Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Managing Adolescent Withdrawal

Question

Our teenage son has become more withdrawn and isolated in the past few months.  Is this normal?  Is it something to be concerned about?  How can we help?

Answer

Wise parents are always on the lookout for sustained changes in the behaviors of their children, especially when those behaviors include withdrawal and/or isolation.

Withdrawal and isolation has become even more common as there has been a significant decline in social connectedness throughout our society and as social media has led to virtual relationships replacing real relationships.  We’ve become an increasingly insulated and isolated society.

In a previous column I noted that adolescence is a time for individuation, differentiation, and for establishing an identity that is unique from mom and dad.  These tasks often involve a child creating distance from their parents so yes, it can be normal and even healthy for a child to withdraw from their parents.  One of the best ways to determine if his withdrawal is something to be concerned about is for you to look at what kinds of ways he withdraws, for how long, and if it is occurring with other negative behavioral changes.

Some of the major warning signs that your son might be struggling include an extreme shift in his mood, loss of interest in his usual friends and activities, withdrawal from the family, changes in appetite, significant weight gain or loss, increased risk-taking behaviors, poor performance in school, a drop in grades, or frequent absences.

The difficulty is that some of these are also signs of normal adolescent development, but if they occur with increased frequency, if they increase in their intensity, and if they last for longer periods of time you would be well-advised to talk with a counselor.

What can you do?  First of all allow for some normal “developmental” withdrawal.  If you overreact to what might be normal withdrawal you could precipitate more intense withdrawal and isolation.  One of the best ways for a parent to alienate their child is to communicate that you don’t understand them, their world and that you’re not going to try.

Proverbs has a LOT to say about the importance of seeking understanding.  Whenever he wants to talk about something, even if it seems insignificant to you, make time to listen and ask an open question—that’s one that can’t be answered with a “Yes” or a “No” but requires a more extensive response.

Remember that with an adolescent, what might seem to you to be insignificant “small talk” may very well be a test to see if you really care as well as a necessary and significant prelude to a deeper and much “riskier” conversation.  If you fail the “small talk” test you’ll never have that deeper and more critical conversation.

Look for opportunities to connect and engage.  Stay involved in his life.  Notice him.  Compliment him.  Encourage him.  Thank him.  Make your home a place where his friends know that they are welcomed, even if you don’t like how they dress. Maintain contact with the parents of his friends and see if there are any activities you can do together as families.  And pray . . . without ceasing!

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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