When a Teen Says ‘I Don’t Care’ They Need to Know You Do

“I don’t care.”

If you’re the parent of a teen then you’ve probably heard these words a bunch. You might even remember a time when you first introduced your not-so-little-now darling to the same words and maybe wished you hadn’t. Of course, in the context of kids making excuses for not tidying their room or wanting something because Jimmy or Janie’s mom got them one, then this particular 3-word phrase makes a fast point!

But a recent experience in my role as a MindBody practitioner got me thinking about the significance of these words. The conclusion I’ve reached is we shouldn’t use the word “care” in the same sentence as “don’t”. It’s much too important for that!

Let me explain…

Some of my work is with at-risk youth. You’ll be familiar with the profile because these youth come to our attention through their behaviors, which typically require education, welfare and youth justice interventions (some, sadly, require all three). A common thread in these kids’ lives is attachment disorder, which arises from a failure to form normal attachments to a primary caregiver during early childhood.

Lately I’ve been working with a fourteen year old boy, I’ll call him Max. Disavowed by his parents, Max was uprooted from his home and fostered out to remove him from the numerous bad influences in his life. It didn’t take him too long to re-enact his old habits and he was soon in trouble with the law after being pegged for a serious arson.

When I first met Max, it was in his science class during a talk and biofeedback demonstration I gave on the energetic heart. He had struggled to achieve a measurable physiologic state referred to as “heart coherence“, which might otherwise be called “in the zone.” As my clients will attest, heart coherence requires slowing down your breathing rate and invoking a positive feeling state akin to gratitude, compassion, appreciation…or care.

Sitting down with Max in person was even more of a struggle, for both of us. For Max because he was none too excited about being there and, for me, trying to find a way through his defenses. He offered morsels from time to time and for the first couple of sessions we made some progress together before hitting a wall in our third.

That wall, as it turned out, was the best thing that happened. “Max, would you like us to continue in our work together?” I asked.

“I don’t care,” he said, with a slight shrug of the shoulders.

I’d run out of avenues to explore, buttons to push, questions to ask, things to reflect. Our work had come to a close.

Except it didn’t end there. Because this time I forced myself to listen to the meaning in Max’s words, “I don’t care.” He’d used them often enough to that point, but I hadn’t been listening aggressively.

On each previous occasion he’d said those words, I dismissed them as a typical statement of teenage dissent. A statement of human dissent. We’ve all said it before, it doesn’t mean anything, right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Max’s choice of words was meaning-full.

And when I chose in that moment to really LISTEN, I finally understood. Max had been telling me all along the meaning of his distress.

And now consciously knowing that Max had never felt cared for, never loved or valued, never validated, never allowed to belong…and knowing that Max lit that fire because he knew no one cared so why not show the world he too doesn’t care by sparking a conflagration…

I began to help Max by challenging his core belief that no one cares. In effect, I became the person in his life he needed to show him care.

At the end of our session I asked Max, “Would you like to see me next week?”

“Yeah, okay,” he said.

So the next time you say or hear those words, “I don’t care”, please remember that caring is an innate human quality that will strive against insurmountable odds for its recognition and ultimate triumph.

You may just be the difference in bringing the potent force of care into full consciousness for someone in your life.

Key message
Our words are meaningful. Even a seemingly casual or dismissive remark to an important question can reflect our core beliefs (and our deepest wounds). Challenging these beliefs is essential if we are to eliminate the distress we often experience in life when in relationship with our others.

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