How Do I Get My 15-Year-Old to Care?

Bored looking teenager resting his chin on his hands.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email [email protected]

Dear Care and Feeding,

My son, a high school freshman, is a very laid-back and relaxed 15-year-old. This was great when he was younger—rarely was there a tantrum or strong resistance—but as a teenager it makes me so worried. We cannot get him motivated about school, or to find his passions. He puts in little effort and does fine. But he is very bright, and with even a modest effort he could do quite well. He doesn’t get in trouble at school, has many friends, and hasn’t pushed our boundaries beyond what is appropriate at his age. Perhaps this is our own hangup about how he should be successful. We want him to attend college and find meaningful work. Do we just let him find his way?

—Let Him Be Laissez-Faire?

Dear LHBLF,

I think the hardest part about raising teenagers is coming to grips with the fact that their lives, which used to be entirely under your management and care, are now, day by day, being transferred to their management and care. To further confuse things, they can often adjust to and accept this fact a lot more easily than you can. For them it seems a million lifetimes ago that they were entirely dependent upon you, but for you it seems that only moments have passed. So it’s just a lot harder for you to know when some aspect of their lives is none of your business.

This, I am sad to say, is none of your business.

What you have described here is not a life on a collision course with inescapable destruction, but rather a life that is plodding along fine—just not as you think it should. There’s nothing wrong with having a different opinion about how things are going than your teenage son. I too wish he were motivated and earnestly seeking a passion. But that’s because we have the benefit of years of perspective. You simply can’t make a 15-year-old see the world like a 40-year-old. That’s just … not how it works.

You would like for your son to be pursuing a passion out of which he can find meaning and purpose in life. And it probably doesn’t help that social media, YouTube, and the like give us the false impression that 50 percent of all teens on earth are already renowned social activists, professionals at their craft, or worldwide brands with sponsorship deals by the time they are your son’s age. But you must remember that life is long, and not knowing what you want to do as a teenager is right up there with zits as the most normal of normal adolescent problems. A lot of kids appear who apathetic and unmotivated as teens simply are taking it all in—and by it, I mean the whole entire world—and are, as of yet, unsure about where they fit into it. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty logical response to the daily insanities the whole wide world presents, even if we adults have come to take that for granted.

You and I both know that one has to find one’s passion, or purpose. Otherwise life is just impossible drudgery. So, you can tell him that. But don’t do so believing that he’ll suddenly snap into alignment with your vision for how his life should look. Rather, you’re just offering ideas—ideas that he will think about, reject, put down, pick up again, turn over, and carry with him. And who knows, he may go the rest of his life without ever feeling passion for anything. But it’s far more likely that he will discover what’s important to him at some point. And he’ll do it entirely separately from your involvement. Either way, the fact remains that you cannot determine this outcome for him. You can only love him, gently float some advice and perspective, and wish him well along his merry way. You used to take care of everything for him. The difficult truth? That time is now rapidly coming to an end.

More Care and Feeding:

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 22-month-old son is generally happy and independent, except when I drop him off at day care. If I drop him off at snack time, he will happily sit in his chair, start eating and wave bye-bye at me. But if there’s no food involved, he begs for me to pick him up, and cries when I’m leaving. He loves his teachers, and will in fact cry if they leave the room during the day. Any advice? Our day care encourages us to give a hug, kiss, and get out of there, but I’m not sure if it would be better for me to sit down and hang out with him for a few minutes before leaving.

—Separation Anxiety

Dear SA,

You don’t need advice from me because your child’s teachers, having seen it in dozens of kids for years, have already given you the best advice. Hug the kid, kiss the kid, and keep it moving. Separation anxiety is entirely common for little ones usually up until the age of 2, since they are still learning that their attachment figures can be gone yet still come back again. (It’s a truly jarring concept if you think about it.) Believe me, it’s harder for you than it is for him, and you staying around longer to fawn over him and dry his little tears is just going to make it that much more difficult for the both of you to get on with your lives. If it’s still happening at 2 ½ then maybe you have something of a situation on your hands, but until them, I think you’re good.

I know it’s difficult. I know it’s heartbreaking, but unless he’s still weeping when you return hours later, I can assure you he’s come to terms with your parting long before you have. The fact that it doesn’t happen at snack time is really just evidence that your immediate presence is worth about four grapes and a cheese cube to him. Which is exactly as it should be.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Last summer, my mom died from complications of her alcoholism just days before my daughter’s first birthday. My mom and I went back and forth between estrangement and frequent communication throughout my adult life. During a very bleak time, I truly believe that simply hearing about her first grandchild, seeing her photos on Instagram, and once-in-a-while FaceTime calls were one of her few highlights, though they never physically met. But our daughter won’t remember her, nor will our son (due this summer) know her at all.

For a long time, she was a great mom. My childhood was good and supported and filled with positive memories. But our adult relationship was strained, to say the least. Lots of therapy has left me in a decent place with all of that since her death, but I don’t know how to approach the dead-grandma talk with our kids without either broad-brushing either her as the fantastic grandma you’ll never know or the alcoholic you’re glad you never met. When do the different pieces of that persona come into the conversation with them?

—Missing Grandma

Dear Missing,

I am sorry for the pain and difficulty you’ve described here. And because I can deeply relate to it, you should believe me when I tell you that what you think is a problem for your child is really just another manifestation of a problem for you. It will not, any time soon, be necessary for either your daughter or your soon-to-be son to know the details of your complex relationship with your mother. This will come out over the coming decades, as your children grow into greater awareness and become capable of understanding more complicated relationship narratives. But at 1-and-a-half and due-in-summer years old, they are quite a ways from that. For now you can tell them the truth: Grandmother died, she is no longer with us, but when she was here she loved you very much. Of course as they grow they will ask questions about death, what is it, where did she go, will it happen to me, will it happen to you. There are a million resources on how to talk about this with kids; I’m personally of the opinion that there are nowhere near as many ways to fuck up the death talk as there are to fuck up the sex talk. It’s been my experience that as long as you are honest, kids are remarkably capable of comprehending and accepting death as a part of life. In many ways, they are better at it than we are.

But I don’t think your real question here is how to explain death to a baby and a toddler. I’m willing to bet what’s really happening is that you’re still very much in the thick of processing what your relationship with your mother meant, and what to do with it now that she’s no longer here to participate. If there is anything good about the fact that she has passed on, it’s that you now can process your relationship with her on your own terms. It is likely that you love her. It is likely that you resent her. It is likely that you blame her for things that are not her fault and that you do the same for yourself.

The point is that there is a lot to unpack here, and now is the time to get to unpacking. If you can afford it, and have the time, this is a key place where therapy can be helpful. If you cannot afford it or do not have the time, I might recommend journaling on a regular basis. Either way, it is important that you set aside some space where you can work through—either out loud or in writing—all of your feelings about your mother and your relationship with her. Let them all come out. Find out what’s underneath them, and then let those, too, come out. It is, in my experience, a little like cleaning out an attic. You are looking at every item; some of them are painful, some are joyous. You are deciding what to keep, what to trash, and what to donate. And while you are in the middle of the process, sure the house is kind a mess, but it’s all for a good cause. Once you are done, and everything has been organized, inspected, and dusted, now you have a completely functional room that is ready for use. And it’s your kids who need that room. They need to occupy the space currently that is currently being taken up by difficulty and confusion about your mother. Let them have it.

—Carvell

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