Interacting with a teen, you are bound to come across the ‘holy trinity’ of teen expressions, “I don’t know,” “I don’t care,” and “whatever.” Active listening is the key to deciphering the meaning of each of these as they occur.
“I don’t know” can mean that they really don’t know, but it can also mean that they think they know, but they’re not sure they know, so they don’t want to say and take the risk of being publicly wrong. It can also mean that they do know, on some level, but that they really don’t want to know, so they’re not going to admit that they actually do know. It can also mean that they have never thought about it before, and, although it sounds interesting, they don’t have enough time right now to form an opinion about it, so they just want the focus off of them and saying that they don’t know can do the trick. And, believe it or not, sometimes teens use “I don’t know” when they absolutely do know, but they know that you don’t know and they don’t want to embarrass you by calling attention to the fact that they really do know something that you don’t know.
“I don’t care” can mean that they really don’t care, but it can also mean that they haven’t actually formed an opinion yet and don’t want to look foolish for not having an opinion, so they adopt an opinion of not caring. It can also mean that they most certainly do care, but they know it won’t do any good and they don’t want to be hurt yet again, so they’re going to tell you, or tell themselves that they actually don’t care. “I don’t care” can also mean that they accept something bad that has happened to them and they’re not going to put up a fight about it. It can mean that they really aren’t interested in whatever it is, they don’t understand whatever it is, or that they’ve never even heard of whatever it is. “I don’t care,” can also be used as a defense against letting someone find out what is really most important to them for fear that it will then be used against them in some way. They may also use this when there’s too much on their mind and they don’t have the time or energy to focus on whatever you’re asking them about, and, although they may actually care at some other time, they just aren’t able to devote the resources towards it right now.
“Whatever,” can be a disrespectful dig, but it isn’t always the case. To utter, “whatever,” can be the teen’s form of surrender, agreement, or even approval. In response to a punishment, “whatever,” can actually mean that they fully understand the error of their ways, they know you must punish them, and that they accept your chosen punishment as reasonable and fair. This flexible word can mean that they don’t believe you, that they think what you said was funny, that they think you are fooling yourself, that they know you are right, that they wish what you said was true but they know that it isn’t, and it can even mean that they didn’t hear what you said and do not want to admit that they were temporarily distracted and weren’t paying attention. “Whatever” can mean that they don’t want to give you the satisfaction of having them admit you were right all along, it can mean that they’re not worried about something as much as you are, or that they wonder if you’re right and they are already making plans to test what you just told them.
If that’s the case, that just those three phrases can have an almost endless pool of meanings, how on earth are you supposed to understand what a teen is trying to say to you when one of those phrases appear? The key to understanding is in the context and in having true empathy with what is going on in the teen’s life at this very moment. If you put yourself into the shoes of the teen and try to really understand their world as it is in the present moment, and you really listen to what they’re saying to you and really watch their behaviors, the meanings of these vague utterances become much more clear. And, if you simply cannot decipher communication with your teen, don’t hesitate to consult a ‘translator,’ someone who works with teens on a regular basis and is familiar with their language.