Brainy Parenting

What do you do when your 16-year-old son is great at school but doesn’t socialize, has very little motivation and seems to never have any preferences?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more on this week’s podcast, Some Problems “Slip Through The Cracks”.

Today we’re hearing from Grisel from South Florida and Grisel writes:

Dear Neil,I am concerned about my 16-year-old son but not sure if I am making too much of it, and perhaps projecting my own anxieties on the situation. He is very introverted and slow to warm up to social situations. He has one good friend that he spends almost entirely just playing video games with online. If I push him to invite him over, he will, but he never initiates this on his own. There have also been times when his friend has invited him to go out and he refused to go at the very last minute. 

I'm wondering if he could have some social anxiety. He's made comments about not really liking the majority of people he meets, and not fitting in. Just little things here and there that have made me take notice. 

He does very well academically and enrolled in a college class after I gently encouraged him. But it was only under his conditions that he could take it virtually as he did not want to go to a college campus. It was virtual due to COVID-19 and he loved it because he did not have to socialize with people. But some things really concern me...… he's got very little drive or motivation for anything. Whenever I ask him what he prefers in any given situation his response is “I don't care” or “whatever you prefer. “He has no interest in getting his driving license or learning to drive, he's never been into sports or clubs at school. But he loves animals! This summer I signed him up to volunteer at some animal places but was wondering if I should make him get a job just to force him to socialize more? 

I don't know what else to do. I do realize he might just be extremely introverted, and I do not want to make him feel like that is a bad thing that needs fixing! But what if it's more........ Does he feel lonely, left out, is he depressed? I can't seem to shake this off. Grisel of South Florida

Now to Grisel’s question: Grisel, let’s think about a couple of things here.  The quarantine was a very unusual and unnatural state-of-affairs.  Staying indoors and not socializing with our peers is unnatural for human beings; unnatural  for adults, young adults, teens and children.  This was really hard on many kids, but some did reasonably well.  Yet with your 16-year-old son, he loved it because, for whatever reason, socializing is stressful for him, and this allowed him to operate without that stress.  His strength is his intelligence and academic skill and so with quarantine, he was able to do the work, enjoy video gaming, and not have to socialize.  



Grisel, your son is also quite passive, doesn’t express his preferences and when he doesn’t want to do something, he backs out or refuses to participate, such as following through with a plan to go out with a friend.  

It’s surprising to me that you’re wondering what’s going on with him now at the age of 16, entering his junior year in high school.  How did he manage socially in elementary school?  Did you get feedback from the teachers that your son had any social difficulties?  How about middle school?  Lots of kids, many who did fine in elementary school, have emotional health challenges in middle school as the social environment becomes more stressful.  It’s at this juncture that introverted youth often feel “less than” or unworthy in some way.  Some kids who are awkward or different will be picked on or bullied. 

Grisel, without knowing your son, I can’t say for sure what his issues are. You ask if he could be depressed or lonely.  Good question because under most circumstances, kids that feel they don’t fit in and don’t know how to successfully connect with peers would feel that way; even introverted kids who get stressed from social situations.  Yet you don’t see direct evidence of that; he’s not complaining about his situation, he isn’t using drugs or hurting himself in any way.  So, there are more questions than answers here, but yes parental action is indicated.  

Grisel, your son seems to have “slipped through the cracks'' and not gotten the attention he needed to help him grow socially.  Since he tends to be compliant and responsible academically, his lack of social skills didn’t raise any red flags at school.  It’s possible that your son is on the autism spectrum to some degree. That is to say that he is high functioning academically but doesn’t understand how relationships work. He doesn’t understand the reciprocal nature of relationships; that there is a give and take and how you behave with others affects how they feel and how they interact towards you.  If in fact that’s the case, or if there is some other explanation, he can improve with some social emotional coaching and practice.  And in order to practice, he needs to be in some social situations and your idea of a work environment is a good one since a work environment is structured and there is a specific role for him to play.

Yet regardless of the diagnosis, your son needs to grow his social skills and his social involvement.  This past year with so little social engagement may have made it too easy to avoid and so it can be that much harder to re-engage socially.  

Your approach with him seems to be gentle which is great, it avoids Control Battles and it’s hard to influence our children’s behaviors when there’s a Control Battle. Your desire to avoid making him feel bad about himself is right on the money. You did sign him up to volunteer with organizations that serve animals. How did that work out?  Did he go?  Did he seem to enjoy it?  It’s very unusual for a parent to sign their 16-year-old up for things and have them be okay with that.  It’s great that your son is compliant, but his social maturity is definitely lagging.  To help with that, the school should be able to provide some social support for him; get him involved in something that fits his interests.  Perhaps working on the school newspaper or yearbook would be good.  

It would also be important for your son to have a physical activity that he engages. The climate is pretty warm where you are, so maybe swimming or working out in an airconditioned gym, but physical exercise is important for all of us and if your son’s initiative is very low at this point, it may be up to you to set some limits and help him build a structure.  Once again, your gentle but firm style may be just the right approach.  Grisel, you’re not making too much of this.  He’s not doing this on his own, so he needs adult support. I’d also recommend that the school or an independent psychologist do some testing to better understand why he isn’t growing socially and give you and the school a clearer understanding of his needs.

So, parents, therapists and folks who work with families, kids all have their different profiles with different strengths and areas of weakness. 

When behaviors are extreme, an assessment can help us understand those strengths and weaknesses and how to go forward and help.Click To Tweet  It can relieve that confusion about what’s going on and allow us to be more empathetic and more specifically helpful.   

In every case, however, we need to look closely at the context in which the behavior exists.  Are the family dynamics and the community dynamics, part and parcel to the problem, or are they part of the solution.  In this case, the dynamic seems to be that Mom is very reluctant to require her son to get involved in activities, lest she make him feel bad about himself.  The school as well has not seen his need and taken action. Therefore, the problem hasn’t been identified and addressed.  It could have been the opposite where Mom got upset with her son’s lack of involvement and fought with him about it and that of course, would have been even worse. 

As Therapists, our approach should be to empower the parent to take action, in a gentle and firm manner, and to support the teen and the parent to work together and accept the challenges of learning social skills.Click To Tweet With that approach, one that understands the profile and needs of the youth, and one that understands the family / community dynamic, we can build a healthy and effective treatment strategy.

Thanks for tuning in today listeners and special thanks to you Grisel for sharing your situation with us.  Before we end today, let’s try this.  Let’s all take a slow deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and slowly exhale. Let’s try this now; inhale through your nose………hold…….slowly exhale from your mouth.  Try it again, Inhale through your nose………hold……. slowly exhale from your mouth.  Excellent!  Isn’t it amazing how such a small thing can make such a big difference?  As I’ve said many times and I’ll say it again,

this parenting business ain’t easy so self-care is essential; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.Click To Tweet   Bye for now.

Have a question for Neil? Submit it now for discussion on a future episode of The Healthy Family Connections Podcast:



This post first appeared on Neil D. Brown.