When Your Teen Just Doesn’t Care

“I don’t care!”

Ever heard that phrase pop out of your teen’s mouth? My guess is 99.9 percent of all teens have expressed their indifference to mom and dad. It can be maddening to watch a child shrug their shoulders or roll their eyes at something we say. I mean, how did kids get to be so apathetic today anyways? Typically, apathy is the symptom of a bad attitude. So the way we try to get past a teen’s indifference is to point out the obvious—your attitude needs to change! But how do you get an indifferent teenager to care again? 

Fear-Based Apathy

The apathetic teen is not a kid without emotions. In fact, I’d say that a kid who says he “doesn’t care” may actually care a whole lot! What I’ve found is that you have to look past the attitude to see what is driving a child’s apathy towards life. Often, an indifferent teen is struggling with fear—a fear of life and the world. He hates going to school, is afraid of social events, or angry about the state of the world. This outlook is common among kids who look around at things like famine, war, disease, murder, inequality and think, Hey, this is not right! I don’t know if I really care about this world after all. It’s a pretty crummy place. So they develop an attitude of apathy and try to block everything out. Even though they give their best effort to appear shielded, apathetic teens are still struggling to express anxiety, worry and fear over situations in their life.

For the teen who is trying to overcome their anxiety through a cavalier attitude, you have to help them put life into perspective. Talk about the things worth celebrating. Show your apathetic son or daughter that life has more joy and happiness than what he or she can see at the moment.

And let your teen know you believe in them. Many teens fear they don’t have what it takes for learning, for working, or succeeding in life. They compare themselves to others and refuse to try to do something they don’t think they can do—or do well. So here’s where you can guide them into places and projects where they can experience success and satisfaction—a part-time job, a new sport, or a fun project that you can even do alongside them. This will help them overcome the fear of failure that many apathetic teens face. It is easy to feign apathy rather than admit fear. That’s why it’s important to create a safe relationship with them. Let them know that you, too, have fears that you must face. Being vulnerable with them and allowing them to process their real feelings will go a long way in releasing them from their fears. And it will equip them to face future fears as they arise.

Grief-Based Apathy

As teenagers begin to face the realization that the world isn’t the happy and carefree place they once thought it was, they might experience a deep sense of sadness and grief. Coming face-to-face with death and tragedy causes a loss of innocence. Sometimes a traumatic experience in a teen’s life can be a secret source of grief. As parents, we don’t know everything that is happening in our child’s life. My parents didn’t know everything I did as a teenager. And I’m guessing it was the same for you. So you can be sure that you don’t know everything your teenager is going through either. If grief is fueling their apathy, then we need to help our kids learn to process and deal with that emotion in a healthy way.

Be attentive to your teen. Notice the little and big things that indicate what he or she is really experiencing. Have patience and encourage him or her to not only express his sadness, but his anger, and frustration, too. Show them that there are healthy ways to express all the emotions they feel.

A friend who worked with me at Kanakuk Kamp in the ‘80s made a statement that has stayed with me through the years. He said, “The moods of a lifetime are often set in the all-but-forgotten events of childhood.” If your son holds on to his grief instead of processing it and moving past it, that grief may become the “mood of a lifetime.” And being apathetic may be your daughter’s way of trying to navigate these difficult feelings, when she really needs your help to process them in a safe and respectable way.

Anger-Based Apathy

There is nothing wrong with being angry.  When we see acts of cruelty, scenes of chaos, or loss of life, it’s natural to feel anger and rage over a fallen world where bad things happen to good people. But in the same way that adults need to channel their anger into appropriate outlets, teen anger must be dealt with or it will grow into an “I-just-don’t-care-anymore” attitude—or even something more destructive.

So direct your teens to acceptable ways of expressing anger. Show them appropriate ways to let off steam. You can write a letter, go for a run, listen to music, paint a picture, build something, or even talk it out. Encourage them to use those angry feelings to do something, rather then let them boil inside. I’ve found the best way to break an apathetic attitude is to get your teen to serve others. Apathy is really a preoccupation with yourself. So when you take a kid on a mission trip, serve a soup kitchen, visit a nursing home, or make dinner for your sick neighbors, you are replacing a teenager’s self-obsession with a focus on helping others.

When our kids say, “I don’t care,” the easy response is to say, “You’re being apathetic!” But pointing out a kid’s bad attitude doesn’t change it. Breaking your son or daughter out of their indifference requires getting to the root of the problem, and addressing those feelings. It also may require changing your own attitude. Do you complain about problems at work, church, or at home, but never take steps to get involved in making change happen? Would you rather talk than take action to do something? Apathy can be infectious. So if you’re dealing with a teen who doesn’t care, make sure you do! And make sure it shows in your actions.

Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston is the founder and executive director of Heartlight Ministries, a residential counseling facility for adolescents in crisis. He is also a popular radio host and speaker and leads parenting seminars across the country. He and his wife, Jan, have served families and counseled youth for more than 40 years. They have two grown children and four grandchildren.