Thirteen was miserable for everyone, right?
September 2, 2012 3:59 PM   Subscribe

How do I help my son get through middle school?

This is the same kid. He's almost (in one month) thirteen. He's very shy, introverted and has a hard time making friends and is socially awkward (like I was, and still am). He's also very down on himself. He'll say that he won't be able to do something before trying. When he does try something new, he gives up easily -- so he doesn't really have any outside/social interests. We encourage everything he wants to try. He liked a theater camp he was in over the summer, but is convinced he wasn't any good (he was!). He likes science and history and does well in school. We tell him he's wonderful, smart, funny, and indulge his computer game time (Steam/TF2, Minecraft) which he really loves.

He can be lighthearted and happy (usually when playing/talking about games), He can be very loving and sweet and wants to please people. I really like hanging out with him cause he's a cool kid -- his dad feels the same way. But at this point, he wants other kids to hang out with, not just mom and dad (and a younger sister). He has two friends, but they're frequently not available (they have outside/social interests). He's dreading school. We saw the very beginnings of bullying last year (on the bus) and I'm determined to make sure it doesn't happen this year. Both my husband and talk to him about what he's feeling, but it's hard to drag it out of him. He says "I'm fine." a lot when he clearly isn't.

How can I tell if this is normal stuff for his age? Can anyone share ideas that might've helped when you were thirteen?
posted by bluemoonegg to Human Relations (28 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It would help a lot if he knew more supportive, trustworthy, confident adults and (much) older teens - in a "long term" kind of way (rather than a short camp experience.) Is there a chance he'd be interested in one of the many forms of scouting that are available?
posted by SMPA at 4:08 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

At this point, would it be of benefit to him (and can you afford) a therapist for him to talk to?

Also, this article in NY Magazine about the inverse power of praise is a bit pop, but makes some good points about praising for effort. I doubt that's the only thing going on here, but it might help.

Good luck.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:27 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

He needs to join something on a longer term basis. Like karate or the chess club or a team of some sort. Or the previously mentioned scouting alternatives. (Navigators!). He needs peers his own age which obviously you know and he knows too. He also needs to get outside interests. Sign him up for something for the fall. (Ideally something he chooses). If he hates it he can quit at christmas but right now he needs to get busy, get involved and by doing so he will get his confidence up for school. And then he will have sort of his own 'gang' whether it's the theater club or 4H kids. He really needs to get confidence from doing something not from talking...not to be too blunt but I feel I missed that boat a bit so I just want to strongly recommend it for other teen parents.
posted by bquarters at 4:28 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would talk to his school's social worker for help.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:29 PM on September 2, 2012

What would have helped me a lot was knowing that my parents (and, for preference the school system) had my back - that if there was a way to intervene and I needed it, they would have. Also, it would have helped if my parents had said "tell us if there's something else you need - a different school, a particular outside activity, whatever, and we will take that need seriously and make it happen if it's economically/materially possible, and even if it's not we won't be upset that you asked".

I think my parents were working out a lot of their own issues around being outsiders/bullied - if you have lurking issues about this stuff yourselves, talk them through and come up with strategies to work them out. In my own case, my parents projected a lot of their experience onto me and told me that of course people in our family got bullied because we were just that smart and there was nothing anyone could do about it. This was not very good for me in any number of ways and has influenced me deeply as an adult.

Can you have conversations with your son about how to related to people? I didn't have the first clue how to related to people and I think a little bit of meta-discussion could have helped me a lot. What motivates other people? How can you empathize? Because I was being bullied, I didn't have a peer group to learn social skills from, which only worsened the bullying and made me feel that I was responsible for it because I was kind of a twerp.

I got some bad habits of thinking as a bullied child that perhaps you can prevent your son from acquiring:
1. "Everyone" is miserable in their teens, so my misery was just a fact of life
2. Sensitive, smart kids get bullied because regular people are ignorant, lazy and enjoy being mean. This is the way of the world and cannot change.
3. There are two important categories in life, "regular" people and "outsiders". These categories are immutable and absolute.
4. You will never be safe from the regular people and adults can't help.
5. Your value lies in your smartness and your good behavior, not in any inherent dignity you have as a human being - so if you aren't smart enough and don't behave well enough, you lose the only things that make you not deserve to be bullied.

