DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My 14-year-old son is going through puberty and has become withdrawn and non-conversational. When should I become concerned about the possibility of depression at this stage of life? Is it unwise to push him to join in family chats and activities?
ANSWER: As children become teenagers, they may choose to gravitate toward activities that involve their peers and become less engaged in family activities or parent-child interactions. That behavior can become a problem if it makes it hard for your teen to accomplish his daily routines or if it disrupts the way your family functions.
In the situation you describe, a good first step would be to look specifically at what has changed. Then examine the effect those changes are having on your son and the rest of the family. This can give you some perspective on the overall impact and significance of his behavior.
For example, if you typically eat family meals together six nights a week, and your son no longer participates in those meals at all, that is a large difference worth exploring further. On the other hand, if you usually eat meals together two or three times weekly, and he now joins you just once a week because of a busy schedule, that is less likely to be a concern.
Next, rather than insist your son participate in family activities, talk with him about what you see happening. Seek his input and feedback. This problem-solving process can be quite useful in these circumstances. Teens are often eager for independence and responsibility. By inviting him to talk with you, listening to his perspective, and working on solutions together, you show him you have confidence in his abilities and respect his opinions.
Consider having this discussion when you and your son are involved in another activity, such as driving in the car, cooking a meal, working on a home improvement project or playing a sport together. When you are engaged in another activity, you don’t need to make much eye contact as you talk. That can decrease the stress your son might feel during the conversation, making it less intimidating for him, and allowing him to speak more freely.
Start the conversation by commenting on positive accomplishments you see your son achieving. For example, you could say something like, “I know how hard you’re working in school, and I’m proud of how well you’re doing.” Or, “I admire your determination to get a summer job and your commitment to earning your own money.”
After that, explain the concerns you have. Then get the facts from his point of view. How does he view his behavior? Is he okay with it? Does he notice it affects the rest of the family? Discuss together your expectations and ideas. Identify what you would like to see happen. Ask what he thinks and if he sees your expectations as reasonable. Be flexible. Strive to find ways to allow your family to function well, while still allowing him to exercise his need for autonomy. Understand that as your son grows, the way he interacts with you will change.
Although your son’s behavior sounds typical for someone his age, there are signs to watch for that may require more attention. They include showing little interest in fun activities or activities he normally enjoys; being sad, tearful, angry, irritable or easily upset; sleep problems; big changes in eating habits; or threatening or actually doing something to hurt himself.
If your son shows some of these symptoms consistently for several days or more, make an appointment for him to see his doctor. It is possible they could signal a larger underlying problem, such as depression. — Jarrod M. Leffler, Ph.D., ABPP, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.