Depression Could Be the Cause of Lack of Motivation


I’m in high school and unmotivated to do well in school – I don’t know what to do

DR. RUTHERFORD: This is a very interesting dilemma. Lack of motivation to do well can be caused by a number of things.

MOLLY: This was submitted by a high school student in Redwood City, California. He added that he tries “in school and in life” but feels like he can do a lot better. For example he knows he needs to study for the SAT test but despite knowing that, has no motivation to do his best. He added that he’s wondering if he and his Mom, who is divorced and “single handedly supporting (him) should see a therapist and if so, what type?”
He sounds like he recognizes that he has a problem but is “lost.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think “lost” is the right word. I would start out wondering if he’s worried about leaving his mother on her own if he goes off to college. What if he does well and leaves her behind on her own? It sounds like she’s been having a difficult time, especially about money issues. College costs lots of money; maybe he feels guilty using her money for school. If he doesn’t score well on the SATs and school testing, he won’t be going to college.

MOLLY: That’s interesting. What other things should be considered?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think he might be depressed, which is contributing to his ‘paralysis of will’. We don’t know anything about his relationship with his father – does he financially contribute to the family, does he see his child regularly, is he a good role model for his son, etc. A father’s role is extremely important in a child’s life, particularly in role modeling successful behavior and encouraging that in his son – or, for that matter, a daughter.

MOLLY: Do you think he should see a therapist?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Absolutely! I feel strongly about the importance of him seeking some help. Intuitively, I think he needs to see someone without his mother, so that he can feel freer to talk about any guilt he may be experiencing as well as his depression. I think his Mom can certainly attend a session or so with him.

MOLLY: What kind of therapist should he see?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Someone familiar with treating kids his age who uses a psychodynamic approach. This kind of approach recognizes the importance of understanding feelings and motivations that are under the surface. Just telling him to do well won’t get too far, I’m afraid. He sounds depressed to me and perhaps feeling guilty, too.

MOLLY: Are there long term consequences for not addressing this issue now?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Without a doubt. He is unfocused about his future, even as he knows how important it to focus. He could miss the opportunity to go off to school and all that that implies. He certainly could do that later in his life, but he needs to work through this issue, no matter what. This kind of “paralysis of will” could follow him through much of his life, and that would be a real shame. It sounds like he has great potential.

How To Motivate a High School Student


Our high school-aged son is completely unmotivated to do his work. How can we motivate him?

MOLLY: This came from a mom based in Maryland. She added that they’ve tried many strategies but he has no desire to do better in school.

The parents have tried rewarding good study habits, offering help with organizational habits, and encouraging him to ask them or his teachers for help if he needs it. Nothing has had any effect on his apathetic view toward school. They feel “helpless and at their wits end.”

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s Mom): This sounds like a very difficult yet fairly common family situation. It sounds like this teenager has dug in and made a stand about his school work.

Since all of his parents’ efforts have failed so far, they might want to try a different approach. Have a family meeting and tell him they have no more solutions to offer. They should ask him to share his thoughts about what he wants to do with his life after high school. Strive to make an alliance with him and end the battles about schoolwork.

If he refuses to talk with his parents, therapy is another route you could consider.

MOLLY: Another thing they could do is bring him to visit a college campus and take a student-led tour. He might decide that he would like to go there and that would be worth attending to his schoolwork if that was the goal.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD: Yes, that’s a good idea.

MOLLY: It would show him what exists after high school for those who are motivated to get there.

DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD:  Really this is an excellent idea because it’s so concrete. Kids often have a hard time projecting into the future and showing him the pot of gold at the end of high school can be inspiring.

His parents could also make him get a job during high school and summer vacations. A minimum-wage job would help him understand what life beyond school can be like, especially for those who don’t graduate high school.

I don’t want to overlook the control issue going on between parents and son, and that’s why I suggested that they make an alliance with him rather than continue the battles.

The difficult part for the family will be to realize that an alliance involves some give and some take from each party. For instance, if the teen doesn’t want to do schoolwork that’s fine but he will have to get a job to fill that free time that should have been taken up by schoolwork and school activities. If this is the deal that is struck, the parents will have to agree to stop nagging him about schoolwork.

Sometimes we see kids who need to experience firsthand the disadvantages to working without a high school or college degree before deciding to apply themselves toward bettering their future. Having to work for spending money can be a good lesson here.

The parents are also within their rights to offer to pay for or help pay for a college education within a certain time frame. If the son cannot motivate himself appropriately to live up to this stipulation, then he would have to fund his education himself at a later date.