How can I get my preteen son out of his head?
October 28, 2013 2:51 PM   Subscribe

I have a bright, funny middle schooler who now has little interest in anything or anybody. He has no behavioral problems but can't focus on anything or connect with anyone, and it's affecting his home, school, and social life. If he was happy to live in his head, I could understand that, but he is frequently bored and lonely, and he seems incapable of making connections, both to other people and to new ideas. Can anyone give me some strategies or guidelines for working with him?

Can anyone give me some ideas to try to get my 11-year old son interested in anything so he isn't bored and isolated all the time?

He just started middle school, and his teachers tell me that he's "just sort of there" in class. He's very introverted and has trouble reading social cues, hasn't made new friends, doesn't speak up, and does just the bare minimum of work. He's gone from being an A student a few years ago to mostly Cs now. He's in an honors IB program, which I don't want to move him from because the non-honors classes are basically holding pens, and he shuts down when there is chaos.

He comes home at four, has an hour of screen time, does his homework, and then won't do anything else. On school days, that's not so bad, but on weekend and holidays, he's visibly lonely. He is miserable when we put him in after-school activities, and as a fellow introvert, I can understand the need to get back to a quiet home after a long day of being around other people. But then he's at a loss for what to do, and I can see him getting less and less invested in anything outside his head.

I asked a question several years ago about repetitive movements he uses while he "thinks" - his word - and while these haven't been apparent during the past few years, they've come back strongly now. I can hear him in his room "thinking" for an hour or two each evening.

If activities aren't his thing, then I would have thought books would be. We keep trying to get him to read a variety of genres, but he can't seem to get into any book beyond a few pages, even if he's the one who selected them. We've had his vision checked, and he scores highly on all the reading assessments he takes at school, but he can't seem to get invested in a narrative. Non-fiction doesn't work either. He likes re-reading the Bone series over and over again, but I'd like to see him try something new, even if it's a new graphic novel. He now views reading as a chore, and he can't even name a subject that he'd like to explore. I watched him spend about 20 minutes on 2 pages of the Maze Runner yesterday, and he explained that he just can't focus on the plot at all.

He loves, loves, loves video games - mostly fighting and FPS titles - and would happily spend all his waking hours playing them. We've restricted his screen time, as I've said before, and I've found myself cutting down on them as well to be a good example. But the only thing he wants to talk about are video games: strategy, reviews, upcoming titles, best fatalities in the MK franchise, and so on. I've suggested he look into programming, but he's having none of it. When he gets an interest, he tunes out anything else, to the extent that he can't even follow a discussion on another subject. This was cute when it was whales and he was four, but now it seems to be getting in the way of any conversation, hobby, or curiosity. And since he can only play them, or watch Youtube videos about them, for a short time each day, his one focus only takes him so far.

Other things we've tried: guitar lessons, which he takes but often wants to bail on; therapy to see if he was depressed (prognosis: no), bike riding, which he does for a short amount of time each day; pets, which . . . well, thank goodness we wanted a dog as well; art classes - eh. And with the exception of therapy, these were all things he suggested.

I don't want to sound like a mother who is fretting because her baby likes them shooting games and isn't going to be a doctor. But he's disengaged from school, he doesn't have many friends, and he's at a loss for what do for 23 hours of the day. And then he gets bored and lonely. Everything we've suggested, he either dismisses immediately or tries and then is miserable. We have never had an experience where we have taken him to do something he didn't want to do - let's all go for a hike/get a pumpkin from the pumpkin patch/go see a play at the college - and he turned out to like it.

And he is a smart, kind kid. He still acts so caring around me. I want to do something because I feel like he's gotten into this situation because I haven't done enough to engage him with the outside world in the past - I'm an introvert and have pretty severe depression. But I don't want to force him to be something he's not.

So has anyone either had or been a kid like this? What advice could you give me? I know the tween/teen years aren't periods of mental serenity, but he's shutting out the rest of the world so much that I'm scared for him.
posted by bibliowench to Human Relations (47 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Has he been screened for ADHD? Because holy shit my mother could have written this twenty years ago almost to the letter.
posted by griphus at 2:58 PM on October 28, 2013 [14 favorites]

You sound so sad, and I'm sorry you're going through the heartache of watching your child struggle. I know you feel guilty but it sounds to me like you're giving him a rich environment - bike riding, a pet, art classes, guitar, hiking, pumpkin patches, plays - despite what your guilt and depression say.

Reading your earlier question and then this one, I have to ask as gently as possible: have you had him assessed by a qualified pediatric diagnostician for ADHD, a spectrum disorder or something else identifiable that may give you specific tools to help him?
posted by DarlingBri at 3:03 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Everything we've suggested, he either dismisses immediately or tries and then is miserable.

Kudos on trying so hard for him. But I'm wondering if you're trying a little too hard? There are lots of things you've suggested to him, it seems - have you ever asked him what he would like to do? From your post the only thing he really loves is gaming, but that's the thing you have cut down on. I understand the impulse you're following there. But what about actually trying to expand his interest in that area? I don't mean programming - that's a career move in a sense and he's a kid - but what about attending conventions, joining online forums, somehow bringing gaming into his real life in a way that connects with other kids? Is there a game society at school or in your town?

You sound so stressed out and he may be picking up on this and feeling like he's letting you down. Maybe take a breath, don't panic that the thing he loves is the Wrong Thing, and try and work with him? Good luck.
posted by billiebee at 3:03 PM on October 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

I know you want to cut back on his gaming time, but it sounds like he would really have fun in some sort of gaming group. Does his school offer any clubs that have games? Some stores and libraries host gaming nights or tournaments that he could join and meet people. There he would be around kids his age that like that kind of thing, and then maybe that way he could be introduced to other things that might interest him ("hey that kid plays FPS games too AND he likes this particular book, I should try reading it!").

