How to Motivate a Child Who Doesn’t Care

When it feels like your child doesn’t care, whether about school, work, listening to you, or otherwise, it can feel frustrating and isolating. However, it’s important that you’re there for your child during this trying time in their life, even more so than usual. The way you’re there for them makes a difference, too, though, and the situation must sometimes be handled delicately.

Children can grow to not care about themselves or their situation for a variety of different reasons. Perhaps they feel like that’s the only way they can rebel, or maybe they feel like the efforts they expend don’t get them anywhere and aren’t worth the work.

In this guide, we’ll explore some more of the reasons why your child doesn’t care about something important, how to move forward and help them care again, and how to patch the relationship between you and your child.

“I Don’t Care”

When you have a child who truly doesn’t seem to care about anything, it’s often one of two cases: one, the child is trying to wrest control of the relationship and their life from you by saying they don’t care, or two, they are deeply depressed and in need of professional help. Of course, if the latter is true, identifying the situation as soon as possible and making arrangements for help for your child is the biggest priority.

However, if the situation is the first and more common case, you may need to change your recent parenting style. While you may feel the urge to be stricter as your child shirks more and more of their duties, this is actually playing into their hands. When a child says, “I don’t care,” to one of your demands or accusations, they’re exerting control over you and the situation.

When a child claims that they don’t care about something, they do several things:

  • Take the pressure to succeed or act off of themselves
  • Transfer a feeling of control back to themselves
  • Resist your influence over them
  • Distance themselves from you

In a rebellious child or teen’s mind, all of the above points are winners, especially if they’re facing unusual pressure or anxiety-inducing circumstances from you or an outside source. Saying “I don’t care,” or “it doesn’t matter,” takes the expectations off of them and opens up failure as an acceptable option. When the child doesn’t care if they fail, they don’t need to be preoccupied with succeeding.

Most children are raised to fear or avoid failure whenever possible. In success-driven families, especially overbearing or strict ones, they can feel trapped, lost, or cornered when faced with the possibility that they might fail. However, conceding that they “don’t care,” even if they truly do care, provides a feeling of release from their obligation to succeed. Over-parented children are particularly susceptible to this trap.


Overparenting is your biggest pitfall as the parent of a child who doesn’t care. For one, overparenting has a propensity to cause the situation in the first place, and it almost always makes it worse. One of the secondary effects of saying “I don’t care” is that it deflects any expectations, requests, or punishments that the parent might have had for the child.

Overparenting doesn’t remedy this – in fact, it usually makes the situation worse, as your child exerts control and power over the situation when they’re able to defy you and stop you.

If you’re someone who’s been overparenting your child for years, now may be the time to change. While overparenting has its share of pitfalls and downsides, this article isn’t about that, so we’re only exploring overparenting in regards to unmotivated children. Under-parenting has its disadvantages too, though, so it’s very important to find a happy medium somewhere in the middle that works for you and your child.

There are several things you can do to start cutting back on overparenting practices, such as:

  • Allow your child to deal with their own mistakes – don’t bail them out when they get in trouble
  • Allow your child more independence to make their own good (and bad) decisions
  • Only punish your child when they make bad choices
  • Don’t raise your voice to your child or give them control

There is a familiar phrase that you’ve probably heard that goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” You can’t make your child do anything that they don’t want to do; this will never change. However, you can very well lead them to water, and you can make them want to drink, too.

Rewards and Punishments

The use of reward systems and punishment systems will be vital in getting through to your child and getting them through their “I don’t care” phase. Like we said above, making your child want to break their own habits is the best way to get through it without exacerbating the situation.

Consider things that your child might want, such as a new pet, a new videogame, or a new smartphone. You can offer these things as bargaining chips with your child. Think things like saying, “you’ll never have time to take care of a new puppy if you can’t spend enough time on your grades,” or similar things.

The reward should never be used as a bargain in return for not saying, “I don’t care,” though. Never bargain with a child who’s past caring; instead, give them the reward when they’ve done well and truly deserve it. In no other situation is it appropriate to reward your child. If you reward your child for every little thing they do or use your rewards as bargaining chips for obeying you, they will take advantage of you for it.

That’s not to say that good work shouldn’t be celebrated with your child, but real, physical rewards should not be a common thing. Real rewards should be given for reaching big milestones or achieving great things, or else the child will come to expect a reward whenever they show effort. However, even if a reward is not given, you should always acknowledge and congratulate the effort they’ve shown.

Punishments should only be given out when they’re warranted, too. For example, if your child is caught cheating or plagiarizing in school, often the school’s results of that for the child are punishment enough. Extra punishment from you may not be necessary for the child to learn their lesson.

In the same way, don’t punish your child when they haven’t done anything wrong. Even if it’s tempting to punish them when they say “I don’t care” repeatedly, this is not a good strategy. Mouthing off to you or fighting with you, however, can sometimes be punishable offenses depending on the severity of the disrespect.

