Thursday 18 January 2018

Family Life: My 13-year-old daughter has no ambition. How can I motivate her to work harder?

David Coleman

David Coleman

How can I motivate my daughter? Her biggest problem is her attitude. She is 13 and in first year. She appears to have no ambition to do well.

When it comes to studying she will say, for example, "I hate geography anyway". This is her attitude about every subject. Having said that, however, she is good at doing her homework. She is afraid a note will be sent home for signing if that is not done.

Also, she seems to have a problem mixing with her peers. She doesn't seem able to fit into groups of children that come from her own social background. She is fine at home and is very happy in her own territory.

She has an older sister who is a high achiever and works to get her goals. I would be obliged if you could advise me on ways to motivate her.

THE ages 13 to 15 are often the most difficult for both parents and teenagers. It is a time when teenagers are the most introspective, the most focused on their own growth and development and usually the most reliant on their peer group for acceptance and approval.

We can rely on using rewards or punishments to motivate our children and teenagers, but the most effective motivation is the internal, or self-motivation, that comes when we know what we want and we are determined to pursue it.

In practice, as you can see with your daughter, this means that teenagers are unlikely to think in the long term and only focus on their short-term needs. You can see this in action with your daughter when she manages to do her homework (to avoid the short-term consequences of getting a note home) but doesn't seem to have any plan for her future.

Mind you, I think it is almost impossible to have a plan for your future at age 13. At that age, how many of us knew what we really wanted to do, or to be, when we were grown up? Remember, developing a self-motivation does require having a clear plan to aim at.

I am interested, also, that you describe your daughter as having an issue fitting in to her peer group. You don't really explain how the difficulty shows itself. For example, does she feel excl-uded by her peers (who may seem to look down on her) or does she seem to reject them as being in some way beneath her?

However it is, she seems to feel awkward in their company and so doesn't seem to quite know how to engage with them. I would guess that this weighs quite heavily on her mind.

As I said at the start, peer approval is hugely important, especially for young teens; and so not having that approval or feeling like you don't fit in can be really distressing.


This kind of distress could, naturally, lead to a really negative attitude. It could also be very distracting for her and be preventing her from focusing on her studies and thinking about her future. Having an immediate worry can easily prevent her from thinking beyond the resolution of that problem.

In that case it would be impossible to be motivated because she doesn't even have the emotional and psychological space to be thinking about a plan, never mind working to achieve one.

Naturally she will feel more comfortable at home where she doesn't have the social pressure that she probably experiences in school. Indeed, her apparent rejection of school and the academic subjects may actually be her defence against feeling left out amongst her classmates.

In other words, she may not hate the academic element of school; she might hate the social element of it but feel unable to sort it out.

It might be worth your while trying to help her understand and express exactly what is going on for her socially.

Her negative attitude to school could be alleviated by allowing her to separate her feelings about study (which might actually be positive) from her feelings about her peers (which might be the real source of her negativity).

By talking with her and allowing her the opportunity to acknowledge the things that go okay in school you might help her not to discard the good things about school along with the bad things.

She may also need some very practical advice from you about how to fit in better. She might need help to understand how the social rules of the school actually work so that she can navigate them easier and better.

See if there is even a single friendship that you can help her to nurture to allow her to feel less disconnected from her peers.

The other factor in her apparent lack of motivation might be her fear of failure. You mention that she has a high-achieving older sister. It might be that her sister, rather than appearing as a positive role-model for her, may in fact be a source of negative comparison for her.

She might feel that she can never achieve to the same extent of her sister and so rather than try (and then, comparatively, fail) she might believe it is better not to try at all.

To counteract this possibility, it is really important to give her a very clear message that she and her sister will never be compared and that you see her as an individual who can, and will, forge her own path in life.

Let her know that you can and do accept that her path could be hugely different to the path her sister chooses.

Mostly, however, I think you need to be patient with her. She is only 13 and like most of her peers she will struggle to think beyond the here and now.

In time, with your support, she might be better able to think ahead into the medium, or even long-term, future. For now, just be understanding that she is finding life a bit tough.

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