DEAR YOUR TEEN:
I have a son who turned 14 over the summer. He’s been homeschooled since 6th grade. I’m realizing now just how emotionally immature he is. He is constantly wanting to hug me, hold my hand, or sit with me in my recliner. He’s not into girls yet. He’d much rather play video games or watch TV. He’s never been interested in sports or any other extracurricular activities. I’m wondering just how concerned I should be. Is this normal behavior, or emotionally immature?
Parents often lament their teenagers pulling away from them during adolescence, while also recognizing that their attempts to create distance are necessary developmental milestones on their path toward autonomy. Although it’s wonderful when teens want to spend time with their parents, if they always choose to do so in place of other activities, including spending time out of the house with peers, it can be a cause for concern. At 14 years old, we hope to see a mix of interests and activities and a desire to socialize with peers. In the absence of this, you’ll want to think about what might be interfering with this aspect of development. The answers can inform the most appropriate next steps.
Teenagers are sensitive to actual or perceived criticism, so it will be important to tread gently in any conversation with your son about his behavior. Within a neutral discussion about self-care, you might raise the importance of all behaviors that contribute to his well-being, such as sleep, physical activity, and relationships with family and non-family members alike. While letting him know how much you treasure your close relationship with him, you want to make sure he has plenty of chances to form other relationships, too.
The two of you could think together about activities with peers that might appeal to him. If he’s not interested in sports or traditional extracurricular activities, perhaps a volunteer activity with other teenagers, a homeschooling group, or a class or club at your local library or community center would fit the bill. If this type of socializing is new for him, think with him about whether a large or small group setting would feel more comfortable.
His homeschooling allows this to be a neutral conversation, rather than one focused on his shortcomings—he lacks regular social contact because he is not in a traditional school environment, so you and he must find other ways for him to connect with peers. A side note—the pace at which teens develop interest in romantic relationships is just as individual as the teens themselves, and his lack of interest in this at 14 is not in itself a cause for alarm.
You don’t mention in your question if your son has always desired this level of closeness with you or if this is a new behavior. A marked change in behavior—withdrawing from friends, dropping activities, suddenly wanting to exclusively spend time with you—can indicate shifts in mood or anxiety that warrant further assessment and intervention. Other teens opt out of time with peers because they lack the social skills to comfortably navigate those interactions. A candid conversation with your son’s primary care physician should provide some clarity on his behaviors. She might recommend follow-up with a psychologist or therapist; if so, be sure to select a provider with expertise and experience working with adolescents.
Many teenagers feel a sense of relief at the prospect of getting support. If your son is resistant, you can revisit the self-care conversation—just as he would go to the doctor if he had physical symptoms, this type of follow-up will address emotional and social difficulties that may be keeping him from feeling his best.
Dr. Tori Cordiano is a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Research Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.