Motivating Kids in 2021

As we approach one year since Covid-19 turned our lives upside down, it is a good time to consider lessons learned and how we can use these lessons to better shape the future. In the past 11 months, parents and children had to rapidly switch gears. Homes were turned into classrooms and offices, with our daily lives colliding in a new type of daily cohabitation. This brought new stresses, but also beautiful, deeper insight, and an understanding and appreciation of each of our strengths and weaknesses. As I reflect on the past year, I believe it is important to think about the positives. I am extremely grateful for the increased time I’ve been given to spend with my four children. I’ve enjoyed the chance to slow down and see firsthand what type of learners they are, to have ample time to talk to them about school, to appreciate their thoughts and worries, and most importantly to gain a better understanding of what support they need to be happy and successful. With 2021 starting off not quite as we had hoped, there is a genuine sense of exhaustion from living life during a pandemic. Therefore, as we hold out hope that restrictions will further relax, I believe there is a need to reevaluate and think about how we can best motivate our children as we continue to navigate the new normal.

Much research points to the fact that our decreased motivation, and that of our children, during the pandemic is caused by the chronic stress of the new normal’s impact on our lifestyles, with which it brings a lack of routine and the ever present fear and uncertainty of what lies ahead. Physiologically, amongst other things, this stress causes an increased production of cortisol, which in turn leads to a lack of insufficient production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is the chemical that our brain produces that makes us feel happy and therefore has a serious impact on our mood, appetite control and sleep. Dopamine is the chemical that the brain produces to help us feel inspired to get up and go about our day completing our daily routines. Without appropriate levels of these chemicals, we become depressed, anxious, and seriously unmotivated. So, the question we need to answer is, “How do we deal with this?”

It begins with recognizing that our reaction to this chronic stress is normal and that we are not alone as others feel this way as well. Therefore, we must talk to our children about this fact and provide a proper support structure to ensure them that this too shall pass. This really can’t be stressed enough, as children are less equipped to deal with stress, as they have less life experience and resilience than adults to recognize that life is always filled with ups and downs. To accomplish this, we must get into a habit of setting aside time to have these conversations and to listen to them in earnest, all along reassuring them that their feelings are normal and ultimately helping them to understand that better days are certainly ahead. This can be accomplished through making sure that the entire family sits down for dinner together, without the distraction of electronics, and by making sure we discuss our feelings. Common themes we have discovered in our family revolve around struggling with not being in the classroom, being away from friends, or not being able to engage in their favorite sport or activity.

Further, we need to actively find ways to increase the production of serotonin in our brain. Research points to the fact that exercise is a clear way to improve serotonin production and release. It is also shown that there are certain foods that can aid in serotonin production. Typically, tryptophan rich foods in concert with carbs (yes carbs, kids need them!) also improve our serotonin production. Combinations of things like whole-wheat bread and turkey, oatmeal with some nuts, salmon and brown rice, plums or pineapple with some crackers, or pretzels and peanut butter with a glass of milk are all examples of foods that may be advantageous.  

Additionally, it is up to us, as parents, to ensure our children are getting enough sleep and keep to a normal sleep schedule. Lack of adequate amounts of sleep leads to irritability, increased stress, forgetfulness, learning difficulties and low motivation. Sleep time guidelines vary depending on age. The recommended amount of sleep for young children (up to age 10) is ten to twelve hours, for preteens and teens the recommend amount is eight to eleven hours. Take the time to work with your child to see what works best for them and help them set up a healthy sleep schedule.

Finally, it is important for our kids to revel in a sense of accomplishment. The setting and subsequent completion of simple team-based tasks followed by strong praise is a good short-term way to help to increase motivation. Look for examples in which your children can help you to accomplish simple tasks together. Doing these things together strengthens the child’s sense of belonging to a team and decreases the sense of loneliness that we’ve all felt at some point during the pandemic. In addition to this, goal setting has been and continues to be a great way to increase motivation, again by accentuating accomplishment. The following are some easy guidelines to helping to set goals:

1.    Help your child make a list of short-term goals that will help them achieve one long-term goal.  Make sure these goals are not only reachable but will require some effort for them to be accomplished.

2.    Help your child plan as to how they will achieve short-term, and eventually, their long-term goals. 

3.    Celebrate their accomplishments. Certainly, this can be done by providing material rewards, but better yet, the praise and sense of accomplishment they can and should receive goes a long way.

4.    Consider making some of the goals competitive. While some kids are naturally driven to achieve, others are not. Having some healthy competition in the family or amongst friends will help to positively motivate your child. 

To be sure, the past year has not been easy. But, as we forge forward, know that you are not alone and there are steps that we can take to actively address some of these issues that we all are facing. I would love to get your feedback and tips on things that you and your family have done to motivate your children.

By; Bonnie Tuttle, Kids and Teens Coach

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