What kind of parent does my teen need right now?
April 2, 2024 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I want to be a good parent to my 10th-grader, but I'm not sure how best to support him through the next couple of years. He is really different from how I was as a teen and I'm increasingly unsure whether I'm worrying too much or not enough about some of those differences. I'm hoping to crowdsource ideas/additional perspectives that could help me better direct my parental energies, especially from any MeFites out there who see a bit of their past selves in him.

I am a parent to a teen currently finishing 10th grade who has always been a bright, curious, and engaged person. I don't think he's had a friend over since elementary school (before COVID), but he is a well-liked and respected group member when he participates in structured activities. Currently, he does tech for shows at his school and fences (though he has shown no interest in competing). For several years he acted in a Shakespeare program and was on a robotics team, but those activities are not currently happening and the robotics might not happen again. He likes to have solo projects (programming, prop-making, building and fixing stuff), excels at self-directed learning and is "conventionally" smart (currently taking Calculus, excellent grades though at a not-very-rigorous arts high school, an almost perfect PSAT score). However, he really struggles with unstructured social interactions, making decisions, change, and identifying future goals/dreams.

When opportunities that align with his interests fall in his lap, he runs with them, but he seems lost as to how to seek out opportunities or invite folks to be part of one of his solo projects. He also seems lonely, but when we are at events with his peers, he will actively avoid interacting, even when folks say hi or approach him.

When he is bored or struggling to do a task, especially something he thinks he should be able to do, he can get in a pretty negative spiral fed by frustration because he doesn't understand why he can't just make himself do the things he wants/needs to do. Unfortunately, he is also increasingly bored at school. Yet, when I try to engage with him about alternatives like taking some college classes or doing independent studies, he gets overwhelmed/unhappy and shuts down. He has an ADHD diagnosis (as do both parents), takes meds, but has not participated in any type of therapy and he has never had accommodations at school.

I have always assumed he would go to college and possibly even a selective college, probably for engineering or computer science, and I think he could be really happy in the right environment. However, he hasn't shown any interest in that option or even really understanding the option. I'm also fine with him getting a job after high school and working before or instead of going to college. I just want him to have goals and make choices.

Unfortunately, he is very resistant to conversations about options for after high school (or even options to make high school less boring), so I've been trying to avoid that type of conversation, but I worry that I should actually be engaging more instead of backing off.

Does this look familiar to anyone? If you were like my kid, or have parented a kid like mine, do have any thoughts about what I should be doing or how I should be thinking about my role over the next few years?
posted by ElizaMain to Human Relations (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I recognize a lot of your child's ambivalence about the future. It took me until well into my 11th grade year for me to take next steps seriously.

I remember also that this 10th/11th grade time for me was when I started to realize that my options weren't the binary college/no-college or state-college/out-of-state-college choices I thought I had. I wish in hindsight I had learned more about other options (IB track into overseas university, for example) and had done more travel.

Like your teen's, my perspective was very inward-looking. I had a similar friend who did one of the gifted-and-talented summer programs (Duke's TIP, I think), and in hindsight, I kind of wish I had done that myself.

But if I were in your shoes, I'd find a place to spend some time over the summer, maybe work remotely (if you can) from a place like Montreal, explore a culture different from yours (if you're still in the Northeast USA), maybe casually check out colleges?
posted by yellowcandy at 11:36 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]

It’s time for you to step back from actively managing the situation. I did a parenting class for teenagers when my daughter was that age. I learned about the transition from a manager role to a consultant role. At a certain point the initiative and vision for the future has to come from your son. My daughter got into tennis and it improved her life.

My daughter also was incredibly hostile about plans for the future. As she approaches the end of grade 12, she now understands the need to make some plans. She too got bored of school which reflected in her grades. As her consultant, I offered her the option of attending university transfer programs instead of direct entry into university. She’ll figure something out.

I did force my daughter’s hand a bit by planning to relocate after high school ended as it is best for my personal future. Obviously this might not be right for you. However 10th grade and up is a great time for parents to take up new hobbies, re-engage socially, and plan for the empty nest future.
posted by shock muppet at 11:39 AM on April 2 [15 favorites]

I don't have specific advice, but I think you will find Gabor Mate's Hold On To Your Kids to be an empowering read.
posted by MiraK at 11:39 AM on April 2 [2 favorites]

I have always assumed he would go to college and possibly even a selective college, probably for engineering or computer science, and I think he could be really happy in the right environment. However, he hasn't shown any interest in that option or even really understanding the option.