I'm not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV), but having difficulty reading sounds like ADD to me.
posted by littlesq at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

What does his pediatrician say?
posted by Lyn Never at 3:09 PM on October 28, 2013

I have a similar situation with my twelve-year-old son. We haven't come up with a magic solution. The one thing that I've learned is not to get angry with him. Whatever he's facing, he certainly doesn't need his father adding to his alienation.
posted by No Robots at 3:10 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

This sounds really tricky and frustrating and I can tell you care a lot about your son and his happiness.

As a teacher and a former classroom aide, I've had a lot of experience with children like your son, and most if not all of those kids were somewhere on the spectrum of autism to Aspergers. Now is the time to have a sit down with his pediatrician to rule out depression, ADHD, hormone problems (he could be experiencing early onset puberty), and then finally the spectrum stuff since it sometimes goes hand in hand with some of the other aforementioned conditions.

What I'm basically saying is that my gut and experience tells me that this isn't something you're going to necessarily be able to train out of your son, and is instead probably a sign that something bigger is going on, something of the chemical or neurological variety. Now is the time to investigate this too because once you know what's going on you'll be able to hook up with professionals who are experts on these disorders and they'll be able to guide you from there.

TLDR: Have your son screened for autism, Aspergers, ADHD, hormone imbalances, and depression.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:10 PM on October 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

I should add that my son is getting counselling at school and with a psychologist. The psychologist wants him on Prozac for anxiety, and we plan to get him on a low dosage at his next appointment. The consensus view is that he is somewhere on the autism spectrum.
posted by No Robots at 3:14 PM on October 28, 2013

I agree with the screenings, etc., and am not proposing this as a magic bullet, but try school band. I wasn't exactly this way as a child, but was having quite a lot of trouble socializing, and going into band completely changed the way I looked at school. Gave me a peer group (lots and lots of band kids are not exactly neurotypical) and something I could succeed at, whereas sports had been one damn thing after another.

My older son has some signs of some of these kinds of issues, and I've found band helped him a lot too.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:17 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

What about a physical group activity with other kids and adults? Depending the people/school you might want to give martial arts a try. My BF works at a TKD school and while the kids who have ADHD still have ADHD, they've improved leaps and bounds (noticed by their parents and definitely their teachers at school). I could go on and on about this but I think it boils down finding a group of people and activity that your son can connect to/with.
posted by driedmango at 3:20 PM on October 28, 2013

I don't know if this will help, but I was a teenager with similar fixations. I've asked about it here, and the answers were heartening for me. You might find comfort in them, too.

At that age, what would have helped would have been for me to be allowed to pursue those interests, rather than further compartmentalizing them from the rest of my life. I actually had quite a few friends--online--in RPG groups for the fantasy novels I was "obsessed" with. But my mother tried to limit my screen time and was wary about having me meet these individuals, which made for a very lonely middle school existence. It wasn't until I started meeting other weirdos--in high school--that I began to come out of my shell. But that was pretty much happenstance. What were the chances that I'd happen to sit next to another girl who drew FF slash in ninth grade art class? (She's still my bestie, by the way.)

I wish my mom had facilitated those weirdo friendships sooner. I wish I'd been allowed to go to cons, gaming groups, and meet-ups. RenFests and the SCA are options, as are cosplay groups. The local table-top store or comic book store is probably the place to take him, even if it seems only tangentially video game related--there's a big cross-over in all of those communities. Or, hell, the local Gamestop. Are there LAN parties around? Competitive gaming thingies?

he's shutting out the rest of the world so much that I'm scared for him.

I say this with all lovingkindness: no he's not. The things he love are the world to him. That means video games are the world to him. The key to drawing him out is to honor that, rather than trying to smudge out those interests in favor of more apparently worldly things.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:20 PM on October 28, 2013 [25 favorites]

Have you considered food intolerances?
posted by Kerasia at 3:22 PM on October 28, 2013

Your son reminds me a lot of myself at that age.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Why are you trying to take away the one thing he really cares about? If he loves video games, let him play video games. I get the "screen time" thing, but I think by the time you're eleven years old, if you have one serious passion and it involves staring at a screen, so be it. Especially since the alternative seems to be literally twiddling his thumbs. I can tell that you're trying push him into a more enriching hobby (reading), but to be honest if he's in IB classes he's getting 8 hours a day of task-focused edification and enrichment. He needs time to be himself.

When I was in middle school, I was really into sci fi (both TV and books). My parents largely felt the same way you do about your son's video game habit. However, because sci fi was really my only passion and all I really had, their taking that away felt like a punishment. Looking back from the vantage point of someone who works in TV production as an adult, I also regret the fact that my parents (in the name of wholesome enrichment and proper child development, I'm sure) basically attempted to kill a part of me that would later turn out to be very valuable. I see people nowadays helping their kids turn interests like this into large-scale projects or even careers, and it makes me feel pretty shitty about the fact that, when I was passionate about something, my parents shat all over it and tried to take it away. It's something I'm still bitter about as an adult, and as a preteen was fundamental to the death of my trust in them.

2. Is it possible he's being bullied? A lot of the things you describe ("he's just there" in class, bare minimum schoolwork, falling grades, failure to make friends) were true of the period of my life when I was being bullied to the point of suicidal feelings. One of the major reasons I was so unconnected from everything is that I didn't feel like I could talk to anyone about it. The teachers were in on it, and when I said things about it to my parents, they didn't ever support me. So I just closed up. Especially since my parents' main interest in my life at that point seemed to be taking away the only things I cared about. Are you sure you 100% have your son's back? Can he trust you?

