How to Get Apathetic Teenagers to be Engaged

When an enthusiastic child grows into an uninvolved and apathetic teenager, parents understandably become concerned. Apathy -- indifference to and withdrawal from old interests -- may be rooted in a serious cause such as depression, or it may stem from a natural maturation process. Engaging an apathetic teen starts with understanding the underlying cause. Helping teens discover their own motivation dispels apathy.


Wholesale apathy in teenagers may signify the onset of clinical depression 1. A teen who withdraws from every aspect of life may do so because of deep inner pain. Volatile physical and mental changes contribute to teens' greater risk of developing depression, as can circumstances that adolescents have not yet developed tools to handle. An adult has developed coping mechanisms for rejection, disappointment and conflict, but teens may be encountering some of these unavoidable events for the first time. Seek advice from a counselor or psychologist if a teen who was previously involved suddenly withdraws and appears apathetic. Apathy may mask a more serious problem.

Brain Changes

Brain growth continues throughout adolescence and does not end until much later than once thought, according to a report published in the "Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry." Researchers found that participants' gray matter density increased just before adolescence and went through substantial pruning throughout adolescence, a process that continued into the early 20s. With these rapid changes occurring in the brain may come equally rapidly shifting interests and personality development. A teen undergoing these shifts may not be apathetic to everything, but might have different interests from month to month. Reach a teen who seems apathetic by finding out what interests her today, not what fascinated her six months ago.


Making the transition from childhood to adulthood requires putting an end to some childhood interests. A teenager who once had an abiding interest in dinosaurs develops a whole new set of interests when puberty hits, and the novelty of these new interests often crowds out older ones. Realize when it's time for a child who is no longer a child to close the book on childhood pursuits. It's normal for teenagers to become uninterested in favorite childhood hobbies as they grow older, so a certain level of apathy toward these interests is expected.

External Motivators

The adolescent brain is still developing the portions of the frontal lobes that influence impulse control and planning. Bargaining with a teenager -- offering a year-end reward for studying today, for example -- may not work because the teen's understanding of the deal is academic rather than intrinsic. Drawing the mental map that connects studying in September with a summer reward is an adult skill that adolescents have yet to develop. Offering rewards and punishments as motivators for teenagers has limited utility.

Internal Motivators

Rarely are teenagers completely without motivation; they have ample motivation to do things that they enjoy or that lead to a reward they find meaningful. Apathy only occurs when a teen has no internal motivation to accomplish a given task. Creating internal motivation involves making the process or the end result desirable on the teenager's terms. For a young child, a promise of ice cream in exchange for guitar practice is enough; for a teen, such external rewards are not as meaningful as the internal vision of becoming a rock star or of mastering a challenging solo. Messy teens may find their motivation to keep a clean room through envisioning themselves in clean, stylish surroundings. Academic underachievers often find their motivation when they see a career, college or club they'd like to join.