I mean, I can tell you that by the end of my 10th grade year, I knew where I was going to college, what I was going to study, and what career it would lead to. And I was wrong on all counts.

He also seems lonely, but when we are at events with his peers, he will actively avoid interacting, even when folks say hi or approach him.

The one piece of advice around this that I wish I'd gotten much earlier in life: building relationships is a skill that can be learned, not just a thing some people can do naturally and others never will. It takes practice and effort, like any other skill, and just like anything else you practice, there's nothing wrong or embarrassing about being bad at it at first.
posted by solotoro at 11:53 AM on April 2 [22 favorites]

I just want him to have goals and make choices. Tenth grade is pretty young. I think it's okay for him to just be a teenager for a while and not have to worry about "The Future®". I agree with shock muppet's, "It’s time for you to step back from actively managing the situation."

...when we are at events with his peers, he will actively avoid interacting, even when folks say hi or approach him. Does he behave this way when he is at events without you there? My grandson is in the 10th grade and he'll only let me drive him to school if I drop him off where no one can see us - LOL.
posted by SageTrail at 12:13 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

I was pretty lonely between ages 10 and 16. I had friends outside of school, but the group dynamics of teenagers at school are challenging. I preferred being with adults because teenagers in a group are volatile and I wasn't confident enough to handle that. One minute, everyone is studying. The next, people are cranking up the music, shrieking, and pulling out Wodka and knives. I couldn't deal with the constant sense of danger from observing people engaging in risky activities, and I hated the cruelty towards low-status classmates, the gossip, and the drama.

When I was 17, I met my people. They were into game nights, not partying. They were hilarious and smart and kind. And, this helped immensely, they told me quite clearly that they wanted me in their friend group. I'd met two of them in an after school club for environmental activism, but then I suddenly had a total of six new friends. We're still friends now. Finding people who liked me for myself was a game changer. I needed the confidence boost, and I had to unlearn the damaging lessons loneliness will teach you.

So, if I were you, I'd ease up on the career anxiety. Kids that age are all just guessing about what they want to do. They lack the life experience to make meaningful choices. Rather than encouraging them to decide on their life's purpose at age 18, we should be more patient and help them learn about the world. Internships, travel, volunteer work, and some time just doing nothing to learn that that's not even very fun for longer than a couple weeks...all that will teach teenagers important things about the world. Your son's aimlessness is age-appropriate and to be expected: His whole life, people have been telling him what to do. It takes a second to learn that he can actually decide what to do with his one and precious life.

Instead of career advice, I'd talk to him about finding his people. He obviously hasn't found them yet, but they're out there looking for someone exactly like him. They'll empower him and get him out of this loneliness.
posted by toucan at 12:30 PM on April 2 [23 favorites]

I was a fair bit like this!

One thing my parents didn't know, or at least didn't really understand, about me was that I was not lonely. I had a tight-knit, supportive group of friends I met on LiveJournal, and we chatted on AIM and MSN pretty much whenever I wasn't at school.

I looked to my parents for expectations around the future. I didn't have strong academic or career ambitions of my own. I just wanted to make them proud. They set the expectation that I would go to a selective college and that gave me a clear goal to work toward. It's hard to say if that was good for me. I thrived on structure and external goals, but I also had insomnia and panic attacks because I was so scared to disappoint them.

I was desperate to see a therapist but for whatever reason felt like I wasn't really "allowed" to ask for one.
posted by capricorn at 12:31 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Parent of two smart kids a bit older than yours. My younger kid is quite bright and math-oriented and also social but also has no interest in college. I don't think your intervention is going to be super helpful here, unfortunately. Engage, yes, but push? I don't know. I worry that'll mean you push your kid away. Backing off seems counter-intuitive but ultimately may be what your kid needs. Two articles that I found super helpful:

What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents (gift link from NY Times)
So, what you're going for: you are nearby and available, but not directing. shock puppet is exactly right in saying that you're not managing, but supporting. I think of this as being my kids' cheerleader.

