Q: My son is a junior in high school and has been back to school over two weeks. I am concerned my teen is lonely. He rarely eats lunch at school and spends most of the weekends online. He told me he was going to social events last year, but it turns out he didn’t.
How can I support him? Any advice appreciated!
A: You have hit on one of the most heartbreaking experiences as a parent – a lonely teen. Your son’s peer group is one of the biggest factors influencing his choices and behavior.
Let’s take a step back and consider what variables might be impacting your son. Does your son exhibit executive function weaknesses? If so, these teenagers can lack maturity and self-confidence. Have there been repeated rebukes by peers?
Should You Try to Help Your Lonely Teen?
You may think that teenagers would rather poke their eyes out than listen to their parents, yet ironically, they actually are listening. I suggest an indirect approach. For example, I’ve worked with a young girl who experienced a similar situation. After several attempts to get their daughter to make friends, she withdrew from her parents and hid in her room. What little communication they had became even less. There was a lot of anger on both sides. She felt that her parents wouldn’t “hear her out” and were interfering.
Talking about friendships and making friends can be a tough conversation, but by withholding judgment, you are opening up the lines of communication. This helps him develop lifelong positive traits on how to evaluate his own thoughts and values.
How To Broach the Lonely Teen
Find a time when he is comfortable and in a good mood. How is the location? A more private setting might be just what he needs to feel comfortable opening up while others may prefer a public location.
Over a series of open and collaborative conversations, try to get your child to open up and discuss this topic more. This will be a slow, iterative process. The more you hear his point of view, the better your chances of helping him reflect on his friendships.
Before Starting a Conversation:
Hold back your feelings, listen more – Your son will open up if he feels heard. By holding back judgment, you are creating an atmosphere where your son feels safe to talk. He will then be more likely to come to you with the next problem.
Look at things from your son’s perspective – One of the hardest parts of being a teen is thinking that nobody understands you. The more you step into your son’s shoes and hear his perspective, the more you can give him what he needs.
Reflect, clarify and be curious – Paraphrase what your teen says and repeat it back to him. When you do this, you show empathy. Clarify his concerns. Be curious and ask questions. By understanding his perspective, you are inviting him to open up more.
Don’t impose your values or goals on the situation – Keep your agenda in check as you continue to talk through the importance of friendship. Do not assume you understand the reasons your son struggles with friends. Try not to apply pressure by imposing your values. The end goal here is to keep your child talking. Show him that you are confident that he can learn, grow and make good choices.
Shared Interest – At the root of most friendship is a shared interest. Could he join or start a group based on interests he and others share? Can he join a club and take on a position? In this role, he is obliged to speak to others and reach out. He can also regularly meet others – the start to a friendship.
Ask Questions – As you enter into this discussion, some questions you may want to consider include:
- What is it about reaching out that makes you uncomfortable?
- What do you have in common with kids in your grade?
- How do your peers treat you?
- What does an enjoyable friendship look like?
- What kind of person do you want to be?
- Can you be that person around these kids?
Collaborate on Solutions – Once you have enough information to move forward, keep the lines of communication open. Brainstorm ways that your son can meet others. Involve him in activities and opportunities to be with former friends or those with the same values. Give him a place to feel good about himself. Together, pick an activity where his interests are high and he can pursue his passion to develop a stronger sense of self.
Maturity may be an issue. Consider helping your teen develop life skills that will boost his independence and maturity. Perhaps a job or volunteering opportunity will fill that void? If he is willing, practice these new approaches at home first.