How Can I Motivate My Kid When I'm So Often Overwhelmed?
We asked parents about their struggles, and what question they wanted to ask us about parenting. Here's what happened.
Your Parenting Questions, Answered!
Have you got a kid who seems unmotivated? Disorganized? Just… a lot?
Are you wondering how to keep your cool, balance everything, and stay on top of parenting while your neurodivergent kid keeps growing and changing and struggling?
You’re going to want to watch this video (or listen) to hear my conversation with Amy Weber, LCSW. We’re answering some fantastic questions from parents of neurodivergent kids!
Tell me in the comments, which part do you most relate to?
It’s a little long, so here’s an audio version if you prefer, and the transcript is below.
I love it so much, I’m also posting this conversation on Apple Podcast Spotify Podcast and YouTube!
Kate: We are answering questions for the wonderful people who filled out our parent survey. If you fill out the parent survey this week, we will come back and answer your questions too!
Amy: Thank you to the people who did fill out the survey.
Kate: Yeah. So we're just gonna go in the order that we received them. It's totally anonymous.
If this applies to you, good.
A lot of these apply to me.
The first question that we're going to talk about and try to answer is:
"Getting my kids to listen and calm down…
“How do I get my child to do schoolwork?"
Amy: Okay. So, the listening, the calming down and the schoolwork, are all related. What I would say to that is to get curious.
What I am wondering about is: what does your child think about schoolwork? Besides it's boring or it's too hard. Is it all too hard? Is it particular subjects that are too hard? Is it worksheets that they don't like? What specifically? I am very curious about what's underneath the, I don't wanna do schoolwork.
And the trouble listening as well. And, remaining calm and remaining focused. My guess is that that's part of the problem with schoolwork, right? It's hard to hear the directions. It's hard to focus on what's happening when everybody's getting their materials out. And. And that it's hard to remain in your seat for any amount of time or extended amount of time.
We expect way too much of our kids.
That's where I would start. I would get curious about schoolwork for that child and about listening and following directions and calming down and all of those things. Maybe not all at once but pick one, and get curious about it and see where that takes you.
I think a lot can be accomplished just by Listening to what the child's concerns are and then empathizing with those concerns. And really empathy not "Yeah, I hear you, but you've still gotta do it." No. "I really hear you. That's really hard for you... and what else?"
Really listening to what the concerns are, and you might not get all of them all at once.
You might have to go back. And hear more before you really get to, to what's underneath that. But that puts you both on the same team as opposed to you want him to do his schoolwork and he doesn't want to, and then you are fighting.
So anytime you can both be on the same side is a win.
Kate: Now I know with Ocean, just a little follow up question. He often will shut me down and say that I don't wanna talk about this right now. Do you have any suggestions for that?
Amy: So I would, again, empathize. "I totally get it. You really don't wanna talk about this right now." Sometimes I can get in with "Can I just ask you one question about it?" And then I will stop. And the kids will call me out because of course, you ask one question and a million more pop into your head, and, and sometimes the kids are like, Okay. Yeah. It's not so bad to talk about this. And sometimes the kids are like, "No, no, you said one question and you asked it and that's it."
But making an appointment for another time, like, when would be a good time for us to talk about this and letting them drive that bus a little bit.
Kate: And then my own executive function skills get in the way because I'll say, "Let's, do this again," and then I actually then have to remember to keep that appointment.
Amy: Yes. Yeah. And setting an alarm, but I would treat it like an appointment.
Kate: Really good idea. Yeah. All right. Can we go on to a similar but differently phrased question?
Kate: I'm not sure about the ages, but these things, they evolve over time.
And this one's about a teen:
"How can I get my teen motivated when he has no currency and never has?"
Amy: Most kids have motivation for something. Oftentimes it's video games or screen time or hanging out with friends or the motivation is there for the things that they love and the motivation is not there for the things that are harder or more challenging or for whatever reason, just more difficult.
So again, I think getting really curious with them about not, why. I wouldn't ask why because they're gonna say, "I don't know." But, what's hard about this?
"What's hard about getting this done? I see that you are able to do a million levels at a time for your video games, and you're so good at that and you're so motivated at it and you really stick with it. Why is it hard to do math?"
And see if you can get underneath. Again what the struggle is, and our kids have so many. There are so many things that get in their way, right?
It's not just the organization. That's like the top level.
It's the impulse control.
It's the emotional regulation.
It's the frustration tolerance.
The three big ones. Impulse control is the bottom. Then emotional regulation and then frustration tolerance is third. So if you think about a tower or a pyramid, organization is at the top. And impulse control is at the very bottom. And there's lots and lots in the middle that we have to master.
