Dear parent coaching:
Help! My teenage son is a basement vampire. I have a problem with my 14 year old son and have not read anything similar about this on other blogs. My son doesn’t want to be involved in ANYTHING! We have tried sports, dog training, piano lessons, drums in band, church activities, fencing, 4-H — you name it, we’ve tried it. He only wants to stay at home, play video games and be with his dad and me. I’m not really complaining about that, but he’s in high school now, and I’d really like to see him have some friends, go out to the movies, the football games, something! He has friends at school, but they never do anything together socially. I’m worried about him. Is this normal? He just doesn’t seem like a normal teenager to me. He’s very down on himself because he’s a little chubby, but it’s nothing serious. He’s a good looking kid but doesn’t believe that he is.He says he’s hideous. He’s NOT! I just worry about the anti-social behavior. Is it okay for a kid to just want to hang at home all the time??
Your situation does sound challenging. While it may be typical for some teens to focus solely on video games, it isn’t necessarily healthy. Given the fact that your son has few social connections, is “chubby” and makes disparaging remarks about himself, firstly, I encourage you to talk with a professional clinician, or your family doctor, in order to rule out any underlying issues, whether emotional or medical.
Many kids feel awkward socially, and simply lack the skills to make and keep friends. For many, it just feels easier to hide out in a virtual world, rather than face those feelings of awkwardness. In James Lehman’s Total Transformation program, he explains it this way: feeling socially awkward is a problem, and parents need to teach their children how to effectively solve that problem. Once you’ve addressed possible underlying causes, you might try approaching this issue as a lack of social skills, and implement a system that requires your son to acquire the skills he needs to be successful.
The first step is to let your son know that he is required to be involved in some kind of social activity twice a week. You might make some suggestions that don’t involve too much face-to-face contact or conversation at first. Let him know that he can choose the activity (within reason), and give him a time limit in which to make that decision. State clearly that if he does not choose something within that time period (a week is fine), then you will choose for him. This isn’t meant to be torture for your child, but it will be uncomfortable initially. You can expect that he will resist, as most people do when they are forced outside of their comfort zone.
The next step is to connect privileges and consequences to his attendance at the chosen activity. When he has attended the activity (whether or not he says he enjoyed it), he has access to his privileges that day. If he refuses to go, you might consider taking away his video games for that day. Don’t take them for extended periods of time – just for the day in which he refused to attend the activity. If he decides he wants to try something else, he will need to attend this first activity for a period of time successfully (which means he goes to the event without making a huge issue out of it) before he can change to another activity. Setting it up this way should keep him from changing activities rapidly, simply because he feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Be clear with your son that while the specific activity can change, the requirement that he do something active at least twice a week will not change.
Remember, this approach is designed to help your child slowly become more comfortable in social situations and improve his social skills. Some people are naturally introverted, and won’t ever become the “life of the party.” But think of it this way –- everyone needs some level of social skills in order to get a job, have friends, and feel successful in life. No matter what kids say, video games do not help them prepare for a meaningful and satisfying life. As his parent, you can play the role of the coach, encouraging him to grow and stretch into a healthy, successful young man.
Good luck, and please let us know how this works!
–Megan Devine, LCPC and parent coach at Empowering Parents
Megan Devine is a licensed clinical therapist, former Empowering Parents Parent Coach, speaker and writer. She is also the bonus-parent to a successfully launched young man. You can find more of her work at refugeingrief.com, where she advocates for new ways to live with grief.