Nthing a gaming group or getting into tabletop oriented games if for some reason video games are 100% out of the question. Is he into stuff like Magic The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons? As for how to find other kids who are, I vaguely remember my middle school chess club being a magnet for that sort of thing. If he's into game strategy, he might also like chess.
posted by Sara C. at 3:28 PM on October 28, 2013 [29 favorites]

I asked a question several years ago about repetitive movements he uses while he "thinks" - his word - and while these haven't been apparent during the past few years, they've come back strongly now. I can hear him in his room "thinking" for an hour or two each evening.

This absolutely screams non-neurotypical to me. And i say this as someone diagnosed with aspergers who grew up around a lot of kids like myself, and who did stuff like that sort of "thinking" in homeschool resource groups/summer camps/after school programs/etc.

I'm gonna have to agree with pretty much everything phobwankenobi said other than that though. I was a lot like this at this age. I only had maybe one or two friends who i didn't even see that often, and eventually one of them drifted away due to their weird parents not getting along with my weird parents.

I ended up pretty much being allowed to play videogames as much as i wanted as long as i was doing a baseline level of other stuff i had to get done in my life and was perfectly happy. I met more weirdos like myself in 8th and 9th grade and really came out of my shell then.

While i can realize it sounds like shitty "kid who grew up not getting to eat candy saying he wished he could eat candy all day as a kid" type of advice, it isn't, and i don't really know how to communicate that well. At that age a lot of social interaction ended fairly badly, or was fairly confusing for me and my weird brain just hadn't really formed enough to deal with or even want to deal with other people. I wasn't so much unhappy because of that but frustrated when i couldn't just spend time on what did make me happy.

So yea, this entire thing screams "somehow not neurotypical" to me, and i also just have to ask "what's wrong with letting him just do what he wants with a lot of his time if he's getting other stuff done?". Middle school kids suck, that was the shittiest i was ever treated and the most awkward i ever felt for being one of the weird kids. Why try and force him out into that world with some well meaning "but he should be more social!" kind of thinking? What if he's just not wired that way?
posted by emptythought at 3:28 PM on October 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

Our 11-year-old son just entered middle school. He's doing fine.

I kind of wonder if it's wise to label your son as an "introvert," as that kind of assigns him to a specific box. Kids are growing mentally and emotionally, right? So he could transform into something else entirely.

I have noticed that kids at my son's school sort of divide into "gamers" or "team sports". My son straddles both worlds. He likes Minecraft, and is also passionate about ice hockey. So he has two "pots" of social currency.

He has only just got into reading.

With your son, since he likes gaming so much, maybe figure out a way for him to play with other kids online or something (like a shared server).

The school may have a tabletop gaming club or something too.

My son's best friend is a total gamer. Hates physical activity. Prefers Kerbel and Minecraft. He also went to programming camp this past summer, something my son would never want to do.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:39 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

If this were my son, I'd enroll him in a boys martial arts / MMA class. Physical activity does wonders for getting out your head and focusing on something else -- the body, in this case -- plus the exercise is good for him. MMA is also good discipline and confidence builder, especially as he is approaching the murky middle school years. He may not be interested in it at first, but I'd make him stick with it for one school year (if he doesn't like it after one year, he can quit).

I'd also eliminate all wheat and sugar from his diet. There are plenty of people, myself included, who swear that a veil has lifted once they eliminated wheat and sugar.
posted by gardenbex at 3:40 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't speak to the possible spectrum issues, but one very simple thing might be to offer more screen time as an incentive to get his grades up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:40 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

It sounds like your son may be on the autistic spectrum. The repetitive behaviours and distance from people would suggest so. I would get him diagnosed, one way or the other. A diagnosis is the start of good things, and not something to worry about.

Echoing others here, your best intentions are glorious in their depth, but sometimes its better to leave kids to do their own thing. Let him play games, work with that. If its his passion then get involved with it, look for clubs, encourage the kind of thinking that game playing promotes. If your child showed a musical talent you would move mountains to make sure he was surrounded by musical inspiration, by people who shared his passion and could foster it. You can do the same with videogames. After all, videogames are just one way that he has found that foster his desires and skills. There ARE others. Your project could be to find them.

I am different from your son, no doubt, but when I was 11-13 years old I went through a period where my parents despaired for me. A tiny group of friends, few interests except computer games, an inability to look into the future, falling grades and strange behaviour. Things moved on, that quiet, small-minded kid grew up and left school, found new types of people and new environments beyond the cotton wool world of the parental home. The world is a big place and after all, your son has only been in it for 11 years. Give him time, support and encouragement in the right places and help his very unique identity to grow in its own way.
posted by 0bvious at 3:44 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

We got a large trampoline. The boy uses it frequently.
posted by No Robots at 3:45 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was a lot like your son at that age, stereotypies included (a new word to me, so thanks...), though for me it was books rather than/in addition to computer games. I totally empathize with your concern and frustration, but from my own experience, I tend to agree with some of the commenters above that limiting his screen time may be counterproductive. I know that the more my mom tried to draw me out into more sociable activities like after-school classes, the more I resisted, and the more these things came to feel like chores rather than potential sources of enjoyment. I'm worried that by cutting down on his gaming you may be depriving him of a safe space as well as of what, at least for the moment, seems to be his main passion in life.

You don't say what your objection is to his spending more time gaming. But if you're thinking of it as a waste of time when he could be doing more enriching things, then from the way you describe his attitude I think that's wrong: it sounds like gaming is the most enriching thing for him right now. Having something you're that passionate about and getting to explore it and immerse yourself in it is one of the most valuable experiences a person can have, even if from the outside it looks like he's just staring at a screen. And few of us get a chance to have that experience after childhood, sadly.

