Ask Richard: Helping My Teen Son With His Profound Questions November 7, 2011

Ask Richard: Helping My Teen Son With His Profound Questions

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

My fourteen-year-old son admitted he is going through his existential crisis (my words, not his). What is an effective way to guide and support him through this time in his life while enabling him to find his own meaning?


Dear David,

First, with a tone of caring curiosity, ask him to clarify to you as best he can what he is going through. Your term “existential crisis” is vague and could have many meanings. Perhaps he is pondering questions such as “Who am I, what am I, what is life, what do I believe, why am I here, what is my meaning or purpose?” Whatever is the crossroad he has reached, the effort of helping you to understand it will help him to understand it.

Then tell him exactly what you’re saying here; that you want to guide and support him, yet leave him free to find his own meaning. That is very well said.

On this particular matter, treat him as a partner rather than as a pupil or as your child. Play the role of an interested elder equal, someone with experience and knowledge, but not an authority figure who has all the right answers and who will approve or disapprove of his ideas. Be Socratic, asking him questions that will stimulate clear, critical thinking rather than providing him with answers. Then step back, and let him ponder it all.

This of course does not mean that you completely abandon parenting him. Most fourteen-year-olds are not nearly complete in their cognitive and emotional development, and they still need plenty of strong boundaries set for them. So there will still be other areas in his life where you’ll have to be much more parental and directive. (“No, you can’t have beer at the party,” “Yes, you must pay for the broken window,” “Treat your girlfriend’s father with respect,” “Stop putting your sister down,” etc.)

But by approaching his “existential” concerns in this non-parental way, you will be affirming and supporting his budding self-image as a freethinking adult. Giving him the dignity of being an independent agent will both promote its reality and emphasize its importance.

The challenge for you will be to find the balance between guiding him and giving him free rein. The challenge for him will be to see that freedom is always accompanied by responsibility. You cannot help but have your preferences for what he might think and decide, and perhaps you should honestly acknowledge them to him when the context is appropriate. But at the same time, you must also acknowledge his right to find his own preferences.

Be genuine and frank. When you don’t know what to say, say that. You don’t need to fake being wise and well informed in all things. If he says something that surprises and impresses you, say so. He might teach you as much as you might teach him. Keep a relationship with him where he knows that you are the parent, but he can also approach you as the interested elder equal with his deeper questions. Show him that you care about him and respect him during this time of self-questioning, and the two of you will probably be able to sort out when to relate to each other as child-and-parent, and when to relate as adult-to-adult.

At fourteen, some decisions that seem casual can last a lifetime, and some decisions that seem terribly important and final can end up lasting only a few months. It’s very hard to predict which will be which. Worrying about it all will only exhaust you, so try to relax and enjoy watching the fascinating journey he’s embarking upon.

He’s a lucky young man to have so thoughtful and conscientious a father. As he grows his way through all the drama and trauma that is adolescence, he might sometimes forget this, but I think he’ll always eventually return to that appreciation.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • David,

    Let him know that everybody goes through what he is going through in one degree or another.  Its perfectly normal and just part of growing up.  Him just knowing that can be very comforting .  Also be sure to let him know that people tend to come out of “it” with a better understanding of themselves than before they went into “it”.  So let him know (1) its normal and (2) there is something to look foward to.

  • Karen Lo

    It is painful and normal to experience such a period of life for those who are real thinkers.  I agree that being a bit more clear about what is going on in his mind might help.  Additionally, talking with respected adults, researching the frontiers of science (giving some hope and excitement for the future), and remember to allow him to explore freely and to share that with you.

  • Mrs. B.

    I can’t help but feel that “David” is already well-loved and respected by his son. I remember going through the angsty teen years and it never occurred to me to talk with either of my parents about any of my thoughts.

    Excellent advice all around, Richard. If he follows your advice his son will remember fondly the chance to share such intimate thoughts and feelings with his father, and they will certainly have a much better understanding of each other and a closer relationship than many children and parents.

  • Anonymous

    Just one tiny thing to add to the excellent answer. “Existential crisis” is a very nonspecific term and maybe David’s son was a lot more specific, but in case he just shared a vague disquiet, I think David could stand to spend a couple of minutes pondering if he’s absolutely certain about his son’s sexual orientation.

    Now, perhaps David’s son is obviously comfortable with his sexuality (at least as much as any teen can be, which isn’t much) and David is utterly clear about his son in this regard. Hell, maybe his son is an out gay or bi teen and the entire question is moot. However there is a small chance that the boy is expressing some nonspecific angst as a way of testing the waters, to see how receptive David might be to other, bigger, news. Not much is needed if that is the case other than David needs to find ways, direct and indirect, of telling his son he is loved no matter what, and make sure to make pro-equality sentiments obvious to his son. On the off chance his son is gay or bi and struggling with telling his dad, this could go a long way towards ensuring he knows he will be safe and his Dad will be supportive when he chooses to come out. Better safe than sorry!

  • Mairianna

    Go beyond just admitting that you don’t know if he asks about something you can’t answer.  If you really want to partner with him, JOIN him on the adventure.  Say, “I don’t know, but how about if we go to the library on Sunday and read up on it?”  OR, “Let’s try to find someone who knows more about this and talk to them together.”   You may learn something along the way, too. And that will REALLY impress your son! 

