How to Motivate a Depressed Teenager

Motivation can generally be categorized in two different ways: intrinsic and extrinsic. Simply put, an extrinsic reward or motivation is a cookie or praise from a loved one. An intrinsic reward is the sense of accomplishment and pride when achieving a goal. 

Both are important, but intrinsic motivation tends to be more effective, as it represents our inner drive – our emotional needs rather than our wants. It’s great to get the cookie you wanted, but it’s ultimately more fulfilling if your reasons are near and dear to your heart. This is something explored during teen depression treatment, but it’s also something you can practice daily.

One of the most severe problems with teen depression is that it negatively impacts a person’s capacity to experience intrinsic motivation. On the outside, this makes teens with depression seem listless, if not lazy. But looking deeper within, this is a form of pain that affects nearly every aspect of life in a debilitating way. 

Depression also affects extrinsic motivation. A cookie sounds nice, but it might not feel worth the bother. One of the significant symptoms of depression is anhedonia, which ranges from a dampened sense of joy to pure joylessness – things that used to taste good taste less good, and things that used to be fun are less fun. Things that used to be interesting are unimportant. 

The struggle to feel motivated extends beyond schoolwork or other responsibilities. A depressed teen may struggle to find the motivation to get out of bed, let alone brush their teeth and get dressed. 

So, how do you motivate someone with depression? Let’s take a step-by-step approach. 

Adjust Your Expectations

Depression can be a long-term illness. In some cases, it is tied to circumstances and events. Other forms of depression, like major depressive disorder, can be intense and long-lasting, with no significant cause or trigger. Some teens experience persistent depression, or dysthymia, which can last years. 

But there are good and bad days in the midst of it all. No one with depression chooses to be sad, and it’s a fight every day. Some days go better than others, and paying attention to when your teen is feeling better and encouraging them is especially important. 

With depression often comes guilt. Many teens who experience depression feel ashamed about their behavior while depressed. They want to do more, but they feel like they can’t. They want to do better, but they feel smothered. It’s a negative cycle, and it is only made worse by the negative observations of others. Calling someone with depression lazy or telling them to “simply” try harder will result in the opposite. Fewer good days, and more bad days. 

Patience and consistent support are best. Be in your teen’s corner. Know that they’re doing their best, even when they don’t seem to be doing much of anything. And when they do get things done, let them know that you’re proud of their efforts. 

Be Supportive and Offer Frequent Affirmation

Affirmations are essential in the long-term management of depression. They are the bread-and-butter of emotional support loved ones can offer a depressed teenager. Recurring negative thoughts is a pillar of a depressive mood disorder, and fighting against those thoughts with positive affirmations helps your teen understand that the people around them support and believe in them. Think of it as fighting negativity, on a daily basis. 

Encouraging your teen to repeat affirmations back to themselves can be annoying, but it also helps. Vocalizing it – giving the positive thought a voice – can make a meaningful difference over time. Some positive affirmations your teen might want to try or hear can include: 

  • You’ve made it through other challenges and got this one, too. 
  • You’re capable and strong. Depression does not control you at all times. 
  • You’re not alone; many others are fighting against dark thoughts, too, and your family/friends are here. 
  • I’m proud of you for today/what you’ve done/what you’re doing. 
  • It’s one step at a time, one day at a time. 
  • You deserve to be happy. 
  • You’re valuable, even when you don’t feel productive. 

Related: 9 Warning Signs of Adolescent Depression

Look For Help Together

A parent or friend cannot take away a teen’s depression. But they can do everything in their power to help fight it. In addition to positive affirmations, thoughts, and support, one of the ways you can make an impact in a depressed teen’s life is to encourage them to explore the benefits of teen depression treatment and support them throughout the treatment process. 

It’s not enough to suggest therapy. Talk to your teen about seeing a professional together. Drive them to their sessions. Suggest or talk to the therapist about family therapy or joint sessions. Be involved and learn more about how you can help your teen – such as reminding them to take care of their daily journaling or asking about their therapy homework. 

Extrinsic motivation can still work. Talk to your teen about ways to help promote healthy habits that can contribute to managing depressive thoughts. For example, extra game time if they promise to go for a daily walk, and so on. 

Avoid Judging or Scolding Them

Tough love does not help. Understandably, seeing a teen struggle day in and day out with even basic tasks and responsibilities can make some parents feel frustrated and angry – but taking that anger out on your teen will always backfire when the enemy in question is their mental health. 

Negative emotions feed on other negative emotions and combating depression with scolding, and anger may elicit a short-term burst of energy out of fear or shame. Still, it will only make things much, much worse. Patience and positivity are key. 

Test Your Teen for Learning Disabilities and Other Conditions

Depression often co-occurs with other mental and neurodevelopmental conditions, including learning disabilities (dyslexia), ADHD, and anxiety disorders. These can interact and be exacerbated by symptoms of depression – making it even harder for teens to progress in treatment. 

If your teen struggles in more ways than one, they may need more than outpatient treatment. An inpatient treatment facility like Visions can help teens who need specialized treatment get the additional care and attention they require. 

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