My teenage son disappears into the basement and never engages with us.

My teenage son just disappears into the basement and he never engages with us. He plays video games all the time. When I try to talk about it he says he has virtual friends. He has never had good social skills. What do I do?

First set the scene, you have to create an opportunity to actually talk. It sounds like there is a larger conversation about how much time he spends in the basement. Think about talking to him about what he likes about virtual friends and what he likes about video games. Meet him where he is, and ask him to come up and spend more time in the house with you. Pick a time and place most comfortable for your child to have this initial discussion. Kids tend to be more receptive to conversation when they’re physically comfortable, unhurried and undistracted. Some other ways to set the scene:

  • Approach your child when he is in a pretty good mood. Not on the heels of a blow-up or meltdown. Talk to your child privately, without other siblings around.

  • Pick a quiet place—no phones or screens to distract you.

  • Try to be as direct as possible. Some children respond better when you tell them that you want to talk with them about something.

As you start to have the conversation, you can say:

  • “I have something I’d like to talk with you about.”

  • “I have noticed you spend a lot of time on video games.”

Then ask questions and have a conversation. Don’t judge the games and don’t assume the virtual world is bad because then you will alienate him. Don’t demand he give it up. Research shows that when kids have outside text communication with virtual friends they bridge to real friendships. And your child is likely to shut down if you shut down virtual friends. So having a conversation and helping him open up about his social avoidance is so important.

Use Open-ended Questions

By asking open-ended questions, you encourage your child to talk about his friendship situation fully and candidly. Open-ended questions use the words who, what, when, where, and how. Below are some conversation starters:

  • What do you like about video games?

  • What interests you?

  • What is the virtual world like?

  • What makes the virtual friendships appealing?

  • I have noticed that sometimes you have a hard time with (identify a behavior). What makes (name the behavior) hard for you?

If your child resists, ask him, “What feels hard about this?”

If he denies there is any friendship problem, you can say, “Well I have noticed…” and then name a specific series of situations. Ask him what feels uncomfortable or makes him afraid of making that change. Share with him the things that could happen if he were willing to work on his friendship skills and ask him what he would like to be different. You will share with him a picture of possibilities—what it could be like. Some key phrases that are helpful:

  • “I am curious”

  • “Tell me more about that.”

  • “What is that like for you?

  • “What does that feel like?

When you are curious and really listen to your child’s feelings, you can never go wrong.

Clarify Concerns and Express Empathy

As your child is responding to your questions, be sure to clarify his concerns by being a reflective listener: Listen closely, repeat back what you understand your child to be saying, and ask if you understand correctly. You can say: Here’s what I hear you saying…is that right? If your child feels that his concerns are heard and validated, he will be more open to hearing what you have to say. Below are some tips on how to be a good reflective listener.

  • Repeat back your child’s statement without giving an opinion. By repeating his statement, your child also hears what he has said.

  • Confirm with your child that you captured his thoughts and feelings accurately.

  • Clarify your child’s thoughts and feelings by asking questions.

  • Accept and validate your child’s sentiments.

  • Express empathy: “I hear you,” “I get it,” “That must be hard.”

  • Use you and I statements, such as “You are overwhelmed” and “I am sad you are lonely.”

 

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