Updated: December, 2023
© 2023 Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Many kids say, I don't care, or I don't want friends, or I’m fine being alone. The phrase, I don't care is a heavy topic to cover in a short article, but here is our take on these phrases after hearing them over 30+ years. While we all need our alone time, some more than others, we often find that kids who use these phrases are aware, and possibly embarrassed, that they are struggling to do something that seems so easy for others. They may have a desire to be included in a group, have closer relationships, better understand an assignment, or have someone to eat lunch with, but don’t know how to go about getting these internal goals met. As a result, and without tools or strategies, they may just feel like giving up. But don’t mistake any of these as truly not caring.
We’ve seen plenty of kids, teens, and young adults build walls, and then fortresses, to protect themselves from feeling anxious about trying something new, fear of not getting something “right” the first time, hoping for connections but realizing they have lagging social competencies, having their ideas rejected, feeling lonely without knowing what to do to help, and the list goes on and on. Any of this sound familiar? It should because they are roadblocks most of us experience at some time in our lives. But what if these feelings occurred every day or several times throughout the day? The reality is that it’s easier for our students to say I don’t care than to understand and/or explain why something feels hard or painful, or too difficult to try.
And while we know our experiences are not everyone’s experience, neither of us has ever worked with, or coached, a client or student who didn’t desire some level of connection with another person, and most say they truly do want friends or relationships. By the way, friendships or connections with others do serve to validate our existence and help us to avoid loneliness.
So, our reality is that most individuals who say, I don't care, actually sort of do. Given that as our lens, here are some things we’ve learned from our students, clients, and families over the years.
- Most importantly, remember that desiring time alone is not the same as feeling lonely. We all need time away from others. It’s always okay for people to advocate for alone time. Unfortunately, for some, too much time alone results in loneliness. If the person is a teen or adult, make sure that they understand there is a difference between the two. Alone time should be rejuvenating and helpful. Loneliness consumes energy and feels debilitating.
- Don’t assume you know what the other person means when they say I don’t care, in that moment. Realize there are times when things seem so difficult that not caring may be a self-protective tool. Ask more questions to figure out why.
- Make sure to articulate that you want to try to understand their perspective (theirs may be very different than you think or assume).
- Give time for processing and reflection without expecting a response. Many of our clients may feel pushed into a corner to do or say something and the quickest way out is to say, I don’t care.
- Or use a visual tool that gives them ways to express why they are saying they don’t care rather than make them generate verbal responses. Oftentimes, visual tools give students a way to explain why they respond the way they do. Is it because they are unsure about what they are supposed to do? Is it because they worry they might fail? Is it because they are bored? Seeking negative attention? Asking for help? All of these are possibilities and it's our responsibility to try to understand their thinking rather than assume we know. If using a pre-designed tool, make sure to allow for students to add their own novel responses.
- Never respond with, “Well…someday you will care! When you want a job or want a partner or want a promotion, blah blah blah.” As parents and educators, we often want to impose our own life lessons when we hear, I don’t care. The problem with these types of responses is that many students struggle to have “future thinking” about their own goals and plans. Future thinking and acting requires executive functions and executive functioning, and the argument that the person will care in the future is not helpful.
- If the I don’t care statement is related to social relationships, avoid focusing on pushing them to make friends, or hang out, or approach others right away.
- Often times these students have lagging social competencies and building those strategies and tools for connecting with others must happen before they try to connect with others.
- And it’s important to understand the student’s personal or self-determined goals related to social connections, not just what you want them to do. Do they just want a person to eat lunch with, to hang out with, to include them in discussions?
- We, as educators and caregivers, sometimes assume that every student seeks a deep connection with another student, but many with whom we’ve worked simply want to be asked to be included. They may or may not chose to be a part of the activity, but they want to be seen. Of course, we also work with them to help them understand that people will eventually stop asking them to participate if they always decline.
Ultimately, we want to understand and be supportive of their goals or desires and then help them to understand the social world and give them ways to express when things are difficult vs. boring vs. scary. It can take years for some of our kids to get there. We routinely find that teams have spent so much time focusing on academic learning or controlling behavior that they’ve neglected to give deeper direct instruction and rewards for learning to work in a group.
Most of us need to feel someone is listening to our perspective so let’s assume all of our students and kids DO care and then work to support them from there.