  • Mihangel apYrs

    1  find out the “problem”

    2  be absolutely honest

    3  steer him towards honour – the ability to look himself in the face without shame

    4  agree to disagree, you may not be right, and admit to uncertainty.

    5  make clear that as your son he has your “protection”

    Good luck

  • John Morris

    I have no ‘advice’ to give.  I still don’t know the answers to those questions.  Who am I?  What am I?  What is my purpose?  I’m 36 and I just wanted to say that this is the best Ask Richard I’ve ever read.  I wish I would have had a parent like Richard when I was a kid.  My folks did the best they could but they are Jehovah’s Witnesses and just tried to  do their best.  Now I’m an atheist/anti-theist.  (and gay) and life is hard sometimes…but it is awesome too!

  • Dave

    This is how I got through it when I was that age …

  • kat

    Richard’s advice was good, but I’d also like to add something else. An “existential crisis” can be a sign of depression, depending on how David’s son is acting and what David means by that vague phrase. If he’s just questioning his beliefs and exploring philosophical conundrums about existence, he’s probably ok and just a bright young thinker who’s looking for answers. But if those sorts of questions turn into more serious questions like “why bother doing anything at all?”, “how can people possibly be happy with their lives?”, and “why live?”, and they seem to have weight to them rather than merely being interesting possibilities (i.e. David’s son can’t see the point of going to school anymore, or going to hockey practice, or getting out of bed, and therefore doesn’t), it’s reason for serious concern.

     I went through an existential crisis around the same age which led to my atheism. (These questions never did quite quit; I ended up studying philosophy in college.) But I was also severely depressed at the time and barely able to function day-to-day, and in retrospect, I should have been in serious treatment, but my parents did not pick up on the signs at the time. David should watch his son carefully to make sure his son’s existential worries don’t actually interfere with his son’s existence. Some warning signs are:

    Sadness or hopelessnessIrritability, anger, or hostilityTearfulness or frequent cryingWithdrawal from friends and family Loss of interest in activitiesChanges in eating and sleeping habits

    Restlessness and agitationFeelings of worthlessness and guiltLack of enthusiasm and motivation Fatigue or lack of energyDifficulty concentratingThoughts of death or suicide

    Teen depression can also look different than adult depression. Here’s a pretty good resource on depression in teens, with resources for help and ideas to talk with your teen if you suspect they are depressed:

    Good luck with your son, David! I hope you just have a li’l’ philosopher on your hands. 🙂

  • kat

    Ooops, that warning list got mangled. Here it is again, hopefully in less mangled form:
    Sadness or hopelessness
    Irritability, anger, or hostility
    Tearfulness or
    frequent crying
    Withdrawal from friends and family
    Loss of interest in
    Changes in eating and sleeping habits
    Restlessness and agitation
    Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
    of enthusiasm and motivation
    Fatigue or lack of energy
    Thoughts of death or suicide

  • A few simple rules and he’ll be fine: Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play poker with a man named Doc. Never get involved with a woman who has more problems than you do. That should cover everything.

  • Parse

    Almost:  “Never eat at a place called ‘Mom’s.'”

  • And never start a land war in Asia.  Wasn’t that always part of the list.

  • Good on your kid for having the intestinal fortitude to ask questions. And good on you for wanting to be supportive of your son in his journey. I think that, right now, just being there and being supportive is what he needs from you — so go, give your son a hug, and tell him that you love him no matter what.

  • And never moon a werewolf…

  • Mr Z

    This is something I have equity in. Existential issues are not signs of depression. Depression is a sign of existential angst. From the time we can listen we are told there is purpose to this life. Soon enough we find that we can’t see that purpose in our lives as real and evident fact. It is at this point that every person needs someone to tell them something very simple: eat, drink, sleep, wake, repeat… this is the essence of life. Everything else is icing or extras. You are not missing something or not whole, or inferior because you cannot see a purpose to life. You in fact have a perfect understanding. Now is not the time to worry about what others think,  but what you think and feel. It is not important what others believe but rather what you believe to be true of life and living. It is this seminal moment in which you get to decide where and how your life will play out. No, it’s not a permanent decision, but it’s one of the first major ones.

    There is no one to guide you. There are only examples of good choices and bad choices. There is no one responsible for how or what you choose except for you. No other person will be held accountable for what you choose. No other person will be blamed if you choose poorly. No other person will be made to fix your problems or repay your debts. YOU alone are responsible for what you choose to do with your life. Should you be a politician or a fry cook? There is no right choice except for what you decide is right for you. No other person can decide that for you. No other person can decide for you what is moral and what is not. No other person can tell you what YOU think is meaningful in life. Now is your moment to start deciding these things for yourself. 

    You are fortunate. In this day there are many who will support your decisions no matter what they might be. Look around, study, investigate… these are your decisions to make. If you are lucky you will always be surrounded by people who support you fully. If not, they are still your decisions. Make them. Know that you will make mistakes. Know that you might have regrets. Do not let that stop you. Go, live. Make decisions, take advice, study, live. There is no one looking out for you, no one protecting your life, this is not a test, it is not a drill. 

    Welcome. This is life. It will not get better. It doesn’t have to get worse, but it does not get better. You are FREE to choose as you will. You are FREE to decide your morals as you see fit. You are free to be, to live, to exist. Good luck, study, investigate, be honest to yourself. The rest doesn’t much matter. Whatever you choose, I wish you fortune.

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