Don’t let the child’s most important things be taken away without good reason, either. WhaWhat you take away should match with the type and the severity of the offense as much as possible. If the child is found playing videogames after his or her bedtime, for example, their videogames should be confiscated for as many nights after the child has been playing videogames after bedtime.

However, if your child has been playing videogames after bedtime and their grades in school have been slipping as a result, it may be more appropriate to confiscate the videogames until the child’s grades reach their previous level or higher.


As your child’s parent and guardian, you are the main source of your child’s consequences and punishment in their life, at least until they grow older. As such, much of the responsibility for your child’s inability to care or unwillingness to care stems from that inadequate source of punishment.

Whether it’s because your child isn’t scared of your punishments, derives pleasure or enjoyment from defying you, or knows you will bail them out is irrelevant. The point is that, if you find yourself resonating with any of the former three options, you need to take a step back and reevaluate how you punish your child.

When a child does something that gets them in trouble, it’s bad form to save them from that trouble, especially if they commit the same mistake voluntarily, over and over again. In order for a child to learn that their actions have consequences, they need to deal with the results of their actions, whether they’re good or bad.

As such, if you have a habit of sheltering your child from unpleasant experiences or retaliatory actions of others, your child will have trouble learning this responsibility. The consequence of your choice will be that your child will have trouble realizing that there are consequences for their own actions.

It may feel painful for you to let your child fend for themselves, but it’s a valuable life lesson for them to learn – one they cannot properly function without. And once a child possesses the knowledge of the consequences of their actions, they should be much less likely to “not care” next time they’re about to be in trouble.

The consequences that your child experiences play a significant role in how quickly these consequences begin to make sense to him, too. For example, while relating the “crime” to the punishment is always a good rule of thumb, taking away something that your child doesn’t really want or need is not a great way to punish them, as they can probably survive without whatever privilege you took.

Instead, it might take a few tries for you to land on something that strikes a nerve for your child, especially if they’re pretending not to care. They might make every effort to look like whatever you took didn’t bother them, even if it did, to maintain control or so that you’ll become frustrated and give it back to them.

To mitigate this, take note of the things your child enjoys before they get in trouble so you have a list of things to work with when they do. Some ideas of effective privileges to take away are:

  • Electronics
  • Smartphone or texting privileges
  • Shortened curfew
  • Videogames
  • Favorite junk or snack foods

Time Frame

Of particular importance to the consequences that you set for your child is the time frame that you set them in. For example, if you find out that your child did something bad several weeks after the fact, punishing them for it will not have the same impact that it would if you had caught them in the act instead. It may not be appropriate to punish children for old decisions, or a smaller punishment might be adequate instead.

In the same way, when you’re punishing your child for a current issue or mistake, the amount of time that you punish them for should vary based on the severity and type of offense. We mentioned earlier that if a student’s grades fall because of too much time spent on videogames, that child should have those videogames taken until their grades rise back to their previous level or higher.

However, in the above scenario, it wouldn’t make sense to take the child’s videogames away forever. If you did this, not only would the punishment be too severe, but it would be discouraging to the child, too. If there’s no chance of getting their videogames back, it’s unlikely that they would expend the effort to fix their grades in the first place.

The same concept applies to multiple offenses for the same problem, and our justice system is based on the same model. When a child is caught making a mistake, such as using their smartphone after bedtime, they’re punished relatively lightly for that first offense. However, every time after that they’re caught doing the same thing, the severity of that punishment increases, until eventually, their phone may end up taken from them every night at bedtime as a preventative measure.

A child’s punishment needs to be enough that they’re discouraged from acting out again, but lenient enough that they’re inspired to remedy the situation and reclaim what was taken from them. If you put your child in time out for two minutes after they’ve used their smartphone in bed, for example, this probably won’t do much to dissuade them from doing it again. However, a scaling punishment will quickly make an impact when it gets worse with every offense.

Consider some examples of punishments that match with their transgressions:

  • If a child fails on a test, their free time may be partially replaced with study time until they bring home a better test
  • If a teacher tells the parent about their child’s poor behavior in class, the student may be required to go to summer classes or private tutoring to make up the difference
  • If a child cannot be respectful or civil to the parent, friends, or family members, the child may go in time out until they can use a polite tone of voice

Not all punishments will work for every child, however. For example, if your child isn’t particularly bothered by the punishment that you’ve been giving them – a time out, for example – you may need to up the ante by putting something they really care about on the line. You should always use something that will motivate your child to do well.


Motivation for a child is a bit of a strange thing. When a child is motivated by something, it often means that they want it in some way or another. Either they’re interested in a specific item, a specific outcome relating to the item, or a specific feeling relating to the item. If a child is motivated by receiving candy, for example, he probably enjoys the taste of the candy and wants to taste it as much as possible.

