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I worry that my ten-year old son is developing (has developed) a mindset that will come back to bite him as he gets older. He is a very bright and active kid, but does not like to extend himself and frequently 'gives up' whenever things get difficult. We have exposed him to lots of different experiences that he could gain confidence from including sports (basketball, tee ball, swimming, surf club), intellectual challenges and fun activities (computer coding) but he often doesn't want to give them a go and if he can't be as good as he thinks he ought to be, he gives up or doesn't try his hardest. On the home front, he consistently fails to take any responsibility for himself and it is a daily chore getting him to tidy up after himself, get ready for school, walk the dog etc. We don't seem to be able to motivate him to enjoy these activities for the intrinsic satisfaction he may get and have tried most of the usual carrot and stick approaches including rewards and taking away access to electronics if he doesn't do his chores. We always try to talk to him but as soon as we start getting close to the bone, he shuts down and says "I don't want to talk about my feelings". He has seen a child psychologist who has had similar difficulty in getting him to open up as he is a master at changing the subject or obfuscating.

He has an older sister with a disability and this may impact on his personality in some way, as he may think she is getting ore attention than he is but he won't discuss it with us.

He has always been very active but has always had difficulty regulating his own behaviour so that he frequently gets into trouble at school for being disruptive. He was diagnosed with ADHD/Anxiety a couple of years ago and is on meds for this but has also participated in sessions with a child psychologist. Is there such as thing as CBT for kids or is ten years old just too young?

My concern is that if he doesn't learn to accept that you only get out of life what you put in and that sometimes, you just have to do what you're told to, he is going to miss out on a lot of opportunities and will become unfulfilled/depressed.

Thanks for any input!

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Children with ADHD can be prone to depression, since much of the feedback or attention they get is negative -- either criticism for not focusing or trying hard enough, or a stressed parent pointing out that their lack of focus is now making everybody late.

My son is younger, but has similar low motivation and poor self-esteem, as well as an ADHD diagnosis. Keeping in mind that ADHD is really a cluster of symptoms and what works for one boy might not work for another, here are some strategies that could help.

Concentrate on positive statements and praise. Children who have ADHD get used to feedback about how bad they are at paying attention. If they can't meet expectations, they internalize the message that they're just flawed, bad children -- whereas the reality is they just need to put in more or different effort than other kids. This can lead to a lot of self-blame and low self-esteem, and also to giving up easily. Trying a lot of activities might even lead to lower confidence and less commitment to practicing. This is yet another activity I'm bad at. Why should I even bother practicing to try to get better?

Look for opportunities to praise even the littlest successes. Most importantly, make praise about the effort applied, not about the child. Reducing the amount of criticism (even what we thought of as gentle and constructive) and instead praising good behavior has helped our son reduce his level of self-disgust. Especially for a child who's struggling with motivation and can't find a reason to put in effort, tying your praise to him showing motivation and effort can be helpful. Even just "Thanks for setting the table when I asked," or "I'm so pleased that you sat down and did your homework straight through, what a good effort" -- the way my son's face just lights up at these moments honestly makes me feel terrible that he seems to be craving praise so much.

Watch closely for whatever it is that does capture his interest. This doesn't need to be an organized activity (e.g. sports) or even necessarily a productive one (e.g. computer programming). It can be a favorite TV show or comic book or set of toys.

My son can talk almost endlessly about the characters and plot twists in Ninjago (a LEGO line of toys with an associated cartoon show), and we've generally encouraged this. It leads to parent-child LEGO building sessions, some interesting conversations about snakes (the bad guys are the Serpentines), and discussions about whether the bad guys are really inherently bad (some of them have switched sides, etc.). I have absolutely no idea how this might ever be turned into a life's calling, but rather than really worry about that now, we're just supporting his passionate interest in something.

