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Adolescent Apathy and What Loss of Caring Can Mean

When adolescents lose the capacity to care, parents should take notice.

Along with “You can’t make me!” another great rallying cry of adolescence is, “I don’t care!” Both expressions are meant to defy parental authority—in the first case, discounting the power of parental command, in the second discounting the impact of any negative consequence the parents might decide to apply.

But beyond this common use of “I don’t care!” is a serious psychological issue that parents must be mindful of—the expression of apathy and the various meanings it can convey. Consider just a few examples of apathy commonly encountered along the path of adolescent growth.

Apathy as Pretense

“I don’t care if you don’t like how I’m changing!” an 11-year-old explodes as parents censor the new tough talk he has learned testing young manliness with male peers. But the parents stick to their standards: “How you talk with friends on the playground is your business; but how you talk at home is ours. None of that language here!”

It’s hard to be an early adolescent because what gains you points with peers can earn you demerits with parents. He still wants his parents’ good opinion, but to save face he pretends it doesn’t matter. His statement of apathy in this situation is really bravado speaking. What he actually feels is, “I care too much about what you think of the new me to let my caring show.”

Parents need to see the “I don’t care what you think” statement for what it is, and avoid strong statements of disapproval at this vulnerable age. Disagree with the young person’s choices when they feel they must, but don’t criticize his character when doing so.

Apathy as Boredom

“There’s nothing I care to do!” moans the early adolescent (around ages 9-13) at a loss of how she can occupy herself. Having discarded childhood hobbies and possessions because she no longer wants to be defined and treated as a child, she doesn’t yet have older likes, interests, and activities to replace those that have been let go. When it comes to knowing how to meaningfully engage herself, for a while she is riding on empty.

While parents are often inclined to trivialize boredom in their adolescent, it is actually a very painful emotion. It is an expression of loneliness. The young person can’t find a satisfying way to connect with herself, other people, or the world. She feels disconnected, at loose ends.

Although short-term boredom creates the opportunity for the adolescent to develop her own resources and entertain herself, long-term boredom should catch parental attention because it is often a staging area for impulse. The young person is willing to do something, anything, with friends to escape the emptiness they share. This is a time when parents need to keep their adolescent adequately busy so impulsive risk-taking to cope with long term boredom is not allowed to rule.

Apathy as Defiance

“Who cares about grades?” protests the middle school student to parents, as academic performance falls from failing effort. “It should be good enough to just get by.” The formerly high performing young man is rejecting the importance of school achievement to which he was committed as a child and that his parents still are.

By this expression of apathy, he intends to show the adult world he is no longer wants to be wed to the values of childhood. Not caring about what mattered to the child and what matters to parents feels like an expression of adolescent independence.

But for his future sake at this disaffected time, the parents insist that all school work will be done, and apply their oversight to make it so. “Although we understand how school performance matters less to you at the moment, we still expect you to pay attention in class, complete all the homework, study for all the tests, and if you can’t make yourself do all this, we will give you our support of our supervision, even if that means showing up at school to help you take care of studies there.”

Apathy as a Defense

“I don’t care about serious dating anymore,” declares the high school junior who has just been jilted by her boyfriend of two years, with whom she had fallen in love, but who it turned out hadn’t been in lasting love with her. Now she discovers some painful lessons about love: love is not guaranteed to be forever; the one we love the most can hurt us the worst; our love for someone is not always the best measure of their love for us.

"Caring takes daring" is the lesson the young person has learned because when it comes to love, the risk of hurt is always there. Apathy at this juncture doesn’t heal the suffering, but it does defend against becoming enamored again anytime soon. Respecting this decision, parents can also help the young person appreciate good aspects of this last relationship that can strengthen the next loving attachment when she feels ready to try again.

Apathy as Indifference

Adolescence can be a very self-centered and socially limiting experience, in the extreme causing young people to lose empathy for others in their preoccupation with self-interest and confinement to their own small social circle of friends.