For a child who doesn’t care, pinpointing these “caring” areas will be one of your most important jobs as a parent. It may be difficult to find them because, if your child is devoted to the apathetic act, they will probably try to hide their interest. However, their desire for it will eventually become clear in their willingness to work for the item or their desire to get it back.

Moreover, it might sometimes feel like your child isn’t motivated by anything. However, this is actually not the case for most apathetic children. Instead, these children are motivated not to care. This might sound strange, but as we said before, not caring allows the child a certain degree of control over a situation that they might be searching for.

Even if it feels like your child isn’t motivated to do anything, in fact, they’re working very hard to show you that façade. Once you know that that’s the case, it becomes much easier to identify the holes in their front and find what makes them tick. And once you do this, you will have the key to making your child care again.

Even if you can successfully find your child’s trigger, though, you might not see a result right away. Your child might believe they can hold out for a while, or they might believe that a bit of their own suffering is worth it in order to preserve their act. However, with some careful finagling and use of rewards and punishments, you should be able to find your child’s motivation and break the act.

Once you find their trigger, however, the easy part comes next. Finding the combination of factors that will serve to motivate your child is often the hard part.

Establish What Matters

One of the critical steps to motivating your child again is to let them know that they can’t just shirk their duties by saying, “I don’t care.” Even if they don’t care about their future, their duties, or their grades, you do, and you should let them know this. When they say “I don’t care,” or “it doesn’t matter,” respond by saying, “I care,” and “it matters to me.”

Even if saying this doesn’t change your child’s mind or actions, they need to know that you will work to make sure they fulfill their duties, even if they won’t alone. When your child knows that you won’t let up and won’t let them have their way, it may take some of the wind out of their sails.

In the same way, you should try to figure out what it is that your child wants if you can. If you know what it is that your child cares about, you can use this to influence them even as they claim not to care. Consider the following examples:

  • If your child secretly desires to be a doctor someday, you can mention that doctors must do very well in school to be successful and go on to graduate school
  • If your child would like to be a musician, you might offer to buy a new instrument in exchange for their hard work in school
  • If your child likes videogames, you might use the newest videogame release to motivate your child to bring home good test scores
  • If your child has long-held dreams of adopting an animal, such as a puppy or kitten, getting straight A’s for a semester or a year might be enough to make this a reality

The beauty of finding what matters to your child, like the examples we listed above, lies in the fact that these bargaining chips aren’t a one-off thing. If you buy your child a new videogame for a good test score, for example, but their subsequent test scores fall, that same videogame can be confiscated or sent to time-out until the situation is improved.

In the same way, if your child can’t handle the responsibility of caring for a puppy or a kitten, or if they begin showing apathy toward the state of the animal, it may be time to find the pet a new home. These kinds of deals with your child are especially useful because they teach responsibility as well as motivation.

Fears and Feelings

Like we touched on early in this guide, just the act of defying you, the parent, may not be all that’s motivating your child to act apathetic. In some cases, they may not be acting at all, and they may truly feel that way. If this is the case, help from a professional is more important than anything you could possibly give your child yourself. Work on getting your child feeling like themselves again first, then help motivate them to put their life back together again.

Additionally, even if your child was rebellious to begin with, the apathetic act might be triggered by more than just defying your wishes. Your child might be scared to try in school for fear of failing or being made fun of by other kids. They might have been made fun of by their peers in the past from trying to do well in school, and might be letting their grades slip to try to “fit in” with that crowd.

Several things can be keeping your child from moving forward from their apathetic state, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Fear of being “uncool”
  • Anxiety about others’ opinions
  • Fear of rising expectations of them

If your child is being motivated by fear or by shame, this apathy may be harder to shake than normal. However, as long as they know that you care and that things matter to you, there is still hope. Your child will eventually realize this, too. If hidden feelings and fears are motivating your child, however, it means you have a bit more work ahead of you.

The issue will not go away unless you address the source. Your child might rise above this on his own, gets past it with your help, or need the assistance of a professional therapist to help them get past it.

Set Them Up to Succeed

More than anything else we’ve mentioned in this guide, do your best to set your child up for success ad you help them find their motivation again. Structure can be extremely beneficial for a young and growing child, and setting up bedtime, homework, extracurricular, and social-time structures can be very helpful for your child. How specific these structures need to get varies with the independence of the child, but a little bit always helps.

Setting deadlines and structures goes hand-in-hand with allowing your child to show their independence, too. As long as the two of you have agreed on a structure for your child’s day, you should expect them to adhere to it. However, don’t “hover” and force them to do it to the letter, either. Instead, when they don’t follow through, use a punishment, instead, but leave most of the choice in their hands.

Since a child’s apathy can often originate from their lives being too heavily controlled, allowing them this freedom to express themselves (and even make their own mistakes) can be an invaluable part of remedying the situation. However, all of the tips and tricks we’ve mentioned in this guide can be just as helpful. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different approaches. You and your child will eventually find success together!

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