Family life: How can I engage with my quiet and shy teenage son?
Published 23/08/2010 | 05:00
I have a 16-year-old son, the middle child of three, who will be going into his Leaving Cert year next month.
He is very quiet and shy in public but at home is mean to his younger sister and difficult with both of us, although he is closer to his mother. He spends a lot of time gaming online and seems addicted to it. He has flashes of anger and is hot tempered when pushed to do chores. Most worrying for us, however, is that he seems to be withdrawing deeper into himself. It is impossible to engage him in any sort of conversation on the issue of what might be bothering him. He attends a large secondary school where there are a number of rough and coarse boys who he may feel intimidated by, though he won't talk about it. It's a difficult time for any young person but we feel that he may be withdrawing from the harsher aspects of Irish society, instead of learning to cope with them. Can you recommend anything we can do to help him? Though I am a teacher and work with difficult youths myself I am completely frustrated with him right now.
We can easily be frustrated by their behaviour and that frustration can be deepened when we know that they have traits, qualities or personalities that should allow them to act differently. By the tone of your query, though, you sound more worried than frustrated and worry seems an appropriate response to what you describe.
It is a worry when teenagers withdraw, especially if that withdrawal is unusual or unexpected. However, many teens, when faced with harsh realities in life, choose to opt out, keep their heads down and try to disappear off the radar.
What can easily happen for some young people is that their withdrawal becomes habitual and so deep that it can become part of, if not the cause of, depression.
I wonder if your son may be depressed, based on the information you have supplied. Teenage depression differs from adult depression in a number of key ways. For example anger and irritability are more prevalent in adolescent depression, as are unexplained aches and pains and an extreme sensitivity to criticism.
For adolescents, the withdrawal they experience can be selective rather than total, such that they might markedly reduce their general social contact but maintain one or two close friendships, or continue to stay connected to family.
Alongside these symptoms they may also experience more expected signs such as sadness, lethargy, difficulty sleeping, hopelessness, lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating and loss of interest in activities.
Depression rarely shifts without some kind of help. That help doesn't need to be professional. Parents, extended family and family friends can be very supportive and influential for teenagers who feel stuck.
If you want professional help your GP is the best starting place. Headstrong, the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, is also a great resource for parents and young people (www.headstrong.ie).
The fact that your son has thrown himself into online gaming is no surprise as it offers an escape from reality that allows him to disconnect from any troubles that he is having in school or in socialising generally.
He may find that within his online community of fellow gamers he has status beyond what he feels he can achieve in the real world. His gaming skills may be recognised and rewarded by his gaming peers, such that this community becomes more attractive than the real-world community he lives in.
I would suggest then that you don't stop him gaming but rather try to connect with him at this level and try to appreciate the value it brings to him. If he feels you understand how valued he is online then you may find that he is more open to your views and opinions about how he interacts with the real world.
If school seems to be a no-go area for him then encourage him to expand socially outside of school. There are other fantasy-based gaming clubs that involve meeting people in the real world that he might be interested in.
Persevere with household chores. He might find them an irritating intrusion on his gaming but it provides activity and connection with people.
Perhaps give him responsibilities for any animals that you have. Taking the dog for a walk can clear the head.
Offer him empathy and a listening ear. Don't underestimate how valuable your support can be. This may be a difficult time in his life as he tries to make sense of who he is.
Your patience and persistence is important, even though it won't usually be recognised or appreciated at the moment! You may not be instantly rewarded for your efforts to stay connected to him but in time he may be grateful that you worried about him.