So I would say, let go a little bit and let your son have that experience. I bet you'll find he'll be a happier kid. And as others point out, he may be unsociable now, but if "all he wants to talk about are video games", well, he's not the only eleven-year-old of that description out there, right? Wait till he finds his people, and you may be surprised.
posted by zeri at 3:49 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are social skills groups for kids in just this boat. I don't know how to find them in your area, but his school's therapist or family support person or principal or whoever should know about them, or you could look at local support groups for parents of children with autism and see if they know about any. Here's the sort of thing I'm talking about. I'm not saying your son has autism, but he's got a lot in common with people who do and could probably benefit from some of the same activities.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:55 PM on October 28, 2013

He really needs a lot of comprehensive psychiatric and developmental screening. There could be a number of things going on here from OCD to an autism spectrum disorder to ADHD to depression...or all of those things at once.

There are usually super long waiting lists for the best child psychiatrists and psychologists, but it's worth looking into it and getting really serious help here. I know you took him to a therapist, but he needs to see another one.

I don't want to frighten you, but this is a very high-risk age and gender for suicide. Please get him help ASAP.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:03 PM on October 28, 2013

I am no psychaitrist, but agree that it sounds like many of these things may point to some sort of non-neurotypical situation. Having him work with someone who specializes in things like spectrum disorders or ADHD does not mean you have to label him or otherwise pathologize his personality, if that's what you're worried about, but it can at least let you know what you're dealing with.

I have ADHD, inattentive-type, and I see a bit of myself at that age in your son, though I'm an extrovert, so the social stuff was less of a factor. When I was his age, I was obsessed with books, music, and theater, and if I'd been allowed to, I would have spent all my time on those pursuits. Fortunately for me, those are seen as being "healthy" activities, so my parents encouraged me. I also pretty much only did the bare minimum of work (if that!) in my classes (except the ones I loved) because that was pretty much all I COULD do with my ADHD.

I wound up OK, and honestly, I'm so glad I had my obsessions and was allowed to run with them, because I learned so much through them, and developed talents and skills I still use today. I was also able to meet my kindred spirits through them. Lots and lots of mefites also had obsessive interests as kids.

So I guess I'd say, definitely have him see an expert to figure out if there are better ways you can work with him, but also, don't worry TOO much about the obsessive video game interest.

Oh, and it is TOTALLY NORMAL for an 11-year-old to have trouble making friends in a new school. I mean, do you REMEMBER 6th grade? It's the worst. I went through a really tough couple of years in 6th and 7th grade, transitioning from elementary to middle school. Again, I was an extrovert, so I did have some friends, but I also remember feeling very lonely and not well-understood, and if I hadn't had that extrovert's need to be with people, I probably would have spent most of my time alone.
posted by lunasol at 4:14 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

1) Were the vision screenings just about whether he needs correction for nearsightedness or were they also about functional vision/tracking/how his eyes move and work together?

2) You sound very caring and thoughtful, but I just want to put out here just in case (based on my own experience as a lonely kid that age) to be gentle with him and not criticize him for not socializing as much as is "normal." I had a hard time being social as a kid for various reasons, my mom was sharply critical about it (although I'm sure she meant well), and it was really hurtful and counterproductive. Make sure you do what you can to ensure that he sees you as an ally in this.

3) What about a volunteer gig of some sort that would help him feel useful? You'd have to find a good match, and I wouldn't force him to keep doing it if he hates it, but feeling needed can feel really nice.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:18 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am curious; if the only "passion" he has is video games but his screen time is limited to one hour per day, what does he spend the rest of his time doing?

I'm not sure, but it seems like this might give some insight.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 4:56 PM on October 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to agree that an hour of screen time -- for a kid whose primary interests involve screens -- sounds pretty brutal.

When I was that age, and grownups tried to steer me away from the things I cared about toward whatever activity they'd prefer me to be involved with, I often refused to enjoy the suggested activity on principle. I was so deeply resentful that I dug my heels in and sulked until they let me go back to watching Star Trek or drawing Gargoyles or reading TMNT comics or whatever else I happened to be obsessed with at the time.

I turned out all right. I make comics for a living.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:32 PM on October 28, 2013 [9 favorites]

My whole childhood my parents and family wanted me to be like the other kids. I had plenty of interests but they weren't the "right" interests. They were always trying to get me to have "hobbies": sports and clubs and summer camp and all the things that the other kids that I didn't like were doing. Because I didn't feel like I had any peers (in my case it was because I had a high IQ), I preferred spending time by myself to spending time with other kids that I had nothing in common with.

So instead of sending me to like, I don't know, art camp or gardening camp or writing camp or whatever I was into, they tried to make me take piano and riding and swimming, things that seemed normal to them.

And I resent that so much because now, as a grownup, I know that there were other kids like me, who were into the things I was into, but I just wasn't meeting them, and so I felt alone and also not good enough and rejected by my parents and family.

So I guess what I'm saying is let your kid play video games and encourage that interest. He is 11. All he knows about video games is that he can play them on his TV at home. But you are his adult and it's your responsibility to recognize and acknowledge his interest and take him out into the world and see what else he can do with that interest—other people have given ideas above.

My other suggestion, which comes from my own experience also, is try to find interests that you can share. A lot of the "hobbies" my parents tried to get me into were things that I was basically being shipped off to do. I wasn't learning piano so that I could play piano with my parents, or learning to swim because my parents loved swimming so we could swim together. What are things that you like to do that you could try to get your kid to do with you? Or things that you could learn together, new for both of you?