Also, it would have helped if my parents had encouraged the interests I shared with my peers, which it sounds like you are doing. Whether that's interests that only some peers share (I wish I could have made nerd friends around SF but was forbidden from all roleplaying and SFnal activities) or 'mainstream' interests, which were discouraged in an unspoken but definite way at our house.

Seeing my parents model friendship would have been great too - do you have friends with whom you socialize? That's not something you can pick up on a whim, but it would have been great to see a model of adult friendships.

Also clothes - fashion is different now and certainly kids shouldn't have to care about dressing to fit in if they don't want to, and there are always limits on what can be afforded - but it would have helped me if I could have made clothing choices and if my parents had not repeatedly articulated the idea that caring about appearances was shallow and selfish.

My parents were, honestly, just being rather principled and eccentric adults. They weren't doing anything terrible or cruel and indeed many aspects of my childhood were idyllic. The issue was more that the gulf between childhood and adulthood is wide and my parents did not have the tools to bridge it - the way they grew up was so radically different from how I grew up that they were, I think, a bit at sea without realizing it. Also, they had very little regard for the internal logic of childhood - I was supposed to comport myself as a small, eccentric adult. And I think that they viewed my "adult" competencies - ability to talk amusingly with grown-ups, reading and writing skills, sense of responsibility - as all I needed to learn.

Mainly, I think being aware of how your past influences what you hear when your kid describes his experiences and being aware that it's easy to forget how different childhood perceptions and survival skills are from adult.
posted by Frowner at 4:39 PM on September 2, 2012 [26 favorites]

When I was 13, the one thing I didn't want to do, ever, was talk to my parents, or talk to anyone that knew my parents. I really just wanted to be left the hell alone, because I didn't need more judging and reasons to feel humiliated.

So ... Space. Give him space. Space, some walking-around money and hugs. But space. He likes playing games? Great. Be careful how you refer to the games. Are they "the games he likes to play," or "those stupid, worthless games of yours." That's part of giving space -- not being derisive. Be a safe haven. Don't be a safe haven that won't stop with the questions, Mom, gosh, leave me alone!

Sure, talk to his teachers and counselors and whatnot. Do it on the sly. Your basic principle should always be First, Do No Harm.

Your second move will be to support something that he can master without you. Again, he like games. Has he ever thought to make one of his own? There are tools and lessons for that.

But how about something dangerous he can master without you? Model rockets were my thing. I may have been a dork, but I was a dork with explosives. Harmless, Boy Scout-approved model rockets. That I could send hundreds of feet in the air. And my family didn't know how they worked. At all. To them, I was doing magic. And it was mine, all mine. Hah!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:49 PM on September 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

When I arrived at high school (aged 14), on the first day, we had an opening retreat. The morning was a typically gymnasium speech parade by administrators and faculty in front of the new students and our parents. As lunch wrapped-up, students and parents were each given a slip of paper with a building and class room assignment.

They mixed up students and parents – the goal of the exercise was for parents to have an open and frank discussion with students about being a parent of teenagers. It was a brilliant exercise.

One thing that has stuck with me for the last many years was a man called "Jim" who spoke about how hard it is to be a parent and watch your child fail. He said that parents were often caught in between wanting to protect their kids, and the need of children to learn and develop confidence and self-possession.

He actually had a tear in his eye as he said, "We have to let you fail and it's the hardest thing to do. But you'll never learn and grow if we don't."

That has always stayed with me. There's a great bit of thinking from attachment theory on 'secure bases' that has to do with the home and the family being a base from which the child can venture out and explore the world. The ideal scenario is where they know the home is stable place of comfort and acceptance. That is was Jim had established for his child.

He said he was not a strict disciplinarian. He would correct his child when required, but realised his role diminished from an active protector to a passive protector – rather than intervening in his child's life and trying to shape it, his role was to now be there when called on.


In terms of the "I'm fine" thing, it probably has a lot to do with the interactions in the household. Parents often forget how observant children are and sensitive to the context of how things are said. After all, intonation and speech patterns are often part of disciplinary processes.

In 'Love Actually', there's the brilliant moment where Liam Neeson is worried sick about the kid missing his deceased mother. He's constantly concerned for him, the kid won't talk. Then, when Liam Neeson finally creates the space for the kid to generate the topic, it turns out to be something different entirely.

