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Anthony E. Wolf on parenting

My teenaged son rarely goes out. Does he need therapy? Add to ...

Dear Dr. Wolf,

Our 18-year-old son does well in school, has a part-time job, and is a kind, responsible person. He is planning to go to university next year. We're concerned, however, about his social skills and self-confidence. He has always been quiet and introverted, with just a few friends. He rarely goes out and prefers to spend time at home.

We've tried to talk to him about stepping outside his comfort zone, but he gets defensive. We're unsure whether there's something serious bothering him and whether he needs professional help.

-Concerned Parents

Dear Concerned Parents,

Some teenagers seem less socially active than their peers. They have fewer friends than their parents would have expected. They rarely go out. They prefer to be at home.

"Seriously, what's up with that? Aren't they supposed to be out partying at friends' houses whose parents are away, getting high and drunk and throwing up a lot?"

It does sound like your son is less comfortable than many of his peers in social situations. Maybe he's book-smart, but less adept at reading social nuances and cues. Maybe when he's interacting with his peers, he feels he has trouble coming up with just the right words, the right phrasing. Maybe there are underlying emotional issues.

Or maybe not.

In many respects, it sounds like your son is doing just fine. He's a good person, he's doing well, heading to university, not getting into significant trouble. Many parents would kill to have a son like that.

You're facing a dilemma that confronts many parents of teenagers and young-adult children. You suspect there's a problem that's interfering with your child's overall ability to have a full, satisfying life. (You can't help it - you're a parent.)

Should you intervene? Is it a problem that might benefit from - or even demand - some kind of professional intervention?

The difficulty is that there are two realities.

Your reality: "He seems socially uncomfortable, unconfident, does not go out as much as others his age. He may be missing out on much in life because of problems that hold him back."

His reality: "I know I don't like to go out as much as other people my age, but I'm okay with what I do. That's my choice. I don't think there's anything wrong with me. I'm okay with the way I am."

Say you were to bring up the idea of seeing a counsellor.

"Sweetheart, we would like you to see someone who we think might be able to help you feel more comfortable in social situations."

He probably won't think, "Oh, that'd be good. Let me try it and see if it helps. Can't hurt."

Rather, he'll probably get defensive and self-conscious: "What? They think there's something wrong with me? They think I have psychological problems?"

He not only dislikes that you think he has a problem, but by raising the issue, he's also forced to confront a potentially disturbing question.

"Is it true? Do I have some kind of a problem? I've always known that compared to other kids, I'm not as comfortable doing a lot of the stuff that they do. But does that mean I'm mental?"

What to do? Were your son totally friendless, spending all his time alone in his room playing online video games, if he constantly seemed depressed or irritable - then you would definitely want to intervene. From your brief description, that doesn't sound like the case.

But if your worry still doesn't go away, then by all means keep encouraging your son, with gentle pushes, to get out more - spend more time with friends, join a sports league or another activity he's interested in. And if that's not working, you might try a counsellor or therapist.

A possible starting point could be saying something like: "It seems to us that you don't go out as much as other young people, that maybe you are uncomfortable in many social situations. You may be happy with it, and if so that is totally fine. But we worry that maybe you are missing out on what might make your life nicer for you. We just want you to know that there are people who might be of use to you. If you are interested, let us know."

You're putting it on the table, but you are presenting it as something that he may or may not choose to take advantage of.

My point: You may want to fix your teenage child, but you also need to consider that he may not need fixing.

It may well be that he has a nice home with a nice family whom he loves and is comfortable with. It is not a bad thing to have a nice home and a nice family. Nor is it bad to like it.

Nor is he doomed to a lesser life. Most teens adapt, like the rest of us - we do what we are good at, and maybe not pursue what we are not so good at. But usually we eventually get it. So here's the important question: Is your son happy with his life?

His answer may surprise you.

"I don't know. My parents worry, but I don't. I like my life. Maybe they should see a counsellor."

Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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