For me "hobbies" has become this terrible word that has to do with punishment, with not being good enough or normal enough, with taking me away from the things I really want to be doing, and also with my parents not wanting to spend time with me. I think having your son feel that way is worse than having him play video games all day.
posted by thebazilist at 5:33 PM on October 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

A friend of mine has a son who, when he was your son's age, played nothing but XBox Call of Duty. That's all he did. My friend made the decision to cut the screen time.

An hour a day seems excessive, really. We limit screen time to weekends - Friday, Sat and Sunday. The rest of the time is spent reading, homework, playing trumpet, playing outside, playing with Lego, drawing...
posted by KokuRyu at 5:41 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Middle school can be pretty awful. Is he getting picked on? Might feel that out, gently. (I would have lied about getting picked on if asked directly, because I was ashamed of it.)

Even if he's not, it sucks to be the kid without any friends. I bet if he could make one real friend you'd see a visibly happier kid. How to get there, I dunno, but he is far from the only 11 year old who is obsessed with video games. Does he perhaps have video game magazines he could take to school? That other kid has no idea that your son loves Mortal Kombat or whatever.

(Minecraft, by the way, is a good game for connecting with other kids.)

Has he ever had a real friend? How did that happen?

If he's not into programming, don't force it on him, but if you have the time, you might spend some time working through Invent Your Own Computer Games With Python where he could see you.

You (and your spouse?) should spend quite a bit of time doing stuff with him. Even if he is grouchy and listless about going out. Keep doing it. Not necessarily to spark a new interest, but to impress upon him, with actions not words, that there is at least one person who genuinely cares about him and wants to be around him.
posted by mattu at 5:44 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Apparently I'm just going to sit in my kitchen and think about this for the rest of the evening.

So here's the thing -- I think that part of the whole "screen time" conversation that gets tricky with older kids, particularly, is that not all screen time is the same. Some screen time is about oblivion -- filling the hours with mostly-passive and wholly-meaningless fluff that you don't actually care about. When I get depressed or anxious, I sometimes waste a LOT of time mindlessly playing candycrush or whatever on my phone. I don't CARE about candycrush; I'm not all that interested in casual games as a genre, I'm not involved in a competitive candycrushing community, I don't draw candycrush fanart. The hours I spend on candycrush basically evaporate. Poof!

That's what video games (and television) are to lots and lots of people -- just a way to fill time and turn off your brain. And yes, of course that should be limited. It's not great to get into the habit of wasting tons and tons of time with things we don't actually care about.

What your son is doing is COMPLETELY different. Just from your description, I can tell that he cares SUPER INTENSELY about these games and the culture surrounding them. If he's reading reviews and watching youtube videos and keeping up with new projects in development, he's thinking about games as a medium and learning how to engage with them in a more sophisticated way. I mean, right now he's 11 and mostly parroting stuff he reads elsewhere, but you've gotta start somewhere.

So yes, of course, letting him sit in his room during every free waking hour playing games on the couch isn't healthy, just like sitting on his bed reading for every free waking hour wouldn't be healthy -- he has to move his body around and talk to other humans from time to time.

But you know...

It's great that he cares about something this much.

Lots of kids don't.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:50 PM on October 28, 2013 [18 favorites]

Alternate take, suggesting more stick and less carrot than a lot of the rest of the thread.

When I was in the fifth grade I 'fired' all of my friends because I decided that I didn't like them any more. There wasn't anyone else around that I wanted to be friends with, so I had no friends. I wasn't thrilled with this situation, but I wasn't like, devastated about it either.

I also decided that I wasn't going to really do any schoolwork anymore. Well, I would do it if it was interesting. Not very much of it was interesting. I spent a lot of time playing video games or board games or working on puzzles. I read a ton. I was a good athlete and still involved in athletics, but I didn't like going and didn't like the other people I had to spend time with. I continued athletics with moderate enthusiasm, because I was good at it and it fed my substantial ego to be good at it, I think-though I wouldn't have articulated it to myself that way. I wouldn't have described myself as an introvert and still wouldn't-just, dissatisfied with the available scene and unwilling to participate in any meaningful way.

This situation was extremely frustrating for my parents. Over time, for a period of about five years, I learned to tune them out and lied to them casually to get them off of my back about school and social things. Stupid lies, lies that had no hope of succeeding in like the medium term or long term. One thing that they didn't help was how much they kept insisting how special and smart and wonderful I was. And I had been a somewhat mature and remarkable toddler and elementary school person. But by this time I was an insufferable arrogant asshole and they didn't see that. So I thought, yeah I'm the best, mom and dad say so, everyone else needs to just, like, be different, be more like me or be more like the kind of person that I want them to be. But I also suffered from a critical lack of self esteem: I knew in my heart that people didn't like me, and that they were in some sense 'correct' not to like me given the way that I treated them. I was the star of my own movie and it was a tragedy. I was miserable and I sort of fundamentally didn't even understand that I was miserable.

This situation persisted basically until I simultaneously had some teachers that I respected and started dating the girl who would become my wife, in my junior year of high school. I started to make an effort to be a responsible human being on their behalf-I don't want to let this girl down, I don't want to let these teachers down. To an extent I still do a lot of things, I think, because I want my wife to be happy with me and proud of me. And I am here to report that I am a fully functional, happy person with a good career and a robust social life. But: I didn't get the education that I might have, I don't know as much math or science as I should, I didn't go to as good of a college as I might have. I didn't maximize my athletic talents. I watched people who I was smarter than go off to Ivy league schools because they had ground out the busy work and I hadn't. I watched people who were not as good athletes as I could have been play sports at a high level in college because I didn't put in the effort.

