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January 13, 2021

What to Do When Your Teenager Shuts You Out

Because of quarantine and pandemic restrictions, teens aren’t only isolating themselves to avoid social rejection, pain, or awkwardness. Online social engagements may not feel the same, anxiety levels are at an all-time high for in-person activities, and staying alone in a room is one of the easiest things to do right now. But as a result, many kids now feel trapped in their isolation.

Self-isolation doesn’t always translate to loneliness. Isolation can often mean the opposite: a chance for a healthy teen to take time to themselves to rest, destress, or focus on something important. But there are times when withdrawn behavior in teenagers becomes problematic. So, here are some tips for understanding how your teen’s self-isolation is affecting them and what you can do to support them.

Loneliness vs being alone

“People think being alone makes you lonely, but I don’t think that’s true. Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world.” ―Kim Culbertson

Loneliness doesn’t necessarily mean your teen is physically alone. They could be surrounded by people with whom they feel disconnected or misunderstood, making them feel like the odd one out. Or maybe they have you and the rest of the family, but they have a hard time connecting, or feel like they’ve already spent too much time with you at home (hey, we’ve all felt that way a time or two during quarantine).

Similarly, when your teen is alone, that doesn’t always mean they’re lonely. Being comfortable spending time with yourself is a valuable skill that is often obscured by the negative effects of loneliness and toxic social dependence. Since these negative effects are scary and our society is hyper-aware of mental health issues, it’s easy to jump to the assumption that our teens are lonely when they take a lot of time for themselves.

“Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self.” —Henri Nouwen

Understanding the difference between loneliness and solitude can help us better discern when we should be worried about our teens’ isolation and when we should encourage it. Much like singleness, there is beauty in solitude; solitude can help us develop a better understanding of ourselves. But when we’re lonely, our hearts ache for meaningful connections and we can start loathing our own company and the company of others.

Warning signs of mental health

Healthy isolation can be restorative, relaxing, and peaceful. But when isolation becomes too much, your teen could be at risk for several negative long-term effects like depression, anxiety, less restorative sleep, substance abuse, increase of stress, and more. To help prevent your teen from reaching this point (or help them move away from these symptoms), look for any warning signs and ask them how they’re doing. Some health impacts of loneliness are:

  • Dramatic shifts in behavior and personality
  • Oversleeping
  • Insomnia
  • Decrease in self-esteem
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden drop in academic performance
  • Sense of hopelessness and worthlessness

Click here for more warning signs that indicate poor mental health in teenage withdrawal and isolation.

How to support your self-isolating teen

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” —Fred Rogers

Whether or not our teens have exhibited warning signs of loneliness, we want to make sure they know they have someone in their corner they can count on. By opening up the conversation, we can figure out what to do when your teenager shuts you out, and how we can best maintain a healthy balance between solitude and time spent together. Here are some tips for being there for your teen when they’re self-isolating:

    • Check in. If your teen is really struggling with isolation and loneliness, take the first step toward bridging the gap with them. (Click here for mental health questions to help you start the conversation!) And when you’re checking in with them, make listening a priority. If your teen is really struggling with something, it’s important that they feel seen and heard by you. Feeling that love and support is crucial, no matter what is going on in your teen’s world.
  • Support them. It’s not always easy to know exactly how to support your kid or how to cope with loneliness. Sometimes everything we do either annoys them or fails to resonate with them. So, ask your teen how you can best support them. But if this doesn’t elicit a positive response, give your kid some space and simply start showing them how you care with small acts of love and kindness. (If you know your kid’s love languages, use that as a way to connect with them!) While we want to connect with our kids, it’s important to start small, so that we don’t smother them and push them further away.
  • Consider therapy. This should be decided between you and your teen. If you both think that therapy is the right direction, therapy can be a great way for your teen to better understand their own thought process and behavior. But if your teen isn’t interested, forcing them into therapy may only make matters worse. So, if you think your teen could benefit from therapy but they refuse, keep the conversation open in a loving way. Try to support them in their struggles and gently remind them that they are, and always will be, loved and cherished by you.
  • Give them space. As parents, we want to fix all of our kids’ issues. But sometimes the best thing to do for our kids is to give them space (and no, this doesn’t mean disappearing forever). Having time to themselves could be a way for your teen to relax from the day, especially if they’re introverted. And everyone’s healthy alone time looks different. Maybe they want to be alone for the rest of the evening, have a week to do their own thing, or just need an hour. Listen to what your teen needs, and allow them space to be on their own.
  • Be encouraging. Gently encourage them to stay socially and actively engaged, especially if they’re dealing with depression, low self-esteem, or anxiety. Sometimes we don’t always know what’s fun for our kids, and our suggestions are followed by eye rolls and concerned glances. Consider asking them what hobbies they actually want to do. And whatever you do, be a positive source of encouragement and give them the nudge they may need to be more involved in the things they’re interested in.
  • Be an option. Many teenagers need space, especially when they feel overcrowded by their family members. But even if they don’t want to be around you right now, let them know that you’ll always be an option for them when they’re ready. This could mean inviting them to play a game, watch a movie with the family, or simply telling them you’re there for them. But don’t always pull the parent card and force them to participate in activities with you. Leave the door open and gently invite them to join you. When they’re ready, hopefully they’ll walk through on their own.

Discussion questions

Evaluating your teen’s motivation behind self-isolation is key to understanding them and how they are doing mentally and physically. Here are some questions to help you start the conversation with your teen.

  1. How do you rest or destress?
  2. Do you value having time to yourself? How can I better respect this time?
  3. Are you uncomfortable being alone? Why or why not?
  4. Are you extroverted or introverted? How does this affect your view of being alone?
  5. Describe yourself when you’re at your healthiest. What do you do on a normal day? How do you interact with others? How do you view yourself?
  6. Now describe yourself when you’re at your unhealthiest. What do you do on a normal day? How do you interact with others? How do you speak to yourself?
  7. On a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the absolute best), how would you rate your mental health right now? What are some ways we can work together to get higher on the scale?
  8. How can I support your mental health needs?
  9. When was the last time you felt lonely?
  10. How can I help you navigate through loneliness?

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