You can't force a teenager to speak – and indeed they are just learning about privacy and boundaries. What you can do is observe. When he opens up, what is your response? Are you creating a secure base where he feels accepted regardless of what the content of the topic is?

As mentioned, it often runs in the household. What is the style of communication between the parents? Do the parents practice active listening? Is there any judgement present in difficult conversations?

Based on what I learned from Jim that day, the best way to 'get something out of a kid' is to create a neutral zone where there are no consequences for what's said. It's their space, where the goal is not to offer advice, or tell them how it is, or teach them something. But a space for them to own and direct the conversation.

In terms of the shy / fear of failure / etc thing, he's picking up on it from you it sounds like. Parents are the role models for the child, both in the big things and the small things. How you interact with waitresses and people behind tills in shops will shape his social interaction. He's a sponge, absorbing from you how to act.

In his mind, you are successful and what you do is right. After all, you take care of him and put food on the table, so it's worth mimicking. You realise you have limitations but he does not realise that. And telling him probably won't do much.

If you have been meaning to change the socially-anxious aspect of yourself, now is probably the time to do it. If you are pleased with it, perhaps it would be good for him to spend time regularly with a trusted adult who he can model his behaviour on.

With shy kids, it may well be that they don't know how to handle success. if they have traits and talents, it's not the activity they have trouble with, but rather the recognition. Once again, I would look inside the household and look at how recognition and achievement is handled. If both parents tend to shy away from being the centre of attention, he may well be in a place where when he does well, he's uncomfortable with recognition simply because he does not have a model for how to do it.

All of this is based on a short paragraph you have written above and I'm by no means a professional, but it is equally as important to ask "how are you being in your life" as it is to ask "how can we shape him", for he is certainly attune to both, and heavily influenced by both.
posted by nickrussell at 4:54 PM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

OP, the word "sports" appeared nowhere in your question, and I'd guess they are the essential missing element in your son's life. Unless he is physical disabled (and by no means even then) there are sports he can enjoy now and eventually excel at, and which also supply an organic means for keeping busy and eventually socializing. Athletic attainment is also very valuable for college admissions; to be blunt, colleges have more nerd-gamers than they want or need, and discriminate against them in admissions. It might be too late for team ball sports, but it's never too late for tennis, golf, rock climbing, etc. (I'd avoid martial arts; they can be great for the already athletic but in my experience they are a big waste of time for those who aren't athletic to begin with.)
posted by MattD at 5:18 PM on September 2, 2012

My son didn't have a very strong social network in 6th/7th grade. That started to change a little bit in 8th grade, and would eventually transform to the point where he was a true social butterfly and one of the key people in his group of quirky, likeminded high school friends.

One thing that helped him immensely before he got his sea legs, socially, was to have opportunities to socialize online. He started on Club Penguin and by middle school had graduated to Habbo Hotel and it was a major part of his social life for a long time. He also played Casual Collective games and hung out on the forums there for a while. I was probably laxer than a lot of parents in terms of monitoring his online contacts, but my opinion is that the chances of something bad happening to a kid due to online predators is much lower than the chances of something bad happening to a kid from being isolated, socially awkward, and friendly.

At that age he also participated in a youth tabletop gaming/DnD club for a while, which was a good place to socialize in the real world.
posted by drlith at 5:27 PM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

When he does try something new, he gives up easily -- so he doesn't really have any outside/social interests.

This really isn't the way of the world. The way he will generate his own identity and be secure in himself is if he is forced to stick with something until he masters it. The only thing I'd watch out for is keeping him in an activity where he is subject to social abuse. But other than that, he needs to pursue something and stick with it. The ability to do that is probably the #1 most important life skill.

He has two friends, but they're frequently not available (they have outside/social interests).

See, your son needs these, too-- things of his own. Cool Papa Bell seems to understand the necessary dynamic: the kids needs something that's "was mine, all mine. Hah!"
posted by deanc at 5:42 PM on September 2, 2012

The best thing my parents did to get me through middle school was let me skip as much of it as I possibly could while still keeping my grades up. It was awful and it couldn't be over soon enough.
posted by Salamandrous at 6:17 PM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

I teach middle school kids. It is totally possible for quiet, introverted kids to have a decent school experience- I know because my orchestra classes are dominated by slightly dorky kids doing something they love. And they have found a home in orchestra, where are their friends are, and they get to hang out with their orchestra family every day. It is neat to see the little community that develops every year.