It would have helped me tremendously, I think, if my parents had insisted that I wasn't so damn special, that there were things that everyone has to do and I wasn't doing them, that getting along with people who you think are dumb or cruel is one of those things, and so is getting your work done, whatever your work is at the time. The things that were important to me weren't a mystery to them, just like the things that are important to your child aren't a mystery to you. I'm not sure how I would have responded to having those things tied to performance improvements in critical areas. But I know my parents never seriously tried.
posted by Kwine at 6:02 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

In addition to getting him screened for the things already mentioned (ADD, Asperger's, etc) I'd ask yourself--or your son--what happened a few years ago when his grades went from As to Cs. There may also be some precipitating event in his life that is contributing to his withdrawal especially if his grades dropped suddenly.
posted by wildflower at 6:09 PM on October 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

He is miserable when we put him in after-school activities, and as a fellow introvert, I can understand the need to get back to a quiet home after a long day of being around other people.

Playing a bit off of Kwine's overall theme, your son doesn't get to decide he wants to go back to a quiet home after school and play video games after school. What he needs to do is develop coping skills rather than getting used to the idea that he needs to decompress for long periods of time after school. And these skills only get developed by honing them, rather than giving in to a young person's desire to chill out.

The way to get outside one's own head is to interact with other people where he had to experience other people's heads. And a good way to do this is in a controlled environment with structured activities.
posted by deanc at 6:23 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thank you for all your responses. I started to tear up a little read through them.

Just to clarify a few points:
-We've tried martial arts and tabletop gaming, both of which he did not grok.
-According to the medical and mental health professionals we've consulted, he is not on the autism spectrum or depressed. I'm probably going to seek other opinions, but I'm wary of making him feel like there is something wrong with him.
-All the activities we've tried have a) been over a period of a few years and b) been at his suggestion. I was forced to do tons of extra curriculars, and I hated every minute of them. I am shy and awkward and shun the company of humans when possible, so I'm really loathe to force him to do anything he doesn't want to. That being said, I was miserable until I found a way to make friends (through D&D, actually), and he's never been able to do that.
- I share his obsession with video games, although we like different games. My problem isn't with the games themselves but with how he seems to have no taste or imagination for anything else when he is not playing. I worry that, given his lifelong problems making connections with other people, video games may exacerbate his isolation.

I will look for gaming clubs, though. That seems like a good start.

I just grabbed him, gave him a hug, and said "You're a good kid." He hugged me back and said "You're a good mom." Then he ran away. So he's a normal kid, at any rate.
posted by bibliowench at 6:42 PM on October 28, 2013 [11 favorites]

All the activities we've tried have a) been over a period of a few years

I think it also might be worth keeping in mind that he's still only 11, and that kids change a lot. Also some activities that are really not fun when you're 7 are suddenly way more fun when you're a little older and can understand better or (in the case of stuff like arts or athletics) physically do the thing better. Just because he hated art classes or martial arts or tabletop gaming a few years ago doesn't mean he always will. I experienced a huge leap in my capacity to enjoy hobbies and extracurriculars around 12-13, and discovered I don't innately despise/suck at sports in my late teens.

I also frankly think you should prepare for a few more inward-facing obsession years. They're not a particularly photogenic phase to go through, but there's nothing really wrong with it. I really really don't think taking away the only thing he really enjoys is going to force him to become someone he's not. My parents tried this with me over and over and it just didn't take at all. You are teaching him that it's freakish to be passionate about stuff, and that the best response is to not care. Which is a really counterproductive lesson for someone you're trying to draw out.
posted by Sara C. at 6:54 PM on October 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If he's that into gaming, maybe let him have a bit more time with it IF he works on a writing/art/film/something project related to it at the same time. I struggle a bit because the stuff I want to suggest for comparison purposes is probably not age-appropriate, but I'm thinking stuff like Penny Arcade, Zero Punctuation, the Angry Video Game Nerd. Reviews, fan art, fanfic, designing a fan website about his favorite of the moment, a lot of other skills can be brought under the umbrella of that one interest, and it's probably a lot easier to make friends in that community eventually than if your monomania is whale-focused, I think.

I agree that screen time limitations should be sane, but that if he's making really productive use of the screen (not just playing, but socializing or creating something) then that's way different than just eight straight hours of shooting stuff. The logical abstraction of programming might be a bit much for right now but it might be something to come back to in a couple years. The early exercises are kinda boring and the more advanced stuff is a bit above his head. On the other hand, learning to cut together videos from game footage could be much more immediate-payoff.
posted by Sequence at 7:48 PM on October 28, 2013

Oh the video sounds like a great idea, Sequence! We've been talking about undertaking a family project of building a gaming PC (although my son would rather we just bought one of the new consoles), so that might be a good secondary activity.
posted by bibliowench at 8:01 PM on October 28, 2013

I think something that might do you and him some good is to examine what it might mean if there isn't actually a problem here to solve. By the way you describe it, you've done a great deal of due diligence to make sure you are not failing him. Perhaps it's time to start leaving it up to him?

The reason I mention it is that it never works at any age to try to solve somebody else's boredom. Whether it's by endlessly offering options (which the bored person inevitably shoots down or self-fulfillingly prophecies he won't enjoy) or by insisting that he select options he doesn't care for, it seems like you're looking for the magic-bullet activity-that-isn't-video-games that he'll latch onto and stop being bored. You may have unintentionally encouraged him to believe that this is the only correct way forward as well.

By the way, he's probably pretty sure that the One True Boredom Cure-all is the video games, the one activity that he's restricted from. I'm thinking that, as others have suggested, allowing him unlimited or less-limited access to the games (perhaps as a reward for doing the schoolwork) might either become his vocation or finally take the gloss off them and let him get bored of them. Maybe he can't move on from them because he hasn't worked through his need to interact with them. Maybe he needs a chance to gorge on them and attain mastery of them, and then he'll need to look for something new.