Be willing to remind gently and repeatedly that something needs to happen. There are few things more annoying than being in a rush in the morning and going to your son's room expecting him to be dressed and ready, and instead finding him sitting on the floor in underpants and one sock reading a comic book. I used to have a what the hell are you doing, we need to leave and you're nearly naked, we're going to be so late because of you response. I'm still working on transitioning to checking up on his progress repeatedly, and instead saying Just wanted to remind you to get dressed, the second time taking the comic book and simply saying I want to help you focus, I'll take this to the kitchen so you can grab it on your way to the car. He is capable of getting dressed quickly, just needs occasional reminders to stay on task and help removing distractions from the area if they're really overwhelming.

Have well-defined responsibilities. Structure's important for any child, but moreso for those who struggle with attention and memory. Regardless, they are simply things that need to be done. We don't really tie basic chores (feed pets, set table) into any reward or punishment structure unless we notice a significant deviation from expectation, and we prefer sort of surprise rewards... "I noticed that you took care of the dog every day this week without me reminding you. That's really awesome effort on your part, and I'm sure Spot appreciates the attention too. Want to go pick something out at the bookstore?"

I think the conversation about CBT would be best had directly with his child psychologist. (It's not impossible, but she should have a more professional and informed opinion about it than me.) Bring your specific concerns about motivation and long-term depression up with her. To some extent your son should get to control the emotions he wants to discuss (or hide) in their sessions, but she can also help guide the conversation. Ideally, helping her understand his behavior will make the visits more productive and purposeful.

Finally, read all sorts of resources for ADHD children -- the Internet is full of ideas and suggestions, and as I mentioned what works for one child may backfire for another. The NIMH has Tips to Help Kids Stay Organized and Follow Directions. Another Answer (the Question was about a younger child, but still potentially helpful) I gave has a list of resources at the end. In general, I've found tips for helping ADHD children to be useful even for non-ADHD children.

  • Awesome response..thank you. Your points on focussing on effort are really sensible. He loves 'fact' books such as Guinness Book of Records and Horrible Histories rather than story books and would gladly sit and play Minecraft and such like for hours if allowed. I think that's his escape..he's in a world he can control. He can be quite disruptive during training for team sports (interschool swimming squad, tee ball and basketball) and this occasionally leads to conflict with his more focussed peers not to mention his coaches. – joblial Feb 28 '15 at 3:44
  • The team sports we tried with or soon were pretty much unappealing to him, and the disinterest led to boredom (and disruptive behavior). Gymnastics and karate have been moderately well received by him, and it helps that his instructors are low pressure (the experience and exercise is as important as skill development and demonstration) and there are lots of other ADHD spectrum students so he's not the most challenging student. And mine is also into Minecraft, you observation about it being a controllable world is very interesting! – Acire Feb 28 '15 at 12:37
  • As someone who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I agree 100% with the above response, and want to toss in an extra comment. Intrinsic feelings of accomplishment are absolutely non-motivating for me. Once, I have finished something, I definitely feel them, but no matter how I try, I cannot use them as a spur to get something done. After many years of feeling bad and lazy, I read that this was a common situation for people with ADHD--our brains simply don't respond to this stimuli as effectively. Might be something to keep in mind. – magerber Jun 7 '17 at 15:08
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Having an older sister with disabilities must be tough. I'm guessing that she takes up a lot of your time, and in that he may have learnt that the more he slacks off, the more interest you take in him.

It's one of these things that's just tough. It's no fault of yours; no-one in existence has the perfect upbringing and circumstances get in the way of that. You clearly love him and want him to do well and it must be tough to find time for him.

Studies show that there are many causes of ADHD symptoms, and almost all of them require no medication to resolve. In some Western countries, ADHD isn't a recognised condition due to the fact that there are many root causes of that kind of behaviour, and many of them are to do with trauma. Trauma sounds like a big word, but actually is just stuff that affects the child that they need to process (loose definition, but go with it).

ADHD is often the "goto" condition to diagnose, whereas actually the child may just need to process stuff. In your case it may be that your son actually needs some help to process what's going on with his sister and the current family balance. It may be that he's worked out that if he slacks, or seems unmotivated, or complains, he gets attention. I am not an expert in this, but it saddens me when medical professionals actually try and save time by giving a diagnosis of ADHD when the child has some stuff going on that he doesn't understand because he's too little and just needs to process it. He needs help to understand his feelings and why he feels the way he does and what can be done to help manage them. Many adults don't understand their feelings, and there's no reason to expect children to do so.