What I would try do to with your son is encourage him to pick *any* kind-of-group activity he might enjoy and resolve to stick with it for X amount of time (a season, a semester, long enough to establish himself and push past the scary beginner stages). This can be in school (music, art, theater, whatever- my school even has a rocketry elective) or after school (my quiet and introverted kids tend to like sports that have a team but aren't really team sports...cross-country running and skiing, swimming etc.; computer classes, karate, art classes, whatever are also decent venues for finding friends). And see what happens. You might have to push him to stick with it, which is normal and fine, but the more he hangs out with kids who are interested in the same type of thing he finds interesting the more success he'll find at figuring out where he can fit in and building his own little community.
posted by charmedimsure at 6:53 PM on September 2, 2012

Could he start his own server on Mine Craft? Skyping with friends while playing it is getting my son through middle school. It seems online socializing is really big with kids now. Or consider getting him in a "School of Rock" sort of thing. Succeeding in that has helped him as well. And maybe when he says, "I'm fine", believe him. Much as we want to shield our children from the awful pain that we ourselves experienced at that age, sometimes there are things they have to walk through and learn from on their own. Be careful of projecting. It sounds like you have his back and have made that known to him (which is great) but that he realizes that some things you have to ultimately do yourself.
posted by Jandoe at 6:56 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was his age therapy was a disaster for me, because I just could not believe ANYONE who said promised not to tell others (including my parents) anything I said. We went round and round in circles, because I refused to open up, and in the end no one learned anything.

If he isn't opening up to someone he trusts, he's unlikely to be reached by someone he doesn't have any reason to trust.

If he's sensing waves of concern coming from you all the time, he may just hide even more. Can you find something new to do together that doesn't allow for lots of talking about feelings, but which indirectly might inspire him or draw him out?

Such as, volunteering together. Tell him you've been meaning to do more volunteer work and tell him you feel you're more likely to follow through if you two do it together. Have a discussion about the different options available (maybe have an array ready to present to him), see if there's a topic or issue he feels particularly captivated by.

It's a way for you guys to spend time together, but it's also equalizing. You're on the same entry-level page, just a couple of volunteers. It's one of the few things I can imagine I might have said yes to if my mom presented it, but something I probably never would have done without her gentle pressure.
posted by hermitosis at 8:28 PM on September 2, 2012

I see lots of people suggesting group activities, but missing an obvious one. You mentioned he plays TF2. TF2 has a very large competitive play community. Competitive play involves joining a team, who then train together and play scheduled matches against other teams in order to gain ranking in leagues and tournaments. I hate comparing video games to sports, but from a social standpoint the team dynamics are very similar.

You'll need to keep in mind that he'll probably be one of the youngest members of a team, and his teammates may or may not be good role models. He just needs to find a team that he works well with socially.

(...but I'm too shy and insecure to go competitive, so maybe I'm not one to talk)
posted by DareTo at 8:35 PM on September 2, 2012

Out of curiosity, how much do you and your husband socialize? How many times a month do you have friends or other families over for informal dinners, or weekend lunch?

I'm asking because you're kid sounds like me, and I grew up not feeling comfortable socializing with other people. Looking back, my parents didn't have a very big social life either, and I'm sure that was an influence.

The compounding issue with 'smart' kids is that they may decide to model themselves on adults, as mentally they may find more there than with kids their own age. And if the adults aren't social they may model that as well.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:45 PM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

...indulge his computer game time...

This sounds the opposite of supportive. I played an obscene amount of computer games in Jr high / high school. My parents certainly had their concerns, and they could be judgmental in many ways, but I never remember feeling judged as if computer time was inherently wasted time. That's exactly the vibe I'm getting from this offhand comment. Instead, when it was time for an upgrade my parents let me choose and buy all the components then build the next family computer from scratch. That's the most supportive act I can remember from my entire childhood.

I now have a lucrative job in IT. And it's the people side of IT, not the "staring at code" side of IT. These interests can lead to a lot of different paths.

So I would double-check your assertion that "We encourage everything he wants to try." Perhaps you do, and I'm reading too much into this. But when was the last time you gave him a budget and encouraged him to choose some components and build his very own gaming rig which he could assemble himself, all the while learning about the low-level guts of computers? Or if that doesn't interest him, have you allowed him (as Jandoe suggested) to set up a Minecraft server on a home computer?