How To Quit Intensive Parenting (paywalled, unfortunately, but you might be able to get it through your local public library if you can't access it)
posted by bluedaisy at 12:36 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

(For what it's worth: I did go to a selective college, I'm in a leadership role at my company, and now that I'm in my 30s I've realized that my calling, the thing that makes me feel most fulfilled and self-actualized in life is...taking a long walk outside in the woods on a nice day and looking at flowers and birds. I don't have any regrets but nonetheless would do it all differently if I could go back. It's possible your kid is a guy whose life's dream is sitting in the park and you are hoping he will start a Fortune 500 robotics company.)
posted by capricorn at 12:40 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]

I just want him to have goals and make choices.
Also, respectfully, this is what you'll need to let go of. I know you're trying to say, "The goals are up to you," but that's not enough. Give him some space not to have goals or make choices. Our kids went through a super weird time with the pandemic, and your kid is still young. It's especially common for boys not to know what they want to do, even aside from the pandemic. He's awash in hormones and adolescence and needing to establish some independence and also still being a kid who needs his parents. When our kids get to this age, they need to start figuring this stuff out on their own. And we can't make these decisions for them, so we have to sit on our hands a bit, and be present and available but not leading.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:59 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

I want to point out here that you are doing a lot of things right. You are observing without interfering, and you are letting him follow his nose, and you are asking us before you just dive into directing his life. Please pat yourself on the back for all these things! You got this!

I wasn't unlike your son at that age. My parents, however, in addition to the non-negotiable expectation that I would attend and graduate college, had very definite images of what I would do in college and afterwards... that were totally 100% wrong, and ultimately pushed me in a direction I shouldn't have gone. I'm not blaming my failed Ph.D attempt on them -- I absolutely own a lot of the poor decisionmaking that went into that -- but I will say their pressure not only didn't help, but did me a lot of harm.

So I suggest letting go of "probably for engineering or computer science." That's his choice, 100%. Do I regret turning aside from journalism (my mother's expectation) or foreign languages (mother's and father's) to major in comparative literature? NOPE! Best decision I made in college, bar none. Great major, loved it, learned a lot. Do I regret turning away from tenure-track academia (my father's expectation) toward librarianship? NOPE! And it's not even that librarianship treated me all that well, and against all expectation I ended up back in (non-tenure-track) academia anyway. But it was my decision and I ran with it and I'm super not sorry.

What I wish my parents had done, and what you have every opportunity to do, is express approval without fixating. I don't know how your family expresses approval of and to one another, but maybe do that in the appropriate-for-y'all way for anything and everything he does that's positive, without bringing Teh Fyoochur into it at all.

The social stuff -- I wonder what you're modeling by way of social interactions? Observing isn't the only way to learn, but it's one way. Your call whether you think it might be worth stepping up social stuff that you do as a family. My parents were incredibly unsocial, so I didn't learn how to social until I was a lot older (and I wouldn't say I've mastered it).
posted by humbug at 1:04 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Sounds like me. I kind of aggressively shut my parents out of what was going on with me around that time. It wasn't really their fault, but pushing back on it would have made it worse. I think grade 10 is too early to be expected to have life goals and college plans. I realize in the US there are some college options that require advanced planning, portfolios of extracurriculars, etc. Fortunately I didn't have to deal with this applying to Canadian universities, where I didn't decide where to apply until grade 12 and didn't decide where to go until the end. Then I didn't decide what to major in until later. And what I'm doing now is completely different. Unstructured time is important. Organically developing interests that are just for fun is important - the best way to turn a hobby into no fun is to instrumentalize it towards some future career goal.

I'd make sure your kid has access to therapy and to options for what to do, but otherwise, I think you need to let him take the lead. The most valuable thing you can provide is a judgement-free sounding board as he starts to figure this stuff out. Setting aside your own anxiety and expectations is the only way to do that.
posted by lookoutbelow at 1:10 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

However, he really struggles with ... making decisions, change, and identifying future goals/dreams.

