Apathy & Depression in Adolescence

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

I've written previously about adolescent male depression and the difficulties that can be encountered trying to unravel normal adolescent behavior from signs that something is really wrong. Mood shifts, irritability, lack of motivation, sullenness and anger seem to affect many teens. Parents may become increasingly confused and concerned over what is happening and why? They feel hurt as the child they once knew seems to reject their help and increasingly points out their perceived inadequacies as a parent and adult through words, deeds or both. How do we, as parents, understand what's behind the apathy of adolescence?

Negative mindsets are a characteristic of depression, but they are also a feature of adolescence. Here's a young person who feels the need to let go of the child and become someone else - but who? It's often a sudden and dramatic change. After years of play, embracing make-believe, cherishing toys and teddy bears, it stops: but what is there to replace it?

This can be a period of painful change. It's an overt and almost overnight rejection of everything you once were. Yet redefining yourself as a young adult takes time. Painful emotions, and that's what they are, reveal themselves in unhappiness and this is evident in adolescent behavior and language.

Carl E. Pickhardt, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of parenting books, provides some useful examples of the language of adolescent apathy. For example "there's nothing to do" at one level points to the immediate outcome of rejecting previous activities and possessions but at another indicates a very real expression of loneliness. Short-term boredom, he argues, may provide some impetus for young minds to develop new ideas but long-term boredom is "often a staging area for impulse [in which they are] willing to do something, anything, with friends to escape the emptiness they share."

Expressions of apathy may appear as pretense "I don't care what you think", as defiance, "do what you like", as indifference, " who cares" but also as depression. Here the use of language takes on darker tones. Dr. Pickhardt provides the examples of, "what difference does anything make?" or "nothing matters anymore", "life is not worth living", and "death is preferable to living in pain".

Of course the use of language is just one indicator of depression. The National Institute of Mental Health, summarizes the symptoms of depression as including: feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness, loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, and a feeling of sadness for more than a few weeks. So, whilst the overall context of depression is multi-dimensional a key factor is whether these signs and symptoms are protracted and pronounced. If so, it's a sign that help may be required.


Pickhardt, C. (2012, May 28). Adolescent apathy and what loss of caring can mean: when adolescents lose the capacity to care, parents should take notice. . Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/surviving-your-childs-adolescence/201205/adolescent-apathy-and-what-loss-caring-can-mean