Similarly, my parents really tried to get me into music. I tried: piano, trumpet, violin (twice), guitar (three times). But when I wanted to get into drums, the support vanished into thin air. If I was going to get into drums, I was on my own and would probably have to deal with parental objections, so my desire just fizzled out. Years later I bought my own drums and became so enthusiastic for music that I have actually been paid to play those drums. Certainly, parents aren't psychic and can't see the future, but if my folks wanted me to develop real a interest in music my preteen and teen years then they probably should have given me one more shot, even with a ridiculous instrument.

Now, some kids (me) just have a hard time sticking with things, and it's not necessarily the parents fault - sometimes it's just a personality trait. But I would check your own assumptions about how supportive you are and make sure that the message is "we will support you in doing anything you think is awesome, including things that we have no interest in." Some kids get the message "we will support you in doing anything within the boundaries we set, which pretty much rules out anything awesome," and that's a great way to kill off any enthusiasm. Particularly if your kid is like me and flits from interest to interest - for us easily-distracted types, it doesn't take much to kill our interest in an activity, and a sense that the people closest to us think our activity is a waste of time is sufficient to stop us in our tracks.
posted by Tehhund at 9:29 PM on September 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

To me it sounds like he needs a best friend, a partner in crime, a bro, that sort of thing.

Pushing him a little bit to stick with something he chooses, like a club or a team, is a good idea, and as a completely unathletic person I think finding a sport/physical activity for him to learn thoroughly is important for his future health and happiness, but I think there's something you can do that isn't any of those things.

What's your home like? Is it a welcoming environment to visitors? Can kids come over and hang out after school? Are there snacks? Do you have a comfy couch and plenty of tv channels? Is there a yard or garage where messes can be made? Is someone available to supervise in a "hey you kids need anything? No? Okay, I'll be out of your way and totally ignoring you unless there is screaming or blood" kind of way?

Basically, the reason I survived middle school, through years of depression and suicidal thoughts and all of that fun stuff (my parents knew), was that I lived in the house where people wanted to hang out. We always had the good tv, games, and snacks, and my mom was super cool and willing to give people rides, and never ever nosy. I don't know if any of my friends would have been my friends if not for this quality of my life. It was a little bit like making pickles or beer or something - provide the correct environmental factors, give it time, and the good bacteria/friends will just kind of... grow.

We talked about damn near everything under the guise of mindlessly playing games and eating bagel bites after school. Although I was miserable, I really began to understand that wasn't something I had to accept, and I learned the beginnings of all those unspoken social rules I'd never been aware of when I was younger, and I worked through the horrors of puberty with my peers. My friends and I didn't have much in common at all, apart from being kind of dorky and creative, but my place was where we all felt the most comfortable, so they stayed. I looked around and it was like "hey, I have, like, a clique! Where did that come from??" and we all protected each other.

So if there's a way you can make your kid's house the place other kids want to be - not in a "we have the most expensive and awesome stuff!" way but in a "this is a safe, comfortable, convenient space away from your parents but with supervision so they can't complain" way - do it. And encourage your kid to invite people over.
posted by Mizu at 10:19 PM on September 2, 2012

Some great advice here, so thank you all. He joined scouts and then wanted to stop after about 6 months. We asked him to stay with it for a year and he did, then still wanted to quit. He didn't like camping. He does interact with some kids via gaming (he started in Club Penguin too) but says he doesn't know what to say in person to new people. We encouraged him to try a computer game design camp this summer (just 2 weeks) and he said no, that it wouldn't be any good any way -- too simple for him and kids wouldn't talk to him. He doesn't say this angrily or defensively -- just like it's a simple fact. We pushed the theater camp and said "you're going" and he did grudgingly like it. This shy kid got up and acted!