Either way -- I think he's old enough that he can be entrusted with the opportunity to save himself from his boredom. Boredom can be a gift, a sensation that forces creativity and encourages the bored person to unlock the achievement of conquering it. But it really saps motivation to fix boredom if you're sure that someone else is supposed to solve it for you.

All of that said, do take a close look at what happened when the grades changed, making sure there's no trauma there, and do facilitate any social options (like the gaming clubs) that seem to appeal to him. Obviously at age 11 he's at the mercy of whoever can chauffeur him, provide him Internet or phone access, or whatever it may take.
posted by Smells of Detroit at 8:06 PM on October 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Just throwing this out there: have you thought about playing Minecraft with your kid? The Minecraft community is extraordinarily social and unusually positive (unless you read YouTube comments.) I mention Minecraft specifically because it is an extremely creative game. There are monsters to fight, things to craft, stuff to build, redstone contraptions to design. It's up to you to make the game what you want it to be, and less like television than your average RPG/FPS/DoTA. You could easily set up a Minecraft server on a home PC and it's a pretty cheap game with free updates forever. I can't tell you how many reddit threads I've seen where parents share the amazing things they do with their kids in this game.

While I'm sure most people think that it's preferable to have friends your own age, I think that spending time with anyone is better than being alone all the time, even if it's a parent. I was always an "old soul" and had almost nothing in common with kids my age. I remember having way more fun talking to my dad about his cases at work than I ever did arguing with other 10 year olds about whether Luke Skywalker was more awesome than Darth Vader.
posted by xyzzy at 5:44 AM on October 29, 2013

Focus on the grades. There are lots of successful adults who were video-game loving, extra-curriculars-hating introverts as kids, but very few of them had bad grades, because it's high grades that enable the introvert to transition to the environment (a good college) in which they can set up their adult success. I like the idea of a screen-time incentive for grades.

For activities, think about individual sports. The social component of team sports or large-class formats like martial arts can be hard to manage. Golf and tennis and skiing don't, and they can use a lot of weekend and holiday time, and organically expose him to new acquaintances.
posted by MattD at 6:47 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

There are lots of successful adults who were video-game loving, extra-curriculars-hating introverts as kids, but very few of them had bad grades, because it's high grades that enable the introvert to transition to the environment (a good college) in which they can set up their adult success.

Bad grades in sixth grade don't really matter in the scheme of things.

Which isn't to say that incentivizing is a bad idea, but I was a C and D student in middle school because of boredom, depression, and a host of other things (the fact that I wanted to obsessively draw pictures of the Beatles rather than do homework among them). My grades evened out to Bs in high school, then I was a straight A student in college and graduate school. From talking to other high achieving adults, this pattern isn't at all a-typical. Grades are often a symptom of other things that are going on.

For getting him to branch out, don't be surprised if this happens organically when he finds his tribe, even with things that he's rejected previously. Table top gaming is way different when it's introduced by your friends who are super cool than your parents. That cute girl he meets at Blizzcon might get him into books that previously bored him. A big part of this is just becoming a teenager. Pumpkin picking with parents is lame. Haunted hayrides with your super awesome friends is completely different, even if they take place in the very same field.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:10 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oh, and one more thing:

I worry that, given his lifelong problems making connections with other people, video games may exacerbate his isolation.

He's eleven! He has plenty of time. I wonder if some of this anxiety you're feeling about it might be because you're reliving your own social isolation through him? Regardless, I promise you that video games won't do that. My husband is a gamer who loves FPS. His closest friends are people he talks to through a headset--members of his old Call of Duty guild (or team, or whatever; I don't play FPS myself). Video games--his passion, remember--are going to be something to connect him to other people. It's going to be his road out, not the other way around.

Honestly, I think the best thing to do would be to try to relax your screen time rules a bunch for a week or two. Maybe get him software to do his own youtube let's plays or something like that, or help him set up a blog (talk to him about internet safety first) for his own game reviews. There are amazing communities around the discussion and analysis of games, and your son's interest means he'd probably be ecstatic to take part in them.

See if that helps, because what you're doing now isn't working. If there's no improvement, you can always scale back again. It's gotta be better than pacing in his room, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 AM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

-According to the medical and mental health professionals we've consulted, he is not on the autism spectrum or depressed. I'm probably going to seek other opinions, but I'm wary of making him feel like there is something wrong with him.

When were these assessments made? Since his behavior has changed since then, it's worth reassessing him and thinking again about his school situation.

If I sound really insistent, it's because you say that you are "scared for him". You know him very well and it's important to trust your instincts. You sound like a caring and committed mother. I know how hard accessing high-quality mental health help for adolescents can be. Hang in there, and best of luck to your family.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:16 AM on October 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

My son was diagnosed as non-autistic until he was diagnosed as autistic. With high-functioning people, it isn't always obvious. Has he done the ADOS test? That's the gold standard.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:46 PM on October 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wanted to throw out another activity that has not been mentioned yet that I think may be a good fit. It's rock climbing/bouldering. I am a gamer as well, compulsively. I can't really explain why, but I get a lot of the same stimulation working on a boulder as I do playing a game. You become super focused and tend to tune out everything else.

Do you have a bouldering or rock climbing gym nearby? Bonus if they have a camp style after school program. The sport is very safe, and if you stick to bouldering, you don't need a lot of equipment, as you are never more then a few feet off the ground.

1) It's time spent climbing. What kid doesn't like climbing all over everything? I'm an adult, and I am constantly amazed at how fast 2-3 hours goes by spent bouldering.

2) It's a physical activity. It's got a little danger factor. Get's the blood pumping, keeps you active and is a great full body workout to boot

3) Hyper focus is not only okay, its super beneficial. You will find that for every 1 minute climbing, you spend 10 minutes resting and analyzing the problem at hand

4) As a preteen, he would likely excel quickly. Low body weight + growing taller = great climber.

