How to Motivate a Teenager with Depression

Does your teenager seem unmotivated, listless or downright lazy? Many teens do. There is a high incidence of motivational difficulties among adolescents and it can show up as listlessness, fatigue, inactivity, poor follow-through, non-compliance, academic underperformance and social withdrawal. But while plain old laziness may appear to be the culprit, that’s an unlikely explanation. All kids want to do well. Most would love to get straight A’s, please their parents, impress their peers, and excel at music or sports or whatever interests they may have.

But adolescence is a complicated and sensitive time and many teens find that their motivation to pursue excellence—or even an acceptable level of mediocrity—is severely compromised by physical, emotional, social or neurological obstacles that they may little understand. Often what appears to laziness is really avoidant behavior—a coping response based on the pain associated with trying and failing repeatedly despite their best efforts. Over time, this learned helplessness is labeled as “laziness” by teachers and parents, a label that is much easier to bear than labels the child may suspect are more accurate, such as “stupid” or “incapable.”

An apparently intelligent and capable student who just can’t get it together with regard to school work, summer job, athletics or other pro-social activities may appear lazy, but a long list of common adolescent afflictions may be at the root of the teen’s low motivation. More often than not, the teen is just as baffled as her parents and teachers about the root of the problem. The best way to explore an understanding of your own teen’s motivational struggles is to observe and engage her in a spirit of compassion and non-judging curiosity. It’s probably accurate to assume that your teen, like most people, wants to do well in life. An understanding of the wide range of potential motivational obstacles can help guide these observations and conversations, helping you achieve a better understanding of what makes your child tick or, as the case may be, not tick.

Some common causes of low motivation among teens are:

FEAR OF FAILURE: Teens may develop such a fear of failure that they are unwilling to try in the first place. These teens may fear that the harder they try, the more crushing a failure would because failing at something you try hard to do may reflect a basic incompetence. This fear afflicts several kinds of teens. Some bear the weight of intense external pressure to perform—either from parents, peers, teachers or the success of an older sibling. Others may have experienced failure in a way that led to shame and pain. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University researcher, has noticed that students who are inordinately praised from a young age for their intrinsic abilities or intelligence rather than for their hard work can become avoidant too. They come to feel that any failure is a threat to their image as intelligent or capable.

LACK OF INTRINSIC MOTIVATORS: Some children find external praise and reward almost addictive—especially when coupled with a very high degree of external structure and adult direction. But with the dawn of adolescence, many of these young people fail to make the necessary developmental shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation. They have spend so much energy pursuing what makes others happy that they find it difficult to know and pursue what makes them happy—a critical component of successful individuation.

DEPRESSION: Depression can present as laziness, since depressed teens may appear listless, have difficulty completing tasks and sleep a great deal. Their tendency toward irritability may make parents think that their laziness is a form of willfulness or defiance.

ANXIETY AND PHOBIAS: Anxieties and phobias can lead to severely avoidant behaviors. Young people may not feel comfortable discussing the feelings that are causing this avoidance; in these cases the reluctance to engage in certain activities may appear to result from a lack of interest rather than from deep discomfort.

POOR DIET: A poor diet—especially one high in saturated fats and processed sugars, and low in vegetables and whole grains—can lead to fatigue, irritability, depression, reduced concentration and the overwhelming urge to fall asleep in the middle of the day! This is one of the easier motivation-killers to identify because it is directly observable. A related issue is that of chronic dehydration. Inadequate liquid intake (especially in the form of simple water or water with electrolytes) can lead to fatigue and slower cognitive function, both of which result in greatly reduced motivation and productivity. Chronic dehydration is especially a problem for student-athletes and students who are taking certain medications, such as lithium.

POOR SLEEP HABITS: Adolescent insomnia may have any of a wide range of causes—social, emotional, biochemical, etcetera; but whatever the cause, the lack of sleep itself can reduce motivation by causing a high level of daytime fatigue, slow cognition, depression and/or anxiety. Once poor sleep habits are identified as a problem, the cause of those poor sleep habits must be understood and addressed.

SUBSTANCE ABUSE: Alcohol, marijuana, barbiturate and stimulant abuse can lead to listlessness and disinterest in normally engaging activities. Even the overuse of substances such as caffeine or stimulant drinks can have this affect.

LEARNING DISABILITIES: Many very intelligent and capable young people struggle with undiagnosed learning disabilities that make them appear unmotivated or lazy.

  • NLD: Teens with non-verbal learning disabilities have difficulty understanding or expressing non-verbal cues like facial expressions or tone of voice. This can make them seem like they simply don’t care when those around them express things like urgency, irritation, enthusiasm or anger. This isn’t a lack of concern or motivation; it’s simply the NLD sufferer’s inability to understand the language of non-verbally expressed emotion.
  • ADD: Students with ADD often struggle with organization, focus and memory. Since many sufferers of ADD exhibit a high level of intelligence, lost or forgotten homework may not seem innocent to teachers and parents, leading to the conclusion that the child simply doesn’t care. This honest difficulty with follow through is frequently labeled in these intelligent children as simple laziness.
  • Dyslexia: Dyslexia can be a highly challenging impediment for otherwise bright students. The amount of time it takes a dyslexic child to read or write may not match their teacher’s expectations based on the child’s obvious verbal intelligence. In these cases the teacher may conclude that the child is simply not motivated to complete assignments. Many such students struggle for so long without success that their motivation does, indeed, lapse profoundly.
  • Etc.

UNDIAGNOSED VISION OR HEARING ISSUE: When students repeatedly fail to understand what others assume they should, they may learn helplessness and stop trying. Tragically, certain visual and auditory problems often go unnoticed for years. A student who is repeatedly chided for not listening to instructions or for not completing tasks written on the chalkboard may actually be suffering from a mild vision or hearing problem. These students often assume that they’re either not as smart as other students or, indeed, maybe they just don’t care enough; these students often give up trying at all and are finally labeled “lazy.”

So before you yield to the conclusion that your daughter is lazy, remember that all children, teens and adults ultimately want to succeed. Armed with that understanding, you are more likely to approach her apparent laziness with curiosity instead of reactivity or judgment. If you suspect that one or more of the above factors may be impeding your child’s performance and motivation, a battery of psycho-educational testing by a trained psychiatrist may be a valid next step for understanding the problem. And understanding the problem, of course, is the key to finding a solution and giving your child a new opportunity to pursue the success she wants and deserves.