Benito.strauss -- you've got it. We don't socialize much, maybe once or twice every six months. Not a great way for him to see how friendships are built. I hadn't looked at it that way before. His dad is very fun and outgoing, me not so much. Dare-to -- he just mentioned competitive TF2 today and we said great! Then he said he wasn't good enough to be competitive, that he likes getting the gear and objects more. And Telhund -- he and his dad were looking at monster gaming computer setups. He saved up some money from his last birthday (and allowance) and we thinking of helping him get one for his birthday. I'm nervous about him being holed up in his room. Right now he shares the family laptop and is least around us more. I guess I used "indulge" incorrectly. He's welcome to play games -- He plays with his dad, with the one friend over the net. I never dismiss them as rubbish. I try and play with him or just ask a lot of questions about what hes doing. I just try to fit in school, meals, homework and sleeping around it. I know he needs to find a thing -- I was just like something that also gets him a little fresh air, and some interaction with other kids his age. He mentioned golf too, so we're going to check in to that.

He needs to find his "thing" to do that will make him happiest. I know TF2 is it for right now, and we'll look for others and keep asking him.
posted by bluemoonegg at 10:55 PM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh and Mizu -- it does seem like our house is the fun place. Sometimes there are six kids (including his sister's friends) running about the house. I keep snacks/drinks flowing, make dinner for them if the want to stay, have sleepovers, etc. His dad takes them to laser tag, the Game Stop, etc. It's a small messy house, but kids seem to like hanging out with us. Not many rules.
posted by bluemoonegg at 11:04 PM on September 2, 2012

This is a bit of a long shot, but I had a friend who withdrew from a lot of activities that he liked because he was questioning his sexuality and it made him feel left out and shy, especially among boys who are the age to call things gay and tease each other about sexuality.

I'm not sure what you can do if that's the situation, but I thought I'd throw it out there as a possibility.

You are obviously a caring parent and he's lucky to have you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:20 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

One more thing about friends. Are there really enough kids around him that are similar to him and who might be a good match in the friend department?

As a kid, I went to a tiny school from 1st-12th grades in a culture (southern and anti-intellectual) that was foreign to me and my parents (midwestern and intellectual). Frankly, it was tough for a brainy kid to make friends in a deeply conservative, anti-intellectual culture, and there were precious few people in my school who I could even begin to connect with. In my class and the classes within 2 years of my age, there were a total of 2-3 kids per class who I might have been friends with. That's a max of 15 kids in the whole school that I might have become friends with. That's a minuscule peer group, and of those 15 it stands to reason that I wasn't going to connect with all of them, or even a majority. And in middle school, you tend to socialize within your class or maybe 1 year on either side, so that left me with 9 kids that I might have befriended if the stars aligned. But I didn't share a interests with all 9-15 of those kids. It got a touch better in high school when And as the older kids graduated, my possible peer group went down to 12, then to 9...

In the middle of high school I went off to a 3-week camp in another state to study. In under a week I made more friends than I had back home, and suddenly realized that there were other people "like me" in the world, and maybe the problem wasn't that I was bad at making friends but I had no one to make friends with. I had a similar experience when I got to college - suddenly I was surrounded by people who thought like me and shared my interests. After years of being alienated from nearly everyone my age, I still chose to go into therapy in college to learn how to form real bonds with other people, but the fact was that for the first time in my life I had enough people around me who might want to form a bond with me. The therapy would not have helped if I had still been in an environment like high school where all the good advice in the world would not help me connect with the people around me, because there wasn't anything to connect about.

So maybe look at his school environment as well. Are there plenty of kids who might share his temperament and might form similar interests? Or are the numbers against him, because he's just not like the kids around him? I realize that these differences between people are natural and a part of life, but honestly you can't snap your fingers and become a different person, or even snap your fingers and become friends with people different from you.
posted by Tehhund at 8:58 AM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Haha yes, thirteen was miserable for me too. And fourteen. And fifteen. And sixteen... and well into seventeen I was miserable.

There are so many great comments already, I just have one more thing to add - have you looked into alternative schooling situations for your son?
The traditional schooling system is good for some, hellish for others. I happend to fall into the second camp for a variety of reasons, and I really see myself in your description of your son (of course maybe we all do ;-).

Because the reason that seventeen turned from miserable to almost bliss for me is because I left my traditional, well-ranked public high school and went into independent study. Although my parents and I couldn't see it until the situation changed, most of my biggest problems with my social life, grades, and depression at that time were environment-based rather than personal. All three problems disappeared within weeks of changing to the new system. I got a normal high school diploma, did fine on my SATs, and did very well in university directly afterwards.
When reflecting on the situation in following years, all we can say is "Why hadn't we started it earlier?"