I was (and, in many ways, still am) like this; I have a very hard time making decisions and when pushed to do so, especially by my parents, it makes me shut down. Which is why I feel lucky that my parents set the very clear expectation that I would attend a four-year college by default. They didn't say, "you have to become a doctor/lawyer/president," but I never felt like going to college was my choice and thus I just did it and it was actually a relief of anxiety for me that I didn't have to decide about that.

Going to a four-year college, especially the kind of place where you can enter undeclared and try different subjects to explore your interests, kept virtually all opportunities open to me so that by the time I knew what I wanted to do (which, spoiler alert, was quite a long time after I graduated) I did not face undue barriers in pursuing it. Obviously college is not the right fit for every young adult, but if there is enough overlap between the universe of his interests and the universe of what you can learn in college, I think a kid like this would actually benefit from narrowing the scope of the decisions he's being forced to make.
posted by telegraph at 1:15 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

He has a couple of years. Things will work out. But if four-year college turns out not to be in the cards, maybe he should try the local community college.

You could encourage him to have a simple and flexible goal like "I'm going to enjoy myself, take interesting courses, maybe get qualified to do an interesting job, and maybe or maybe not get an associate degree in something or nothing or everything."

He could take a professional certificate and get a job, he could get a two-year associate degree and stop, he could get that associate degree and transfer the credits to a local or distant four-year college, or he could try some stop-and-start combination of that stuff or something else entirely. Meanwhile, he could find new interests and friends and romance...
posted by pracowity at 1:21 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

He has an ADHD diagnosis (as do both parents), takes meds, but has not participated in any type of therapy and he has never had accommodations at school.

I think the ADHD factor explains nearly all of the issues you discuss, from his frustration at being unable to follow through on things to his social isolation to his resistance to long-term planning.

I wonder how much of your concerns are related to him subconsciously pushing back against what he may imagine to be his parents, school’s, or society’s ideas of his potential, a concept that ADHD intersects with in uncomfortable ways. As I am sure you know, not meeting your potential, or doing less or worse than others think you should be doing regardless of the actual quality of your activities or how much you enjoy them, is a serious source of shame and regret for people with ADHD.

And yet, just from your description, there is much for him to be happy about in his life: he is already excelling at a more-advanced version of the curriculum at his school; he is involved in activities that move his body and stimulate his mind; he is happy to delve into topics of interest and finds satisfaction there.

Perhaps the paradigm shift you may be waiting for him to reach is related to how aware he is of the fact that ADHD is a disability that may well follow him for the rest of his life, not just a personality quirk or something he medicates away so he can take notes in history class. Confronting a diagnosis that, yes, you may always need to be medicated to function in society and be a safe driver and not run up your credit cards is a lot for a tenth grader, you know?

Could it be that his dawning awareness of how ADHD is a disability is weighing on his attitude to taking risks, branching out and trying new things? In fact, ask yourself this: does he see himself as disabled?

If he does see himself as disabled, does he see himself as undeserving of help for reasons he might have heard elsewhere (ADHD isn’t a “real disability” like blindness, ADHD isn’t that bad, his ADHD is being treated, he’s doing well in school, he should want to wean himself off meds someday, etc), and that’s why he’s not seeking ways through the difficulties you’ve noticed he’s having? Does he desire accommodations but doesn’t have the language to know what to ask for? Or does he feel he has to bear this all alone, and fears the social impact if others find out he sees himself as disabled and they somehow judge him or reject him?

If he doesn’t see himself as disabled, what does he know about the disabling effects of ADHD vis-à-vis his own behavior, and how does he square that with whatever definition of disability he has in his mind? For example, does he know enough about ADHD to realize that perhaps his reluctance to be social at group activities is related to an unconscious strategy to prevent the kinds of ADHD-identifying behaviors that would expose him as not normal to everyone else? If he knows he cannot stop himself from having to really struggle to follow conversations, interrupt, or talk over others but doesn’t know that these aren’t personality flaws so much as they are involuntary elements of ADHD speech, it’s easy to see why he’d avoid the company of others.

One step you could take would be to gently explore accommodations at school with him — nothing on paper if he’s worried about that, just a chat with the school psychologist or someone at the school district about what might be available and how they help folks like him. Perhaps he’d be interested in therapy if he believed it would complement his medication to make his life easier, less stressful or just more enjoyable and fun.