I've probably explained many concepts badly, however check out work by Betsy de Thierry and the Trauma Recovery Centre, especially in this area.

  • Thanks David..I don't think the sibling issue is a major cause of his behaviours. She has mild-moderate CP but is at mainstream school and generally leads a fairly normal life but with lots of appointments. I don;t have an issue with his ADHD diagnosis...I know its something of a spectrum and we don't medicate for its own sake..we did notice improvements once he started on them but occasionally he seems to plateau and a little tweaking is involved. – joblial Feb 28 '15 at 3:48
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It seems for me that you are concentrating too much on the weakness of your kid. When I was young, my father always complained that I was too weak for studying or for life and he was always trying to incentive me to study more. Once, he even told me how bad my life would be if I didnt study. That didnt motivate me. On the contrary, it just made me feel stupid, powerless, sad and mad against him for motivating me by fear, and not by joy.

Luckly, when time came to study for admittance exams on the university, I remembered of my dream as a child of working with airplanes, and guess what? The only university in my country with a course for aeronautical engineering had the most difficult admittance exam in Brazil: 4000 people for 20 places, and it was regarded as an impossible exam by the best students in my school. I studied hard for it for three years, and I passed!

So when you say your son has no motivation for nothing, maybe its only that you are not aware of the activities that motivates him. If all the activities that motivates him are not recognized by you or people who are important to him, of course his natural behaviour will be to supress his interest for them up to the point that he forgets about it, thus losing his complete motivation for life.

Ask him, or try to be aware of, of activities which can make him glow. This may take some time, because those activities are so deeply supressed on him, so it might take some days to realize them. Write them in a list, put the list on your fridge, and remember yourself that always when you see your son doing them, you should incentive it, or at least not supress it. It may seem that they are many activities which are unrelated, but I believe that at some time, they will connect together and you will be able to make a bigger meaning out of it.

  • Thanks for your answer... We don't place too much emphasis on academic achievements - he is only 10 after all and we would support him in whatever he wants to do but I'm afraid we do have to draw the line at allowing him to spend hours on end playing video games. He loves unstructured play but as soon as you or his peers put rules in place he struggles. Its also really difficult to draw out from him why he gets stressed and doesn't want to have a go at so many things that his peers enjoy. As soon as we try to talk it through with him, he closes down – joblial Mar 16 '15 at 4:35
  • I also had difficulty to follow rules. For instance, when I took a course on painting, I choose it to be an "experimental painting" course, where I could learn with no rules. Maybe your kid is just like me in the sense that his learning style is learning by doing and making mistakes. Some people learn by thinking or observing some other people doing stuff, but some learn just by their mistakes. So take this into consideration with your kid. It could also be that he, like me, likes to learn things with enjoyment, or with many people involved, and cant find any reward in doing tasks alone. – user5193682 Mar 17 '15 at 18:22
  • I was computer game addicted from 13 to 15 years old, and my father had the same worries. Computer games allows you to learn on the flow, instead of with the rules. I used this principle for other aspects of my life when I was much older, and it was really useful. With games you are exposed to many iteractions per second, and learning by making mistakes is efficient because you have so many iteractions in a short period of time. On this case, its much quicker than learning by reading rules. Try to find some apps for school learning which uses the same principle, and he will go better at school – user5193682 Mar 17 '15 at 18:33
  • I think using computer games can really enhance some aspects of mental development but it can't be at the expense of all structured activities. He is very resistant to receiving instruction and insists on doing it his own way which would be OK if he would persist if/when this fails but it usually triggers frustration and giving up. I often try and sit with him to work through some (online) maths homework or literacy exercise - it can be an achievement to even get him to start but he quickly loses patience and can become quite confrontational (its boring..you can't make me..stop bugging me" – joblial Mar 19 '15 at 1:26

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