Dear Dr. Fournier:
My 8th grade daughter has become completely apathetic about school. She has started hanging out with a new group of friends that seem to be a bad influence. Now her grades have dropped and she hardly brings work home.
Depending on the age you enrolled your daughter in an educational program, to this point she has been going to school with regularity for at least nine years. During that time, you have probably experienced her arrival home from school with the full spectrum of emotional states:
- “I made an A today on my spelling test!”
- “I was invited to my friend’s birthday party.”
- “I was chosen to be in the class play.”
- “I am class leader for the week because I always do my homework. “
- “I made this card for you. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
- “The teacher told the class they should be more like me – I pay attention.”
Wow! School is a place that can inspire such elation! For those that get good grades and accolades from their teachers and acceptance from friends, school is a place they can attend every day with pride and a positive outlook. It would be great if this were a reality for every child (and teacher) everyday. However, we also experience the other side of the coin:
- I made a ‘54’ on the test and the teacher wrote on it that it was obvious I didn’t study! She doesn’t know how much I tried!
- I thought my science project would get a medal, but I did not even get honorable mention. No one has told me why. I still think mine was the best but the contest is clearly rigged.
- I was in the group that got in trouble for talking, but I did not say a word. I was still sent to the principal and now I have detention. This is totally unfair; now I will look stupid in front of everyone.
- I worked hard on my homework but I left it in the lunchroom by mistake. The teacher said I could not hand it in later, and I got a ‘0’ for everything. I had all As but now my grade will come down.
- Then the teacher says she can’t hand back our tests because she forgot them at home.
Parents can tell between “happy” and “unhappy” children very quickly. These states are easy to see, and parents are in position to either celebrate their children’s achievements, or help them get over the hurt and humiliation that sometimes come from mistakes in school.
However, there is a mid-range emotional state that many parents miss because of its subtlety. Unless the emotions are at the extremes it can easily go unnoticed in the hectic life most parents live. For lack of a more descriptive term:
- Parent: “Have you completed your homework?” Child: “I did everything due tomorrow.” (Message: I did just enough to get by)
- That teacher doesn’t like me. Everything I hand in he criticizes and uses me as the example. I take bets with my friends to see how many times he is going to come after me.
- The teacher tells us to read the book but then gives us exact notes of what we have to know for the test – so why read it? I listen and memorize. We can just Google or Wikipedia all of this stuff anyway.
- Why can’t I use Spark Notes? If it were cheating it wouldn’t be published.
When hit with these remarks many parents try to reason with their children as to why their interpretations are either untrue or exaggerated. Even when parents think they have hit a home run and convinced their child that unfair is actually fair, most children I have seen simply relent in order to stop the conversation. Inside they are saying, “Yeah, sure! You aren’t the one being subjected to all of this junk at school.”
Happy and Unhappy remarks are easier to deal with because they bring with them either smiles or tears, elation or great sadness. A parent knows when it is time to celebrate or to stop, love and encourage.
But mellowness usually gets a response akin to, “Not again, we’ve been over this. I can’t throw you a pity party, because everyone in your grade is in the same boat.” So parents let their kids know (depending on their age) that they are taking everything too personally, are being too sensitive, or to quit always attempting to be the victim. All this to say that when kids get mellow, parents often want to say or do something that has the message: “Get over yourself.”
WHAT TO DO:
As I have established, school is a place where almost every action or reaction produces an emotional response:
- “Lisa, its your turn to read.” (Fear: I will sound like an idiot)
- “Tom, Melissa and Joseph, you get to go to the Geography Bee.” (Pride: I am número uno!)
- “Nick, you stay in from recess to finish your homework.” (Anger: I want to go outside! This is not fair!) or (Indifference: I’ll sit here, but I’m not doing it. I don’t care.)
So now let’s get to your question. My daughter is, “completely apatheticabout school.” Synonyms for “apathetic are: showing or feeling no interest, enthusiasm, or concern:
uninterested, indifferent, unconcerned, unmoved, uninvolved, disinterested, unemotional, emotionless, dispassionate, lukewarm, unmotivated, halfhearted; informal couldn’t-care-less; rare. To summarize you are saying that your daughter, no matter what happens in school has completely lost her capacity to feel any of the emotions that should be natural form a typical day at school.
This did not just happen. Your daughter has become immune to the effects of all the good, bad and the ugly that comes from attending school. Your daughter has been in a mellow stage for a long, long, long time time and has finally taken the spoken or unspoken advice that mellow kids get: Quit being a victim!
Children elect to stop being the victims of a school when they have been hurt by the negative side of school emotions one time too many. This can happen to the straight A student as well as to the straight F student. It happens when they realize that regardless of what they do, nothing is ever good enough. The straight A student does not dare make a 99 without feeling the disappointment of not achieving perfection. The straight F student can’t stand trying for fear of failure, or the prospect of making a better grade only to be be told “You could do this all the time if you just tried hard enough!”
When children become apathetic as a defense mechanism, the one thing we have to remember is that they did not lose their capacity to feel. They have simply come to the realization that if school can’t give them a sense of self-worth where trying has value, they will simply look for it elsewhere.
There are two types of apathetic students: the ones who stop working and become isolationists and the ones that stop working and find other people who feel like they do. Your daughter is in the second category. I call members of this group ‘escapists’ because they try to break mainstream rules by acting as if they do not care. The problem is that they now care about being accepted by their new group and therefore start imitating them. This can appear in clothing, music choices, hair color changes, and piercings, to name a few. To be accepted, either do as the rest or you are out.
Having a daughter in the eighth grade, you still have the veto power to help your daughter by saying, “No” to all the paraphernalia and behavior that goes with becoming part of an apathetic group. It is time for you to figure out when she became mellow toward school and why.
Get rid of preaching and go with teaching. Have her teach you what were things that happened in school that turned her off. This will not be resolved in one night, but it will take resolve on your part to see your child as a wounded bird, and you are trying to heal the broken wing. You do not have to agree with your daughter, simply accept that she has pain. This is one of the hardest things for parents to do, because it hurts so much to know that your child is hurting. Find out where your child is in each of her subjects and set a reachable goal for each task, regardless of whether it is a high D or a low A. Each one of those grades is not going to change her life. Your accepting the grade and the pain they have gone through to get to where they are will change their life. Begin to make school what it should have always been – a shared partnership of love.
The place for you to start is to never again say your child is “apathetic.” Instead, say, “My child’s heart is frozen because it hurts too much to feel, much less care.” Then, with acceptance take her back to the roots of her pain slowly. You will know she is on a better track when she one day comes home and the long lost emotional categories “Happy” and “Unhappy” have reentered the picture. Apathy will be gone, and her future will turn away from a state of paralysis to one that is moving forward.
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