5) It's easy to see yourself leveling up. Climbs are rated, and improvement in your ability levels up your skill.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 3:26 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking that, as others have suggested, allowing him unlimited or less-limited access to the games (perhaps as a reward for doing the schoolwork) might either become his vocation or finally take the gloss off them and let him get bored of them. Maybe he can't move on from them because he hasn't worked through his need to interact with them. Maybe he needs a chance to gorge on them and attain mastery of them, and then he'll need to look for something new.

A like really can't do enough to communicate how much i agree with this. A lot of my friends who are very similar to me mentally(birds of a feather, and whatnot) went through a phase similar to this at this age. A bunch of us were sitting around quite recently and remarking about how we don't really play videogames the way we used to, and all kinda honed in on 10-14 as being the absolute peak of our game playing. That generally included a fairly general withdrawing from the world a bit too, and maybe hanging out with one friend here and there but mostly by ourselves.

I met a number of my friends when i was around 14 that i still talk to, and that was when both i and they were just getting out of that phase. In high school i watched my friends(definitely not neurotypical from 10 feet away) younger brother go through the exact same thing. I didn't realize it until a while later that "hey, wait, we were all like that" when were kinda mildly joking about "man, all that dude does is play games".

I'd seriously consider what the actual, concrete reasons are for not just letting this naturally burn itself out. And i really don't buy "But he spends too much time staring at the tee-vee!" as a concrete reason.

Playing a bit off of Kwine's overall theme, your son doesn't get to decide he wants to go back to a quiet home after school and play video games after school. What he needs to do is develop coping skills rather than getting used to the idea that he needs to decompress for long periods of time after school. And these skills only get developed by honing them, rather than giving in to a young person's desire to chill out.

I feel weird replying directly to a comment that isn't the askers in askme, but i'm really writing this for you, bibliowench.

I had a hard time getting past the snarky thoughts that were basically along the lines of "spoken like a true extrovert" when i read that post. I'm not necessarily introverted now, but i was very much like your son at that age. By the time i wanted to go home and just take a break from being around other people or socially interacting my mind was some mixture of completely drained, and simultaneously like a sponge that had soaked up all it could handle. I was overloaded, and no meaningful progress was going to be had from leaving me out there. This sort of emotional and social development is a software thing, not a hardware thing. People treat it like you're working out a muscle or something and you need to "feel the burn" to grow. In reality, he's probably feeling that burn more than enough just going to school and being made to interact with other people.

The only thing you help create by perpetually forcing him way out of his comfort zone is resentment. I'd say it was one thing if it was summer and he was just spending the entire week locked in his room playing games(and i tried to get away with that at that age), but he's going to school and being forced on some level to interact with other people.

I really think you need to listen to that need to chill out, because it's actually a need. I realize that if he had it his way(and if i had it my way at that age, sometimes) he'd just rarely leave the house. I think you're already meeting in the middle a bit in that he has to go to school and be around people his own age. In doing that, he's coming up to the table and going "i did it your way, now let me do it my way to balance it out".

The older i grew, the less of this time i needed and the less i had this feeling. By the time i was in my 20s i had done a complete reversal from being 13-14 and going "Nah, i don't want to go out to the arcade/go hang out at your house tonight i think i'm just gonna stay in" to going on spontaneous road trips with my friends, hanging out with them for days, and staying up til 6am. I do feel like every time i was pushed no forward progress was made however.

Which leads me to

he's shutting out the rest of the world so much that I'm scared for him.

Which is once again, sort of an introvert shaming thing. What if he's perfectly happy that way? What if being around other people more than X amount is too stressful/not really something he wants? It sorta becomes a "well that's not normal and he should be normal and i'm going to try and cram him in to this box as much as i can" kind of thing, and i really think you should at least consider looking at it from that angle. Like smells of detroit said above, examine this from the perspective of "what if this isn't a failure mode?"

As a closing statement, i'd also like to note that just as with corpse in the library's son, everyone didn't think i was on the spectrum until a very smart, multiple times board certified child psychologist sat down with me and very, very quickly went "You know, i think this kid might be autistic", and then a bit later after another couple visits went "yep, definitely". It was around the same age too. At the time i resented it, but later on i realized it was more of a "this is a fairly good explanation as to why my brain works this way, and so do a lot of other peoples brains" not some kind of "i'm being looked down on as broken/defective".

sorry if that got really tangent-y, this is just something i feel kinda strongly about and i realized today i hadn't said nearly all i wanted/needed to in my first post. Hope it's helpful!
posted by emptythought at 4:18 PM on October 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is going to sound a little out there, but please give it a think. I have seen talented, bright kids here grow up in paradise, and lose their focus altogether after a couple of bad hurricane seasons. Your region seems to have gone through it all in the past couple of years; fire, flood, landslides, sinkholes, the whole gamut. If you've lived there for his entire life, he's just seen everything he knows and is familiar with crumble down around him or go up in flames.

The coverage I've seen from two thousand miles away was hard to watch, and I'm sure your local news reported it pretty much relentlessly. His coping skills are not enough at age eleven to see a bigger picture, or even know that there is a bigger picture, much less vocalize his anxiety about the possibilities. Have his school acquaintances lost homes or family members?

It's not so much depression as it is the relentless anxiety about what is going to happen next, and that is hard to pin down and harder still to remedy. Coupled with the normal tween angst about every other thing in his life, it could be just too much to process.

Do you have friends or family a reasonable distance away where he can spend a couple of weeks and discover something new and different in a safe environment? Preferably bright lights and big city, if possible, and diametrically opposite the local vibe.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:27 PM on October 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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