So getting curious about that and then thinking about how to support the impulse control and the emotional regulation, the frustration tolerance and the task initiation.
All of these steps, all of these executive functioning skills that end in organization, but don't start there, can be really helpful.
So sometimes breaking it up into bite size, like you will do one problem and then take a break. Coming up with a solution together that honors who they are, but also gets the work done can also help. But making them part of the solution is often the, the best way to go.
Kate: Yeah. I think of the idea of buy-in: "Instead of 15 minutes of homework, would you be able to do 10 minutes of homework? No way. What about five minutes of homework? Maybe. All right. What about three minutes of homework?"
"Yes, I can definitely do three minutes of homework." "Okay, great. Three minutes." Or something like that?
Amy: Yeah. Set a timer and really stick to it.
Kate: And then be like, okay. Yeah. And not push it. Kind of like asking questions, like, don't push it.
Amy: And I love the phrasing. Would you be willing? "Would you be willing to do 10 minutes of homework?" Mm-hmm. "Would you be willing to do any? Where are you today in your ability to, to get this done?" And I think the other thing is to keep trying because it might work the first time and then be a total failure the second time.
That doesn't mean it didn't work, it just means to try again.
Kate: That's a really good point. “It's not working” is something I hear when people try mindful parenting strategies a lot, because it takes time. Do you wanna talk about like why it takes time and why it's not a quick fix?
I think it's, so much of this is about building, or rebuilding, a relationship and really reprogramming our brains because especially if we were raised in a different way our initial reaction is going to be, either top down or just give up and say, it's too late, I can't handle it. Or, whatever. And it takes time.
That's why these scripts can be so helpful cuz it's just like something that we can practice over and over again and it almost gets boring. And when it gets boring, it means it's starting to create this groove in our brains that's this new habit.
So it's harder to walk this, this new path at first, but then the groove gets gets deeper. It gets easier and easier to make that choice instead of a reactive choice.
Do you have anything to add to that? Why when it's not working, it might just be about keeping on trying.
Amy: What you said is exactly right and I think it's like anything, like any new habit, like any new food that we're trying toilet training, all of the skills that you've already taught your child and that you've learned yourself, they take time.
Nothing happens overnight and it is hard to sit with that and it can be hard to sit with, with not being perfect at it right away. Our own frustration tolerance gets in the way. But the more we can practice it and the more we can be aware and the more we can think about I have to say no to this outrageous request, but is there something I can say yes to?
The easier it will be. And the faster we will be at catching ourselves. And then your child will start to respond because they'll be a little bit wary at first. This is a totally different way of, of being in a relationship with each other.
Kate: Yeah. And our kids really sniff it out.
Amy: Yes. “What are you trying to do to me?” But they will also come around and realize that this is a different way of being and it might be a nicer way of being being like, this does not feel good to anybody.
Kate: Well, one time I remember, because I asked Ocean about that, and he said that, it’s attention and attention, whether it's positive or negative to him is still attention.
It's still having connection in that relationship. So I thought that was so interesting, and so insightful on his part. Like it didn't really matter to him that it was a negative to me, a negative interaction. But, he was in control of the, of the relationship and the moment between us.
All right. Ah, shall we move to the next? The next one is similar and really speaks to my heart.
“Supporting my child through executive functioning challenges...
“How do I make it all happen?”
Amy: I mean, it, it brings up a lot of things. Number one, I think my first thought when I read that question was, do you have to make it all happen? And what if you didn't?
Kate: What if there were others? Not having to hold the whole burden on one person's shoulders.
Amy: Yeah. And what if You were able to lean into some supports and what if you were able to trust that your kid is gonna get the executive functioning skills that he needs when he needs them. Which won't be necessarily on your timeline or the teacher's timeline, or the school's timeline. But it will be on his timeline and it will happen.
Kate: I don't know if it's she, he, they. Oh, okay. So just making it real more, more general.
Amy: Yes, yes. So can you trust that this will happen as it's supposed to unfold, as it's supposed to happen? And that your kid will get the skills that they need when they need them.
And that's hard. That's really hard.
It's really hard to trust. It's really hard to not project into the future. It putting yourself in the moment of. "Where is my kid? Who is my kid now?" And there are a lot of skills that you can support right now, and I talked about them in the first question.
Impulse control is a fantastic skill that you can support right now. Emotional regulation frustration tolerance, and just working on those three is quite a lot.
Kate: We've been working on them for 12 years.
Amy: I continue to work on them for myself. But those are the foundational skills that underlie all of our executive functioning skills.
And the best way to support those is through play.
I know that a lot of people have planners and organizers and, and all kinds of tools. And those are all great. When the kid understands what they're for and how they're supposed to use them and they're motivated to use them, they make sense to the child.
