She adds that clinicians and parents can’t look at one factor when trying to understand a child who lacks motivation because often there are social, biological and psychological factors involved.
For example, Dr. Bratten says that some kids are not very motivated because their basic needs aren't being met. Or perhaps they don’t have that peer group of friends that allows them to find their bliss, because their needs for friendship aren’t met. They may have found they are not able to trust others.
There’s also the pressure to get good grades and to participate in extracurricular activities to get into a good college that can affect motivation. When kids get anxious and depressed, Dr. Braaten says, they can become overwhelmed and turn to distractions like video games. Sometimes it’s pressure from parents to achieve that can demotivate children. She says that in some cases a parent’s own desires, the things that gave them pleasure that they put aside, are then put onto their kids with the expectation that they will “fill in the gap” by doing or achieving what the parent didn’t. Dr. Bratten cautions parents to think about themselves when they think about our child's motivation. Are they being a good role model?
“Well, one of the simplest things I say to parents, maybe not directly because it can be hard to hear, but to love the child they have, not the child they wish they had,” said Dr. Braaten.
In showing love and support for an unmotivated child, Dr. Braaten says external rewards can work in some cases, and in others, are not the answer. There is research showing that if a child enjoys an activity, such as reading, adding external rewards to increase reading, such as badges or stickers or awards, can have the opposite effect and serve as a demotivator.
Dr. Braaten advises that parents need to find out what their child likes to do and what they are good at doing. What are their personal strengths? What gives them pleasure? Where do they spend their time?
In her book she outlines how parents can work through this process to help their child find his or her motivation. She cautions that this process takes time and that it’s going to take a lot of insight and trial and error.  In the end, she is confident that the parent and child will get there. 
“And you’re going to feel a sense of satisfaction, along with your child, once you get them on the right path,” says Dr. Braaten.