In the first case, concern for others is sacrificed to caring only for self, ignoring the needs of those they live with. This is when parents complain: “He only thinks of himself!” In the second case, the high school student may be so committed to a social clique and sticking to her own kind that there is insensitivity and indifference to the welfare of others outside of her immediate associations. This is when the young person seems to think: “Who cares about them?”

Because healthy personal relationships must work two ways and not just one (the adolescent’s way), and because after leaving school the young person must be prepared to function in a larger and more diverse world, lack of empathy and range in personal relationships will not serve the growing adolescent well. Therefore parents need to insist on mutuality with them and do all they can to broaden experience and enlarge sense of social affiliation while she is still living at home.

Apathy as Cynicism

Fresh out on one’s own and facing a large impersonal world and job market that is inhospitable, the last stage adolescent finally secures an entry-level job, earning just enough to move in with two similarly situated friends who need a third roommate to make rent on the one bedroom apartment they now all share. What a come-down from the comforts of living at home!

Because the present is discouraging and the future looks unpromising, it’s tough to care about life when life doesn’t appear to care much about you. If you just graduated from college and there are not the opportunities you thought awaited someone with your advanced education, life can feel unfair. Add pessimism to apathy and cynicism can result, creating an outlook with little hope and a lot of disappointment and anger. True independence is a letdown when the world is revealed as the hard, impersonal place it is. Now the work of making one’s way begins.

Because cynicism makes it difficult to stay motivated, it can be the enemy of effort at a time when summoning the will to keep trying, to try even harder, is what is needed. Although parents should not spare the older adolescent this time of struggle, they can offer encouragement and also provide perspective by relating some of the trials they went through starting out in life many years ago.

Apathy from Substance Use

At any stage of adolescence, when life gets hard to engage with, it’s tempting to escape from these demands, which is where a lot of substance use comes in. The escape is about freedom — freedom from worrisome or painful cares, freedom for unrestricted and uninhibited pleasure. The effect of substance use is an altered psychological state.

Depending on the dose and frequency, substance use can take the user from sober caring, to less caring, to acting carelessly, to becoming carefree, to not caring at all if intoxication or getting wasted occurs. When regular use of alcohol, marijuana, or other psychoactive drugs becomes established, a loss of normal caring can disable effort. Now apathy erodes ambition, motivation falls away, and healthy functioning is harder to maintain.

Another impact of substance use on apathy is not caring about consequences and engaging in dangerous risk-taking. In either case, parents should push for an assessment of use, and if advised, see about getting substance use counseling, treatment, or support group help.

Apathy from Depression

“What differences does anything make?” exploded the high school senior. She just lost her best friend to a fatal car accident a month ago. “Nothing matters anymore!” That’s what her parents report in counseling, explaining how “our daughter’s just feeling really sad, but she’ll get past it. We just need to give time.”

However, based on other data that they share, I disagree. “She’s showing signs that she needs help. She’s no longer striving on her own behalf. She doesn’t care about the future. She looks downcast all the time. She’s stopped socializing with friends and just stays by herself. She’s given up working out. She’s not interested in communicating and gets angry when you want to talk with her. I think she’s becoming seriously depressed. Significant loss of any kind always carries the risk of a depressive response.”

It can be a vicious cycle. Depression can breed apathy, and apathy can sustain depression. Hopeless, helpless, pessimistic, fatalistic, when the young person loses sight of what used to matter they may need help reviving their sense of positive purpose in life to restore healthy functioning. Obviously, if despondency sounds at all suicidal—“life is not worth living,” “I feel like ending it all,” “death preferable to living in pain”—parents should get the young person immediately assessed for risk of self-harm and given counseling help.

Apathy can mask a variety of problems. The lesson for parents is: Don’t ignore protracted or pronounced apathy in your adolescent. It can signify something serious going on that warrants your attention.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, Surviving Your Child's Adolescence.

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