But also, kids learn through play and there are lots of games that involve impulse control. Red light, green light. Simon says, all, all of those kind of old school playground games all teach us impulse control and just playing with your kid is amazing for many, many, many reasons.
But that will also teach them those skills. There are a million board games if your child is motivated by board games or interested in playing board games that I can, put together a list for you.
Kate: Playing those games can help to build these particular executive function skills?
Amy: Yes. In a playful way.
And some days we're really great at managing frustration and impulse control and all of those things. And other days we're not. As adults. And our kids don't have the ability to look into the future and understand why these skills are important and, and that this matters in some way. And that's true for the schoolwork and the homework too. They just don't get it that grades matter. And yes, it's our job to, to, bring that into our family values and, and teach our kids and make sure that they understand that education is important to us and why.
But also there are reasons why our kids have a hard time.
Kate: Thanks. Yeah, I mean that's super reassuring.
I'm noticing the questions are getting more and more general.
"Can I say everything? It's just a lot to balance all three kids working and my neurodivergent child. It can be hard to keep a cool head and be thoughtful about everything when I'm often overwhelmed."
Amy: Yes, it can be. It's really, really hard to be thoughtful about everything. Nobody can do that. We're human beings and we're not built like that. We are flawed.
Kate, you should chime in here because I feel like this is your expertise. But yeah, how does it feel to know that you can't do it all? And can you forgive yourself? Can you give yourself some grace?
And know that whatever you are giving is 100% of what you have to give in that day, in that moment. And if you are not taking care of yourself, it's going to be even harder to take care of others.
Kate: Yeah. And even if you are. It is so much to balance and then to have that expectation of being calm all the time when it is really just is, it is not like a personal problem, it is a structural, societal problem that parents in general, are not supported enough. Parents of neurodivergent kids or kids with any disability, parents with disabilities, parents who are neurodivergent, not supported enough! There's not enough support in our culture, so it's not a you problem, it's a we problem.
I feel in my body just by saying that, even though I'm the one saying it, I feel a little release in my spine, in my upper back muscles. I feel the weight lifted a little off my shoulders and just having those moments, it's just like building those grooves of a new habit when we're relating to our child.
How can we build grooves of a new habit in our relationship with ourselves?
Two things that Amy and I talk about a lot and we really wanna bring in every time we're coaching parents is, start with mindfulness, knowing we can't be mindful all the time. We're not expecting that. We can't be calm all the time. We can't be present all the time. We can't say the right thing all the time. But beginning any group coaching call, weaving mindfulness in and starting with that, so we're really grounding in our present moment situation and getting the habit in our bodies of feeling that sense of groundedness. That in and of itself can reduce the overwhelm even though all the systemic issues are still there.
And then ending with celebration.
Celebration at the beginning or the middle or the end, like mindfulness and celebration need to be woven in to everything else because otherwise we get into this downward spiral of “I'm not doing enough. I've done it wrong, that means there's something bad about me.”
And by committing to making a change, having that idea of guilt or shame that I've done something wrong can really block us from willingness to try something new. If I'm telling myself, if I need to try something new, it must mean there's something wrong with me. I really wanna invite you to drop that and be open to mistakes.
Because mistakes in parenting are universal, absolutely universal. There is not one single parent ever who has lived on this planet, who has made zero mistakes.
So embrace the mistakes. Practice mindfulness to ground yourself in the present moment, in your body, in your breath. Use what helps you to to feel less overwhelmed, even though the situation is a lot. And build your own emotional regulation, right? Your own frustration tolerance.
And then remember to celebrate those little wins.
So every little win, instead of: "I can't possibly do all of this and stay calm all the time." Was there one time this week when you handled something pretty well and you stayed calm? Talk that up. Celebrate that.
Amy: And if you say, "No, I was just terrible all week," I would challenge you to really dig a little deeper because nobody's terrible all week. Not our kids and not...
Kate: Well, I don't know, have you met me? ;D
Amy: There is always something to celebrate. My sister used to celebrate "We got through dinner and nobody fell off their chair. Woohoo! We're gonna celebrate."
Those little things, those little wins, are so important to notice. To notice for our kids to notice for ourselves. And they keep us from getting swamped down in the muck.
Kate: And so much of it is about comparison, and that belief that we are the only ones who wanna throw the baby out the window. We're not the only ones. We've all had those thoughts. Maybe not that thought. I don't know. I had that thought, I didn't act on it, of course. But we all struggle at times. Especially parents of neurodivergent kids. It's harder. It is harder.
