mother and son hugging

When your teenager is shutting themselves away in their room, refusing to participate in family activities like meals or outings and is being generally withdrawn, it’s hard to know what to say or do to help them.

Is your teenager just introverted?

Sometimes, teens just need a break from social activity, and being alone gives them time to recharge. If your teen is introverted, however, they might prefer to spend time alone, rather than hang out with friends and family all the time. Most people lie on a spectrum between introversion and extroversion and it can be difficult to tell where someone is. This is especially the case with teens, who might try to act more extroverted to fit in at school.

Have a discussion with your child about what sorts of social activities they like, and to what extent (e.g. the frequency and duration of hang outs, and how many people are there). This will help you to understand what they need to feel socially connected – teens who are more introverted still need to feel connected, just in more specific ways.

Your teenager’s needs and views might be different to your own, and it’s important to be open to this. If your teen is being more withdrawn than usual, though, or is behaving differently in other ways, they might be feeling lonely or disconnected.

Here are some ideas for parents with lonely and disconnected teenagers.

Strengthen your connection with your teen

It’s very likely that your teen will reject your first offer of help. But even when your teen refuses to talk to you, it is super important that you keep trying to connect with them.

If your teen is feeling sad and frustrated because they’re socially isolated, your role as a parent is to provide a safe and consistent place for them. They need to understand that you’re there to support them. Don’t just assume that they know this; they might need you to say it explicitly.

Start a conversation
In the first instance, ask your teen how they are going. Asking them about their school, hobbies or friends can give them an opportunity to open up about what’s bothering them. This can help you to figure out whether they’re feeling lonely, or if there are other things going on, too.

If they don’t want to talk, that’s okay – let them know that when they’re ready, you’ll be there for them.

Be available and present
Whenever you talk to your teenager about anything, focus your attention on them and listen to what they’re saying. Too often as parents, we feel that just being there is enough. We ask our teenagers to put away their phones when we want to chat, so do the same for them – even if they don't ask you to.

Do some activities together
Simple activities done together with your teen, like taking a walk around the block or to the park after dinner, going for a drive or giving the dog a bath, can help your child feel connected with you and provide a less confronting opportunity to talk about how they’re feeling than a direct conversation.

Relate to and validate your child
Share about times when you felt lonely as a teenager (or as an adult) and explain how those feelings passed. Speak to your teen about perseverance and the value of sharing. Let them know that everyone feels like this sometimes. Just knowing that they’re not alone in having these feelings can be helpful.

Help your teen connect with others

Identify interest groups in your area
Check out your child’s school, or your local library or council, for interest groups that are available for free or at a low cost. There are groups covering lots of different interests, like sports, gaming, music, reading, crafts and religion. Joining a club lets your teen engage in something they’re interested in, while meeting other people who share that interest.

Find volunteering opportunities
Suggest that your teen volunteer for a cause they’re interested in. They could help out at an animal shelter, a local nursing home or a homeless shelter, or they could coach a younger sports team. They can check out what’s listed online to get started.

Encourage their engagement in current interests
Think about the things your teen is good at or enjoys, and encourage them to engage with those interests even more. For example, if they love a certain sport or school subject, they could start coaching younger kids.

Hannah was obsessed with rollerblading. Her friends and mentors in the sport encouraged her to start training younger kids, and now she has a class with over 20 students. Another teen, Aaron, was extremely good at analysing the stock market. His parents set him up on an app that allowed him to ‘trade’ with imaginary shares. He was so successful at it, his parents ended up taking his advice and made money from trading on the Australian Securities Exchange!

Nurture your relationships with other parents
Invite families with teenagers to visit and share meals, so that another teenager is there to connect with your child. If your teen is studying a language at school, you could offer to host exchange students.

Encourage your teen to find a part-time or casual job
They may need guidance on this one. Help them to write a resume that outlines their skills, achievements and strengths, and the positive contribution they make to their school or community. Be prepared to talk with local business owners about potential jobs, then encourage your teen to apply for them. You can also show your child how to fill in an online job application form.

Suggest other people for them to talk to
Not all teenagers want to share their feelings with their parents. Help them to identify other trusted adults they could talk to, like an aunt, a neighbour, a friend’s older brother, a teacher or even their school counsellor. If they don’t want to talk in person, they could hop on to the ReachOut Forums, which are a safe space for young people to share anonymously what’s going on.

Working, volunteering and being creative enables teenagers to contribute to society in areas where they feel useful and knowledgeable. With their success will come feelings of empowerment and self-worth. They will find other people in these environments (whether in real life or online) who can become their peers and friends.

Things you can do to look after yourself

Talk to other parents
You’ll be amazed by how many of your friends and colleagues struggle with similar issues with their teenagers. It’s great to learn that you’re not alone when it comes to these problems, and other parents might be able to share ideas or strategies that have worked for their kids.

Remember your own wellbeing
Supporting a teenager is hard and can affect your emotional health. It can be exhausting trying to meet their needs and deal with their mood swings. Remember what they say on planes: in the event of an emergency, fit your own oxygen mask first, then help others. Get some ideas to help you practise self-care.

Many parents of teenagers have experienced what you’re going through, and their teen has emerged from the difficult times stronger and more connected.

Did you find what you needed?