Shy and Introverted Adolescent

What should I do if I fear my teenage son may be too withdrawn? When he was younger we thought it was just a phase and assumed he would gain more confidence as he matured and interacted more with his peers. So far those expectations haven't panned out. He doesn't seem to have any interest in developing relationships with friends his own age (or with anyone else in the family, for that matter). He spends most of his time alone with the television, his computer, or video games. What are we up against and how should we deal with it?

To a certain extent reserve and introversion are simply aspects of a particular personality type. Other things being equal, they should be accepted and respected as such. But if you have reason to believe that there’s something extreme, unusual, or pathological about your son’s self-imposed isolation, you should start asking questions about the reasons behind it. This is a case in which outward behavior could indicate the presence of deeper, more serious problems. As we see it, there are three potential factors that may explain your son’s detachment: 1) addictive or compulsive behavior; 2) fear; and 3) feelings of inferiority.

Let’s start with the first possibility. Many parents assume that computer or video games are nothing but harmless fun. But after a while they begin to realize that their kids may actually be addicted to them. If you think your son’s withdrawal may stem from an addiction to gaming or electronic entertainment, sit down with him and lay your concerns on the table. Use simple, direct language. State clearly that you love him and want the best for him. Explain that, because of this, you’re going to start limiting the amount of time he spends online and with the television. Talk about the importance of developing interests other than computer games and the Internet. Tell him that he needs to get some exercise, spend some time outside, and socialize with other young people. Encourage him to brainstorm with you about other activities he might enjoy. If necessary, get rid of the gaming equipment or block Internet access by means of parental controls.

The second and third possibilities are fear and feelings of inferiority. They’re closely related and can be considered together. In either case it’s likely that your son’s desire for a hermit-like existence is being driven by a deep craving for safety. He’s hiding in his own world of games, television programs, and electronic gadgets because he finds it more reassuring. It’s easier to control than the real world. This could also explain any preference he may have for associating solely with younger or older kids. They wouldn’t be seen as “competitors” in the same sense as his age-mates. Your son may be afraid of his peers because, in some sense or other, he regards them as a threat. The deeper problem, then, is that he’s operating on the basis of a sadly skewed perception of reality.

If this sounds like an accurate description of your child’s state of mind, your next assignment is to find out why he views the world in this way. If you try to force him to get out and mingle with other kids his own age, you’ll probably fail unless you can get inside his head and discover the reasons behind his fears and hesitations. Has he been abused by anyone? Have his classmates put him down or hurt him in any way? Have significant adults in his life subjected him to harsh, unnecessary criticism? Has he been forced to endure humiliating failures in the classroom or on the athletic field? Is he struggling with anger or frustration in some area of his life? Maybe you can find out by probing him with some leading questions such as “Are you anxious or worried about anything?” or “Is anything happening at school that might cause you to feel depressed or afraid?” See if you can get him to open up and talk about his feelings.

A professional counselor who specializes in family-systems therapy can be a big help to you in this area. We suggest that the entire family go for counseling together. If your son is reluctant to cooperate, you might say something like, “We don’t have to make a long-term commitment. Let’s try three or four sessions with the counselor and then re-evaluate.” You should also make it clear to him that therapy isn’t just for “crazy” people. We all need help working through personal issues from time to time.

Meanwhile, try to help your son discover something besides video and computer games that he can enjoy and be good at. You might encourage him to explore chess, cycling, swimming, tennis, coin collecting, or playing a musical instrument. Activities of this kind can easily become a bridge to social interaction. Just remember to stay sensitive and go slow. Don’t push. Instead, give your son the freedom to move forward gradually and at his own pace. If you don’t, he may be overwhelmed and end up retreating into even deeper isolation and withdrawal.

Call our Counseling department for a free consultation if you think further discussion might be helpful. They also have access to lists of qualified Christian family therapists practicing in your area. They’ll be happy to come alongside you in any way they can.


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