Q: My son is a freshman in high school and lately has been asking to stay home from school often. He says he isn’t feeling good or is too tired or just doesn’t want to go. He has always been a good student, so this is surprising. I’m worried he is having social problems at school. How do I find out without embarrassing him?
You are so right to recognize your son’s new behavior as some shade of a red flag. Something is going on. And figuring it out is the tricky part.
Not wanting to go to school for kids in middle and high school is often a social issue. Perhaps there has been some teasing, ostracizing, exclusion, maybe even bullying. It could have to do with being involved in something he wants out of. Teens are so volatile and unpredictable, it is hard to know. But remember, nothing happens for no reason.
You didn’t mention what you have already tried in order to unearth the problem. Is your son more likely to open up with you or his other parent? Is there anyone in his life in whom he confides—a teacher, coach, relative, friend?
A good place to start is over a meal, out of the house, in a neutral place. You can tell him that you have noticed a change in his demeanor. If you get nothing from that, like denial, I suggest you say that you know that something must be going on, letting him know that you are there to listen and to advise, if he so desires. But tread softly and don’t talk too much. Move onto to something else. (So, how about those Lakers?) He will know you are there and hopefully will revisit with you.
Do not go overboard, but it is a good idea to have more one-on-one time with him, you or his other parent. Go to a movie, have a meal out, even suggest a walk, if he is willing. Give him plenty of opportunity to open up when he is ready. Keep the chit chat light and not directed at him.
Does your son have any close friends whose parents you might know? A less direct route might be to call the close friend’s parent to ask if they are aware of anything out of the ordinary. I suggest you also talk to his school counselor on the off chance that they will know something.
Take note of your son’s overall demeanor and behavior on the weekends and over Winter Break. If after the winter holiday there is no change, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with a mental health professional. Your child’s doctor will be a good place to go for a recommendation. Or you can always get in touch with me.