When Your Teen Isn't Just Social Distancing, But Self-Isolating

by Clint Edwards
Teenage boy looking out of bedroom window
Scary Mommy and Richard Drury/Getty

My son is 13, and to be honest, I never saw him as antisocial. From what I can tell, other kids at school like him, and his teachers often speak highly of him at parent teacher conferences. But outside of riding bikes around the neighborhood with another boy from down the street, and being on a soccer team each year, he mostly spends his time reading books in his room, fighting homework, and asking for screen time. I suppose I always assumed he was a bit of an introvert, like me and his mother, but I never saw it as a problem. However, I must admit, after a few months of quarantine, he has taken self-isolation to a whole new level.

When we were working through his distance education packets, I actually set up an office in his closet. I worked from a laptop, as he sat in his room and studied. I kept up with my job while keeping him accountable. Like most 13-year-olds he wasn’t the best at working diligently without supervision. And for a while, he was meeting with some friends online to play Dungeons and Dragons, and as nerdy as that was, it did give him a social outlet.

But those meetings have gone on hiatus for the summer. Pandemic school over, so I don’t have a reason to sit in his room and keep him busy. Our town has moved into phase 2, so he could go outside and ride his bike, but his closest friend in the neighborhood had to move because the boy’s father lost his job, so Tristan isn’t motivated to leave the house. Soccer season is canceled for the time being, so he won’t be going to practice. I’d love to say that he enjoys the company of his younger sisters, but that would be a lie; he goes pretty far out of his way to avoid those two. And as cool as his parents are — and trust me, my wife and are the definition of cool — he doesn’t seem all that interested in hanging out with us.

What all of these changes add up to is my son in his room, the lights off, curtain drawn, sitting at his desk with a small IKEA lamp shining light on his book. He does his chores first thing in the morning. He gets some screen time as a reward, so he plays Roblox for a couple hours. But by lunch, he more or less self-isolates until dinner, and from what I’m seeing from other parents online, he is not alone.

It sounds like a lot of teens are struggling with how the world has changed since COVID-19 canceled school, sports, parties, proms, and graduations. For some of them, it is taking the form of spending long hours in their rooms, alone. And for us, as parents, we have to walk a fine line between trying to decide what is going to keep our kids safe during a pandemic, while also trying to consider what is best for their mental and emotional well-being.

Now don’t get me wrong, in a lot of ways it is nice having one less child asking for a million things all the time. Having my son spend his time in his room isn’t all bad. And yes, him not asking to hang out with friends, or trying to sneak out of the house to spend time with a crush, or any of that teen drama that so many parents are dealing with right now is refreshing. But I do worry about him up there, all alone, not engaging in any social interaction whatsoever.

But if I really sit down and think about my 13-year-old self, I’d have probably done the same thing. I was at that age where my siblings were really starting to bug me. I was old enough to take care of myself for the most part, and I was starting to lose interest in trying so hard to get all the attention I could from my parents. In fact, when I think back on the summer I spent as a 13-year-old, there was no pandemic, and I still spent most days in my room, alone. The only real difference was, my mother was at work during the day, and my father wasn’t around because he’d left a few years earlier, so no one really noticed.

So if your teenager is isolating themselves right now, you are not alone. It’s happening here too. It seems like a lot of parents are seeing it, and frankly, unless your child is showing signs of depression or engaging in acts of self-harm, it’s probably nothing to worry about. Give them the space that they need. Check in on them periodically, and ask them questions about their personal hygiene, because wow… some teens just don’t care about that sort of thing. Drag them out with the family from time to time. Ask them if they are feeling lonely, and if they are, try to help them find a safe outlet to engage with their friends. But on the whole, even though 2020 has been a really odd year, a teenager spending hours alone in their room really isn’t that unusual — we just may be more prone to worrying that it is.