You could sell this more-involved approach as you supporting him in keeping all the plates spinning as his own, your and your partner’s, and society's expectations of him are broadening as he matures. You could also tell him that having a combination of professional adults who would be involved in these processes that he could grow to trust (or, if at school, already does trust?) who understand ADHD’s power to really limit your life in ways you can’t realize as a young person and don’t know how to ask for help with would help him learn about himself in empowering ways, and lift a lot of the frustration he feels right off his shoulders.

Finally, you and your son may want to check out the Job Accommodation Network pages on ADHD here and Dr Russell Barkley’s YouTube channel on ADHD here.

Good luck! Your son deserves a joyful and fulfilling life like everyone else, but as you have intuited by asking this question, he may need the help you sense he does to get there.
posted by mdonley at 1:24 PM on April 2 [7 favorites]

I have one kid older than, and one kid the same age as yours. If your teen ends up wanting to go to college, you will very, very quickly move into an intensely administrative, task oriented, transactional role with him. Unless his high school is super supportive, a lot of planning, research, travel, reminders, feedback, and deadline management is going to fall to you, his parents. It's a prickly time. Your kid will likely be more stressed than you are, but hiding it well, and with less skill in handling it. My kid was motivated and self-directed in their college search, and I was comfortable in an advisor role to them, but even so I was shocked by how much stress I shed after he was accepted somewhere.

With that on the horizon, I would use this time to be loving, accepting, almost unrelentingly positive, about how your kid is making his way through the world. If you see him hanging back from interactions socially, maybe just observe something like, “You seem to like to do your own thing when we're out at social events. That shows a lot of confidence.” If he has trouble making decisions, you might say, “You’re a methodical thinker when it comes to decisions. That helps make smart choices.” When he shows resistance or ambivalence to goals and dreams, “There's a lot of pressure at your age to figure out what's next. It's ok to not know.”

At the same time, you might try modeling and talking aloud about the skills you hope him to have. So if you find yourself making decisions easily, divulge that to him, almost like you're talking to yourself. Like “Blech, I felt uncomfortable about a decision I had to make today, but I knew I had to just go for it and I'm confident I'll be able to deal with whatever happens.” Or, “Sometimes I get lonely when I don't connect with my friends for a while. I talked with so-and-so today and it really felt good.” That normalizes both the full range of challenging human feelings/ situations, and some of the ways to meet those challenges.

It sounds like you know him well and that goes a long way. Feeling genuinely seen, even by only your parents, is a really positive thing at this age.
posted by cocoagirl at 1:59 PM on April 2 [6 favorites]

Autism. This screams of undiagnosed autism since it mirrors so many of my childhood experiences perfectly. If an autism specialist has explicitly rejected that diagnosis, then pretty much everything mdonley said. But if not autism the ADHD has similar issues. Whatever its, it very much sounds like symptoms of a chronic condition rather than anything else, including teenage angst, depression, and lack of life goals.

Managing the day to day seems so impossible sometimes. I'm hyper talented at the things I'm good at, so people don't see the screaming difficulty I have with some of the basics. I can write a college level analysis, but laundry is insane. Tying my shoes is a process. The world is just completely baffling because I don't fit in anywhere... The question of the future planning is so utterly incomprehensible and unanswerable because I can't picture being functional or working correctly anywhere. It's beyond words too hard to think about a Five Year Plan when I'm fighting to get through each. And. Every. Day. Wouldn't surprise me if it's impossible for him to really be able to visualize being 20, for that seems like an impossibly long distance to crawl over the broken glass of life, when normal people just skip past it all.

Uh, yeah. Tldr, autism test is the one major thing I'd hope happens.
posted by Jacen at 2:06 PM on April 2 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the great responses!

Just to clarify a couple of things. First, I'm not sure what I wrote that suggested there is a dynamic of my kid shutting me out, but that is not in play here (and unfortunately I am also confident that he does not have an invisible-to-me social life). With family and folks he's known forever, he is a really open and communicative kid, except on the dreaded topics of future and choices.
Second, while I do understand how what I wrote made it seem like I'm looking for him to have ideas about a career or life purpose, the types of choices/future that we have actually been struggling with are things like what activities is he going to participate in over the next couple months, plans for this coming summer, and what courses to take next school year. To the extent he expresses opinions and preferences, we've been following his lead, but when he doesn't have preferences it is hard to provide guidance without it feeling like pushing him a particular direction, which we have been trying hard (maybe actually too hard?) not to do.

