“Why are teens today so apathetic? It’s like they don’t care about anything.” …
This is a question I’m asked often.
It’s easy to see how one could assume that today’s youth doesn’t care as much as teens once did. Over the years, I’ve discovered several, and at times overlapping, reasons teens become apathetic.
- They’re not as concerned with what parents and other significant adults are concerned about. Many parents and other adults will comment or complain that teens don’t care about school, church, or their future as much as they believe one should.
- Teens are disenchanted with the world today. Underneath a lot of apathy is disappointment and disenchantment with people, institutions, God, and even themselves. This disillusionment is often the result of unmet expectations. We all have them, yet, even many adults are not aware of the expectations they have for life, their future, themselves, others, and God. We are born this way. God created us with a sense of expectancy and it is within us whether one chooses to acknowledge it or not. We even have an entire season of the Church year during Advent to celebrate, practice, and lean into our expectancy as we anticipate and expect the coming of Christ at Christmas.
Expectations are good, in and of themselves. But unconscious expectations are what can get us into trouble. Teens are growing in their conscious awareness of themselves and the world around them. Many times, teens are hurt, let down, and abused WELL before they are aware of their expectations.
As a kid, I expected that God would give me a mom and dad just like he gave all the other kids in my class. But I just got a mom. As a teen, I wasn’t aware that my foul mood, disengagement, and apathy were masks for my disenchantment with God. But they were.
- Teens today are overwhelmed. As much as adults don’t want to hear this, it’s true. Today’s teens have more to care about than adults do. When most of us were teens, we had our plates full worrying about school, family, extracurricular activities, our friends, and social relationships. Today’s teens have to juggle all of those in addition to managing a virtual web of relationships and online personas. We can only care about so much.
Technology has demanded a level of care and attention from teens towards people, news, and situations that are often urgent and time-sensitive but are not important and life-giving. The imminent urge to watch the latest viral video on youtube that you’re friends just snapchatted you about feels like the most important thing you need to do. While in the grand scheme of things, it’s not important at all. But to teens, it feels important and urgent. For some, the feeling can be debilitating.
- The World of Work Has Changed Drastically. I approached the world of work when it was a two-tined fork in the road: Blue-Collar and White-Collar. If I wanted Blue-Collar, then I could quit high school or graduate and then go work in the oilfield in the Gulf of Mexico. If I wanted air conditioning and white-collar work, then I needed to get grades that were good enough to get into college.
Compared to what teens face today, this was simple and easy. Today, while notions of blue and white-collar work still exist, a college degree is not the only ticket to white-collar work. In addition to that, think about the fact that in today’s internet information age, teens have access to more data and information about possible careers and work opportunities. One can imagine how difficult it might be to sort through all of those options and data while trying to find valid sources.
- Apathy is a “safe” place compared to the alternatives. Saying “I don’t care” or simply acting in a way that demonstrates how they don’t care is a safe place for teens. It’s a stance that allows them to save face. It protects them from what they anticipate to be overly simplistic, unhelpful, and outdated advice from parents and other adults. It protects them from admitting to themselves and others that they are sad, disappointed, let down, and angry. To acknowledge these emotions is to face them and feel them again. Very often, teens become apathetic as an unconscious way of keeping these painful feelings at bay. Some are aware of their deeper feelings but don’t want the attention that comes with living in these feelings, nor do they want anyone’s pity. When Jake’s parents were getting divorced, the most repeated phrase was “It is what it is.” Which always translates to “I’m up against a really painful situation that I don’t feel I have the resources internally or externally to make sense of or handle appropriately which renders me to feel powerless to change it.”
Often, teens DO care! But they are exhausted from caring so much. And at times, struggle to find hope in the midst of the complex emotional landscape they may be experiencing.
What can adults do to help?
- Acknowledge the reality.
- Assess the relationship. Depending on your relationship with the teen in your life, you may want to address the issue. If you have a close relationship with a teen and if you’re connected, you may have permission to address this sensitive issue. (Refer to chapter ___ on how to have difficult conversations with teens.) If you are not that close, you might “toe-dip” to test the waters, see how they respond, and see if they’ll open up to you. If not, then the relationship needs work. Unless you feel that it’s urgent to address the apathy now, you might be better off finding alternative ways to connect with that teen. Finding a way the teen will be more receptive instead of getting too heavy, deep, and real right off the bat. (Refer to page ____ for tips on deepening your relationship with teens.)
- Make a stressor list and ask the teen something like “what are the stressors that you face from being a teen and which ones affect you the most?” Then talk with them about the top three stressors that are on their plate.
- Engage them with something they do care about. This can be hard. Especially if it’s the thing that, in your opinion, is keeping them from caring about what you believe they should. Which are things like school, their chores, and their future. For example: For Jack, a self-admitted video game addict, the popular and addictive video game called “League of Legends” was an escape. Sure, he often joked that he wanted to be a professional gamer. But when he was able to get real, he knew and admitted that gaming was an escape. It didn’t truly bring him life. Step 4 could be hard to do if you think that League of Legends is causing the apathy. And while there may be some truth to that, seldom is something like a video game the one and only cause of apathy.
- Consult and utilize the village. It always has and always will take a village to raise a teen. You don’t have to go at it alone. Especially if you’re a parent and having a tough time engaging an apathetic teen, find one adult in their life who knows them and has contact with them. Ask them what they see. Share with them your concerns. Perhaps consider asking that adult or another adult to talk with your teen to get through to them (be cautious using this method).
- Set screen limits. Screens are seldom the only cause of teen apathy, but they can contribute to it. Teens rarely feel truly refreshed after spending hours on gaming or watching Youtube and Netflix. Most use it as an escape. Escapes are good- in moderation. But there’s a difference between an escape and recreation. One leaves us feeling refreshed and full while the other leaves us depleted and unproductive.
- Help teens find healthy ways to recreate, such as getting outdoors, exercise, a non-screen hobby, prayer, retreats, journaling, hanging out with friends. Expanding their talents and interests that are healthy- painting, music, reading, fishing, etc. When possible, try joining your teen in doing these things.