Friday 19 July 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can we help our teenage nephew to open up?

One-word answers and failing to make eye contact can be typical for teenagers
One-word answers and failing to make eye contact can be typical for teenagers
David Coleman

David Coleman

Question: Our nephew is 16 and we don't know how to engage him. He doesn't chat, only answers questions with one word or two and avoids eye contact when he does speak. He's only interested in Xbox and his "tricks" bike but to us he seems depressed. When we visit we can never get any conversation going. He is an only child and his parents acknowledge he is quiet but don't seem to worry much. He seems so withdrawn and we'd love to be able to communicate better with him.

David replies: It is lovely that you are taking such an interest in your nephew. I think it is great for young people to have a range of adults in their lives (including, and extending beyond, their parents) who care about them and are engaged with them.

There is an acknowledged understanding that, for young people, having at least "one good adult" in their lives is both supportive and protective for them, assisting them to grow and develop. Extended family, family friends, teachers and so on, can bring such diversity, fun and challenge to children and teenagers. Those adults might be able to bring shared values, moral direction, opinion, advice that really open up the world for the youngster.

With regard to your nephew, I note your description that his parents do acknowledge that he is quiet, but they don't worry about him. You could take your lead from them in terms of the level of worry that you might have about him. That is not to say that you can't or shouldn't spend time with him, or chat to him, or do things with him. It just might be that you don't have to worry about him.

You say that he is an only child. That too may be significant. He may be well able, and well used, to being self-sufficient in terms of spending time and occupying himself. For a start it is good that he has an activity, other than gaming, that he is interested in. Although I obviously haven't met him, the other descriptions of him do sound typically teenage, and not necessarily indicative of depression.

An interesting piece of research about adolescent-parent relationships found that the quality of the time they spend together is less important than the quantity of time they spent together. So, simply sitting in the same room watching a movie, for example, is as effective as talking with each other, in terms of adolescent wellbeing. That study dealt with parents and teens, but the findings might generalise to relatives and teens.

So, just arranging to spend time with your nephew might be good, and helpful for him. I think the experience of many adults, with teenage boys in particular, is that teenagers like to talk (if they talk at all) when they are shoulder-to-shoulder involved in some shared activity. Sometimes the chat it limited to discussing the task at hand, but sometimes it can broaden out when the teenager doesn't feel they are under scrutiny (as can happen if you are sitting opposite them trying to talk to them).

So, yourself and/or your husband, may like to take your nephew out for an activity of some kind, even simply going for a coffee or hot chocolate or going to watch a movie. More adventurous days out might involve going for a cycle somewhere in particular, or doing something active with him.

The fact that you are so interested and concerned about him, is a good thing in its own right.

You may discover that by just spending time with him, is as supportive for him as having deep and meaningful conversations. Those conversations may develop as time passes and he gets older with broader interests.

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