Oh, and at the risk of abusing the edit window - his ADHD diagnosis came through comprehensive neuropsych testing that did not identify autism as being at play.

Anyway, I am so appreciative of all the diverse perspectives, thank you MeFites!
posted by ElizaMain at 2:22 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Have you talked to your kid about how he would feel about

(a) therapy
(b) social-skills-focused coaching
(c) therapy/coaching specifically focused on managing his ADHD?

(NOT all three - but maybe there's one that might feel better than the others?)

If it's something he's resistant to, then I think it's unlikely to be helpful. I had a childhood where it felt like I was always a Problem to be Fixed, and honestly, it didn't feel great. But at the same time, I knew I needed more help than I was getting.

I was a lot like your kid, and... as soon as I had friends, high school got a lot better for me, emotionally. I needed to be in science fiction club. I needed to be in Teen Democrats. I needed more low-stakes opportunities to meet interesting people. Is he getting that, in theatre and fencing? If he's not getting that, are there activities (in school or out of school) that might afford him those opportunities? A club, a summer camp? Again - not something to push him into if he's resistant, but perhaps something to offer if he's interested.

when he doesn't have preferences it is hard to provide guidance without it feeling like pushing him a particular direction

I don't know if I'd interpret this as him not having preferences. Maybe it's "I have a preference but I feel like my preference is not one I'm allowed to have"? Maybe it's ordinary low-grade "I can't imagine getting excited about X because I can't imagine getting excited about anything" depression? I don't know the answer, if it's one of those possibilities (or any others), but maybe worth exploring.
posted by Jeanne at 2:31 PM on April 2

Our daughter is the same age and we are nearly insistent that she is taking a year off after high school to fuck around, does not concern herself with college, and does not concern herself with her Life Path or major or college at all.

The reasoning is: she's not ready. It's too much pressure. "Here you go, kid, into the chum-making machine." She needs time to just get settled with herself and get used to having choices and agency.

The idea of propelling kids into careers at 15 is absolutely insane.

I get it - some kids are all-in at an early age, but nobody should have an expectation of that. She took a career path test! What on earth for?

There are a hundred things she'd be good at but whether she wants to teach 8th grade art, become a tattoo artist, go design video games, cut hair, design clothing -- those are things she's going to need to feel out for herself with faith that her dad and I are just going to be super psyched if she builds a life for herself that she actually enjoys.

Many people don't.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:08 PM on April 2 [10 favorites]

Oh I just want to add something quick -- I think the amount of trauma kids that age have experienced in their lives is grossly misunderstood. They lived through a global pandemic surrounded by adults who had no idea what they were doing. They lived through a fascist presidency and insurrection surrounded by adults who had no idea what they were doing. They are living through terrifying climate change, surrounded by adults who have no idea what they're doing.

Because all of that was not realistically within our control. But going through puberty surrounded by that? Oh GOD.

My kid has friends who were hospitalized, almost all of them are on anti-depressants, their mental health needs are sky high and there aren't nearly enough therapists, and it's so hard to find a match with a therapist even if you can find a therapist.

I'm saying I think it's important to look at the current crop of adolescents through a historical lens occasionally...
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:13 PM on April 2 [16 favorites]

My best friend was like this in high school. I don't know if this will help you, but this idea is what his folks did: they'd arrange weekend road trips and vacations, then slowly gave him more and more responsibilities: picking the next days restaurant and making the reservations if needed. He'd be the one to prepare the car for trips (check oil, tires, lights etc). Later on, his responsibility grew to pick where they'd go and plan the entire weekend road trip, booking and reserving everything. He def made mistakes but that was part of the adventure. I know he hated making decisions at first but then fun stuff happened and he felt a sense of ownership.
His organizational skills, interactions out in the world, and sense of responsibility were pretty obvious improvements that year. I've appreciated his parents creativity and 'non-involvement' over his decision making.
posted by artdrectr at 4:16 PM on April 2 [11 favorites]

the types of choices/future that we have actually been struggling with are things like what activities is he going to participate in over the next couple months, plans for this coming summer, and what courses to take next school year. To the extent he expresses opinions and preferences, we've been following his lead, but when he doesn't have preferences it is hard to provide guidance without it feeling like pushing him a particular direction, which we have been trying hard (maybe actually too hard?) not to do.