There are a variety of alternative schooling programs - mine was simple independent study (the workload was quite large but manageable and the teachers were wonderful), but there was also what was called a "Middle College" program that mixed high school and junior college courses together (I applied too late). There are probably many other types, but those were the two available in my area that I was aware of. I'm sure there are other methods that can mix traditional school with other types.

Perhaps it's a bit early to start in middle school... but perhaps not! It's something to explore with your son if you think he'd be interested, even with the further future in mind. For me, it was great because it took the social pressure off (both in the form of people-pleasing and general pecking-order and bullying issues) and I finally had a sense of agency regarding my own education.

You're obviously a very caring and loving parent, that is wonderful. And thanks for being open to computer/console gaming as a hobby - it saved me in my most miserable times back then, and gave me a space to practice creativity and problem-solving.
posted by Pieprz at 11:07 AM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the middle of high school I went off to a 3-week camp in another state to study. In under a week I made more friends than I had back home, and suddenly realized that there were other people "like me" in the world, and maybe the problem wasn't that I was bad at making friends but I had no one to make friends with.

This is a good point... does you son ever go out and do things with other people? Do you send him to camp, not a summer day camp with people from the same town he lives in, but a camp with completely different people, maybe far away? Like Tehhund, I had experiences like that which totally changed my perspective, knowing that there was a world outside the people I was surrounded by at home.

I don't want to be too negative here, but giving someone space to play computer games alleviates some of the symptoms of middle-school-era unhappiness but doesn't really solve the root problem. The problem is that your son doesn't have his own "tribe" and doesn't seem to have the wherewithal to stick with something long enough to start forming connections, relationships, and a social "routine."
posted by deanc at 11:35 AM on September 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

so when he dismisses doing something on the basis that "he won't be any good at it" do you say a) "of course you will" or b) "not everyone has to be good at the things they do, what's important is to have a good time while doing them"?

a) is discounting his assessment of himself, and not really respecting or giving any credence to his feelings. it also subtly sends the message that you are expecting him to excel in these activities, making it even harder for him to get over his reluctance to try

b) shows that it's ok to let go and enjoy himself even if he's not outperforming the other kids. He needs to see that the point of recreation isn't competitve, that you can be totally crap at something and still have a great time doing it.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:43 PM on September 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

He joined scouts and then wanted to stop after about 6 months. We asked him to stay with it for a year and he did, then still wanted to quit. He didn't like camping.

I learned to become hesitant to start a new activity because once started, my parents would not let me quit.* Making me do an activity I once enjoyed/was interested in for months/years beyond the enjoyment phase is a great way to 1) make me dislike the activity and not just take a break from it and come back to it with enjoyment later and 2) make me hesitant to try new activities unless I was sure I could stick them out.

*Once I was able to articulate the issue, they stopped doing this.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:00 PM on September 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I definitely say b) "not everyone has to be good at it...important to have fun." He's very easily put off when something doesn't some easily, but I encourage the process of trying out things, meeting people, etc. That has worked, but rarely. Also -- we have talked about what gay is/means and I've said he'll eventually fall for someone -- girl or boy -- and either is just fine. He actually asked me if it was okay if he just liked girls for...(as he said) "that stuff, but when I'm older."

Tonight we've been prepping for first day of school tomorrow, and he seems fine....the dread isn't there and he's even a bit optimistic. He said he's going to try some of the afterschool clubs like robotics and drama. I'm feeling very hopeful and you've all given me much to think about when I talk to him.
posted by bluemoonegg at 6:27 PM on September 3, 2012

I realize this is a few days later and whatnot, and I think the main issue here is not wanting to be involved in stuff and finding it hard to socialize, but just throwing this out there anyway as something to consider. Is it harder for him to relate to kids his own age vs. kids slightly older than he is?
I mostly felt comfortable hanging out with older kids, even from when I was pretty young I preferred friends who were 2-3+ years older than I am, and I still do, though the differences grow smaller as you grow older.
I assume he's just started 6th or 7th grade which is a really rough time to try and do this in school, as the too-cool-for-middle-school 8th graders don't tend to want to befriend younger folk, and high schoolers don't want to hang out with middle schoolers, etc.

Outside activities help, as discussed (as like I said, I realize this is kind of the main issue at hand here) -- just another angle to look at it from. :)
posted by jorlyfish at 9:24 PM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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