Amy: Yes. Yes. And being in a relationship with anybody is a struggle. I mean, I think about how many times I've wanted to throw my husband out the window. Just in the last week alone, and I didn't, and I stayed the course, but it is challenging to be in a relationship with somebody. Owning that challenge I think is part of being human.
Such a good question. Thank you.
Kate: Being human with not enough support in our culture.
Here's the final question:
“How to parent an adolescent? LOL.”
I can't help laughing out loud.
Amy: I think that you parent an adolescent the same way you parent your younger child. With curiosity and with keeping them close and trying to be the answer to them. They're going to naturally want to spend more and more time with peers, and that is normal and that is fine and important. And it is important for you to always be that steady home base for them to come home to. And while it feels totally overwhelming to be entering into a new phase, you've already done this. You moved from infancy to toddlerhood and that felt overwhelming. Oh my God, how am I gonna deal with this walking, talking human being?
And you moved from there into the pre-K years, and you moved into the grade school years. And you've been able to navigate that somehow. You had the skills and you trusted yourself and those same skills are gonna serve you in adolescence.
Kate: I do wanna point out, when I think of moving from baby to toddlerhood, and when I think of moving from elementary to adolescence or younger kids to adolescents, I do wanna point out that age-based milestones have always been triggering for me, because of Ocean's development. I mean clearly that's true for many parents here. I think what you're saying is like when those transitions happen, whatever age kids are, when those obvious transitions happen. And I was thinking when you were talking like, Hey, I made it from Sunday to Monday and that was a big like push and there was a lot of rebellion involved and there was like difference of opinions and difference of motivation.
I was also thinking about parents whose kids are not interested in peers maybe yet, or are just not interested in peers or don't appear to be interested in peers and what that's like.
I just wanna get this other thought out because I might forget. This is why Ocean calls out in class all the time. ‘Cause he is afraid he's gonna forget.
I have been intentionally pushing our family to change certain things now that Ocean is getting older. Just around mindset. Rather than showing your love by giving him everything he wants, I'm not mentioning any names or any other people in the family. But rather than that way of showing love, showing love by teaching him everything he needs to start to become the person who we do expect to eventually have more independence and more intrinsic motivation. I don't know that we have the skills to teach him what he needs, but that's what I'm hoping to make a shift in as Ocean grows into this new role and starts to push us away more.
Which is, like you said, is natural.
Amy: Yes. I think that's so important. And I think your point about developmental milestones and comparing, and all of these stages can be triggering for parents of kids who aren't on the straight and narrow path.
It's so hard to not compare. You see what your friends' kids are doing. You see what kids are doing on social media. You see what kids are doing when you have dismissal at school. And, it's trusting. Trusting that your kid is gonna get there in their time. Which can be hard to do.
Again, we can project into the future about, “Oh my God, what is, what is going to happen to my kid if they aren't showering every day… Or once a week!”
Amy: I mean, our kids are really struggling. They don't recognize their bodies anymore. And I've had the privilege really of being with some adolescents who are really eager to talk about it and willing to talk about the experience. And they're like, "I don't recognize myself. I don't recognize my voice when I speak anymore. I don't recognize my body. It's outta my control."
It's really hard. It's really hard. Whether they are saying it or not, these changes in their bodies, in their friendships, in their relationships, in the school, expectations, all of that.
It's really, really hard to navigate. Just as it's hard for us to navigate the smell of seventh grade gym class.
Kate: Yeah. I think a sense of humor, having some family inside jokes is a really nice way to quickly reconnect and bond when we're not seeing our kids as much. And to feel like we are on the same side or we're on this team together, and that's still true. Yeah.
So, LOL! I'd like to end on that!
I do wanna celebrate your wisdom, Amy. From talking to thousands of kids, it really comes through and I wanna celebrate you for tackling these really challenging questions.
Hopefully this has been helpful to the other parents. I know it's been helpful for me. It helps me feel more hopeful and more connected.
Amy: I wanna celebrate you and your knowledge of brain development and always making me feel calmer.
Like every time you take a nice deep breath, I'm like, oh yeah, I need that too. So thank you for that.
Kate: Yeah. Sometimes I just exaggerate my breath.
Amy: It's always helpful to me.
And thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your story with Ocean and your challenges there, because I think that's really helpful to people.
Kate: It's a prerequisite for making things different. And if we do want things to be different, stepping out of our comfort zone is really prerequisite and getting over the guilt. I just wanna take people through that process of here are three steps to get over your guilt. And we will probably talk about that more, but I just wanna thank you so much. Hopefully it'll be helpful.
Amy and I are planning our next coaching group for parents of neurodivergent kids, and we want your input! The questionnaire will only take a minute or two, and we will answer your questions too!
How Can I Motivate My Kid When I'm So Often Overwhelmed?