Sometimes not deciding is also a choice. What happens if he doesn't make choices? Sometimes it's enough to let the kid know options, and then, them not deciding is also a choice, to not do any activities. As for classes: if he doesn't decide, what happens? There will likely be some natural consequences, like perhaps a guidance counselor pestering him. As much as you can, punt this stuff to him. Kids have so little control of their lives, and they need to learn how to make decisions and manage this stuff on their own. If you don't provide guidance, will he ask others for help? Figure it out? What happens if you tell him the options and let him sort it out?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:26 PM on April 2 [1 favorite]

That sounds a lot like me at that age.

I think you're expecting a lot out of a 10th grader and the best way to help right now would be to just let him find his way. Let him know you've got his back.

That said...

You say he seems lonely, but having suffered extensively at the hands of a well-meaning extrovert parent I would ask you to get a closer look at that. Some people don't need as much "people" time.

And more important than "people" time is "right people" time. My social choices in high school were limited by a lack of people who were like me. First year of college I hit the ground running with a whole community of like-minded people and have never looked back.

But that wasn't available in high school, classes were increasingly boring, and the entire process just seemed like a holding pattern until I could get the hell on with my life.

I will say that the immediate future of my life was strongly driven by my parent's "18 and out" policy. They would pay for schooling, but if I wasn't doing that I was on my own. Very motivating.

I might make sure he has information -- like that if he later decides to try to get into a big name university he'll be glad if he started to hedge his bets now -- but let him sort through the emotional, philosophical, and meaning-of-life stuff on his own.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:06 PM on April 2

the types of choices/future that we have actually been struggling with are things like what activities is he going to participate in over the next couple months, plans for this coming summer, and what courses to take next school year

the only one of these that’s vital for a 15/16 year old is his course schedule, and I would expect the school to end up picking his electives for him if he doesn’t get around to it. he should get a low stress basic summer job but it’s a little early to line that up. he is more than old enough to decide his own activities day by day.

but as someone said above, he doesn’t have the years or the experience to make a bigger plan than that. as long as you’re not trampling on some long-held specific ambition of his it is totally fine and I think necessary for you to set his medium-term goals for him. say, applying to several four-year colleges when the time comes and registering to attend one that admits him. just decide that’s what he’s going to do and steer him towards it. if a reasonably good state school is available to him there is no reason he should care about status or selectivity.

go ahead and make his choices for him until he feels strongly enough to make different ones. all you have to do is let him know you won’t be mad if he suddenly runs away to broadway or the coast guard at the last minute. don’t force him onto the conventional path but push him toward it gently. it closes no doors - when he hits his early twenties if he realizes he has no use for his degree, he’s not obligated to use it. not showing interest in college as a high school sophomore doesn’t mean anything, he’s barely two years into the longest miserablest four years of some people’s lives. he’ll be out soon enough but it will not be soon to him. college is another world. try to get him there but don’t worry about selling him on it now. please do not be at him to “identify” his “dreams”. he has to be an adult no matter what, it’s not fair to make him pretend to look forward to it.

next year & following, do not leave him on his own to get college apps done, transcripts sent, deadlines met. badger him to do it and as a last resort do some of it for him, god knows other people’s parents will. not getting into college is not a good consequence for teenage malaise and disorganization. but right now, his grades are good, he has several interests in life (his private hobbies don’t need to be group projects??), and if he’s done drama and fencing he can at least cope with his peers. that’s not nothing.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:07 PM on April 2 [2 favorites]

I found the whole process of university confusing and overwhelming and would have appreciated someone breaking it up into chunks I could understand and solve. With ADHD I imagine it could be overwhelming with how to break the big picture into tasks, just like cleaning a messy room. I had no idea how the university machine worked - take classes that comprise a degree? Which classes? How do I know if they “count”? Which degree? I can take general studies first? Am I allowed to change my mind? What if I try and fail? I felt this huge pressure to know and get it correct right away.

