Nontalkative Teens: Getting Your Children to Open Up About Their High School Social Lives


I’m dreading school already – and I’m just the parent! My son has had a great summer as a counselor at a camp with some warm and supportive friends. He feels good about himself, and is confident. But high school is a very different story. He ended last year depressed and left out socially.  He is entering his junior year in high school and I so want him to be happy and have a good high school experience. What can I do to help his situation? He doesn’t want to talk about his social life much with us, so if I bring up ideas to spice up is social life he feels as though I’m criticizing him. Do I leave the subject alone and leave him to figure it out? Please help me understand this complex and unkind high school social world!


As I think about a response to this question, I am reminded of one of my earlier observations, that teenagers’ social lives are often characterized by a series of fleeting relationships and/or associations with various peers.  As difficult as it may be to watch our children go through these painful dynamics, it is often true that these are the situations that actually contribute to their developing sense of social and emotional competence.  In these awkward relationships, teenagers often learn about specific relationship dynamics they DON’T like, and ultimately, come to clarify their thinking about the kind of relationships they DO like. As this process evolves, many teenagers get clearer not only about the kind of relationships they want, but also, about the kind of person they want to be, about who they are becoming – about their own personal and social identities.  These awkward experiences may be painful, but they usually contribute significantly to adolescents’ social learning.

It sounds like your son had a difficult end to his sophomore year – so difficult that he has not been willing or able to talk about it with you.  His not talking with you is an issue to consider further.  A common and likely reason for your son’s initial reticence may be that in June, he had not established enough time and space – emotional distance – from whatever his experience had been.  Talking about it then would have been more difficult because of the awkwardness and/or embarrassment he would have felt in the retelling of his story.  It is also possible that even he had not had an opportunity to stand back enough from his immediate feelings to be able to explain, even to himself, what actually happened.  The good news, so it seems, is that now, in August, your son is in a better psychological space, feeling better about himself and about his “warm and supportive” friends at summer camp.  Given the two-month distance since June, and the mediating (therapeutic) effects of his having experienced greater self-confidence and personal efficacy among his  “supportive” and accepting peer group, it is possible that your son will be more willing to talk with you about his year-end experience – before he returns to school in September.  An approach to consider might be to say the following:  “I am so glad you had a great summer.  It is so good to see you happy again, especially after having noticed how unhappy you seemed at the end of the school year.  I have thought a lot about you this summer, and have been worried about you.  I know you may not want to talk about what actually happened last spring, but I still want you to know how worried I have been, and that if I could help you in any way, I would like to do that.” If that does not help to open up communication, another valuable approach is to share some painful memories of your own from when you were in high school or college.  Don’t make one up, but try to recall a time when you felt dejected or socially outcast/isolated.  Get in touch with how that felt, and use those feelings to empathize with your son.  If he has the sense that you understand – from your own, lived experience – he is more likely to feel a connection with you and your experience, and to risk talking about his experience more openly.

If your son still does not want to talk with you about his experience, try to talk about THAT with him.  What is he afraid might happen if he were to talk about it with you?  What assurances would he need in advance of talking more openly about his experience?  What is it about sharing this kind of information with you that seems so difficult? You mention that your son does not “want to talk about his social life much with us,” and that sometimes, if you “bring up ideas to spice up his social life,” he feels as though you are criticizing him.  My guess is that your energy is better spent trying to understand your son’s experience from his perspective than trying to “spice up his social life” for him.  Remember, this is HIS social life – not yours.  Yes, the social world within any high school can seem strange and unkind, and for that, your son needs allies, reliable people in his daily life who know him well and who understand things from HIS perspective.  These allies (parents and some teachers) serve as sponsors of his emerging capacities to whether these social “storms” more independently.  When your son was in elementary school, it would have been more appropriate for you, his parent, to march into school and rally the right adults into action to solve your son’s difficulties.  Now, however, it is more and more your job to be a sponsor of HIS taking action, of HIS learning to navigate his way through these social quagmires. Because your son has just had a successful summer experience with a different peer group – evidence of his ability to get along with others well – it seems even more correct that HE is the one who needs to resolve this situation….with background help and support from those “allies” whom he knows are there to guide and direct him when HE asks for help. If your son is not likely to ask you for help, then your job is to work on THAT – on making yourself a desirable and approachable resource from whom your son would want to learn and/or seek help.

This may not be the easiest answer to digest.  The big issue here is for you to figure out why your son “does not want to talk much” with you about his social life.  He does not have to tell you everything – and you probably don’t really want to know – but YOU want to ensure that if your son does want to talk with you, that YOU are ready and eager to listen – and that you are NOT ready to do for him what he now is capable of doing for himself !!!!!  Ultimately, your son needs to know how to live his own life.  Your job is to help him train for that, help him to practice his emerging social and emotional skills.  Your job is NOT “to spice up his social life” for him.


David L. Gleason, Psy.D.