Q. Our 13-year-old son — our only child — has never reached out to anyone, not because he is shy but because I think he lacks self-confidence.
He was fairly happy at school when he was small and sometimes he even had a best friend, but he usually preferred to stay at home and play with us rather than get together with some kids. We made sure that he had regular playdates but they weren’t too successful. Although he was frequently loud and boisterous and acted like the class clown when they were here, he often criticized the kids afterwards and was happy when they left.
His grades also took a serious nosedive at age 12, when puberty began, so the school psychologist told us to help him with his schoolwork and to prepare him for tests. We keep an eye on his room, too. He has always been sloppy, disorganized, distracted and careless about his possessions even though he knows that there will be consequences if he leaves his clothes on the floor.
Our son is now a tall, mature and thoughtful young man with a lively imagination and a precocious interest in history. He also focuses on his smartphone games and social networking, his weekly hour of piano and his sports team, to which he is quite attached but he never initiates an activity with his teammates, although he is very responsive when they reach out to him. He also lets other kids call the shots at a group event, even when it inconveniences him, but he won’t assert himself. When we ask him, “Why not?” he just shrugs his shoulders and wanders off.
Since our son has few social get-togethers, he watches TV or works on the computer for as long as we allow it and this bothers us, too. We spend almost as much time policing his electronics as we spend worrying about his passivity.
We know that we should let our son sink or swim, but how can we stand by and watch him flunk out of school or live in chaos?
Should we accept the fact that there are leaders and followers in this world? That some people are more introverted than others? Or is there something we can do to bolster his confidence?
A. You could have your son tested by an expert to see if he has attention deficit disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome, or you could send him to a therapist to see if he has a psychological problem but these solutions seem both unnecessary and unjustified.
What you need is patience — a lot of patience.
Your son is 13 — an age when he is half-child and half-man — and he’s probably in a middle school, a place where changelings are stored for a few years because no one knows what to do with them and they don’t know either.
One minute these tweens and teens act loud and boisterous and the next minute they are so self-conscious that they turn into class clowns and this can make mock the other children when they really want to make fun of themselves.
Young teens, you see, are much like toddlers but much more self-conscious. Nevertheless, you have to follow the same rules today that you followed when your son was two.
—Look the other way as much as you can.
—Lower your expectations, instead of raising them.
—Laugh with him, not at him.
—Set up a quiet place near you so your son can study; check over his homework without fussing about it and see that he tucks it into his backpack but let him do the work himself. Every time you do a job for your son that he can do for himself, you are crushing his self-confidence.
—Praise him for jobs well done, rather than nag him to do them better. Encouragement makes a child try harder but nags make him quit trying.
—Have your son pick up his clothes once a day — or when company is coming — and then remember: a door is for shutting, especially a teenager’s door.
You also have to forgive your son’s temperament, just as he forgives yours. Shy or introverted youngsters often find it hard to make friends or suggest new activities unless they’ve been taught how to do those things. This is where you can be so helpful.
If you go to your son’s games, you’ll meet the parents of some of his teammates and then you can invite them and their children over for barbecues and Sunday brunches occasionally. Here your son can become as comfortable with people his own age as he is with adults and you will feel great relief. A child doesn’t become a grown-up overnight.
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