Which is on to the bigger question - how does a person find out what they like and want to do? Maybe that’s the process you can support for your kid - not what to do but how to figure it out, in a way that breaks down the overwhelming big picture into small experiments and tasks, and reassure them that if the fail they don’t have far to fall because they have family love and support.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:58 PM on April 2 [3 favorites]

Your kid is pretty smart, but not particularly driven. He doesn’t care about anything in particular. This is fine. Let him be, hope he finds that, help him to find something to start giving a shit about, may take a decade.

That said, find a way to get him to try architecture in college. So many aimless smart people who now do whatever they fell into wish they’d become an architect. Would they have liked it, dunno, but an unusual amount of them wish they’d tried that instead of what they did.
posted by ixipkcams at 10:52 PM on April 2

I'm the father of a 12th grader, headed to a great college in the fall, and your description of your son.. well, it's very close to how I'd have described mine at that age: smart, socially awkward with peers, neurodivergent diagnosis.

Echoing several people here that what he really needs is to find his people. I basically introduced my son and his brother to D&D because it seemed like a good way to connect them to fellow nerds (I say that with love, I'm one, too) and because role-playing is great and healthy for kids in that age. Turns out it didn't matter.... my son has always been musical, he joined band, and band kids are the best, and that has worked for him. (Have you explored music at all?) From there, he picked up theater, and drama kids are the best, too. I don't think you can nudge your son back into theater, but if he expresses interest again, of course be supportive.

Here's something us older folks miss: For today's kids, online friendships are *real.* For us, the pandemic was devastating because it separated us from friends and family. For both of my sons -- well, I won't say it was an outright positive, but they formed Discord groups with schoolmates and had these wild, free-wheeling, often hysterically funny conversations that they'd recount to us. It was actually *great* for my son because in real life he might have been quiet or overwhelmed, but typing into a group forum leveled the playing field. His wittiness and sense of humor could come out and when the pandemic ended and they returned to school, these online friends became real-world friends. He still chats with them, and also is actively engaged in online forums on music and AI research. So... I know the idea of unmonitored online interaction can be scary, but maybe encouraging connections with established online communities aligned with his interests would be good.

Something else to be aware of: IIRC, child psychology points to how kids at this age are much more influenced by peers than parents or literally anyone else. We've been fortunate that our kids attend a school for gifted students. (I joke about it being like X-Men -- Professor X's School for Mutants.) Every day, they're surrounded by other kids all with their own degree of wonkiness, but all with a desire to learn. You said your son goes to a school for the arts, which sounds like a pretty good community to be in. I don't think it would be good to switch schools, even if you had one like ours nearby, but maybe look for after-school and summer programs (someone mentioned Duke TIP) where he can connect with his people. It might help him see down-the-line possibilities of college or work. Granted, it sounds like it's tough for you to push things like that, but just have the info in your head and keep an ear out for a time when he asks about it or seems open to talking.

You're already doing the best things possible -- you're connected to him, you care deeply but you're not domineering, you're seeking advice. Stay on that course. I suspect a couple years from now you'll look back at this time and be amazed at how far he's come.
posted by martin q blank at 7:11 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]

Didn't read all the answers but I did read your post. Get your kids a Makerspace membership and the ability to get there himself. Message me with your location if you want help finding one.
posted by Iteki at 9:58 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

So I would like to offer some perspective. I had a kid who was somewhat aimless at this age, and the other person in the parenting role tried to offer a lot of guidance. The kid applied for and got into engineering college. And then in the first year completely flamed out of engineering, because it turned out that wasn't something they wanted to do with their life, it was just something they were doing to please the other person. They are still recovering from the consequences of course correction onto what they eventually figured out.

I think with ADHD kids, it's worth taking the time and giving them the time to figure out and waiting for lightning to strike and for them to hyperfocus on something they're actually interested in. Colleges will accept a gap year, if it comes to it. They'll be much better off if they know where they're going once they get there.
posted by corb at 8:25 AM on April 4 [1 favorite]

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